While in college, Elizabeth traveled with a group of students to do service work in Los Angeles, where they volunteered at a homeless center near Skid Row. She had an encounter there that baffled her because she was unable to offer any tangible help to a woman who approached her. All she could offer was her presence, which helped her see that service sometimes boils down to simply a personal encounter.
It rained during our first days in LA. Driving down Skid Row, it was difficult to see people sitting adjacent to their cardboard roofs and walls, their structures melting in the downpour.
In a large common room at the shelter, I was asked to offer nail painting for women. The room was full of people talking, reading, or simply sitting as they waited for the rain to slow. Though I’m no expert at painting nails, I got set up with the polish and felt pretty confident I could handle this.
In walked a tall woman wearing a gold suit, and she really wanted her acrylic nails removed — which I didn’t know how to do. I knew nothing about acrylic nails. This woman was adamant that they come off, however, so I poured some nail polish remover into a container to soak her fingers. I tried to make conversation while we waited, but she had no interest in talking.
After 10 minutes, it was clear the polish remover technique wasn’t working; the nails barely budged. We repeated the process. This time some of the acrylic nail started to come off, but it looked to me like it was taking her real nail with it. Growing worried, I suggested perhaps we stop and wait a few more days for the nails to fall off.
The woman grew exasperated. She wasn’t happy that I marketed myself as a nail painter when all I was doing was nudging her to stop working on her nails. I tried to ask her name three or four times, but she didn’t want to talk about that, or how her day was, or anything, really, except her acrylic nails that needed removal.
After repeating the soaking and scraping process several times, we eventually forced the nails most of the way off. She then considered purple polish before eventually settling on clear, and let me know she wanted to paint her own nails. I sat with her while she worked. After that, I rubbed her hands with lotion.
Then she left.
I remember the gold-suited woman when I think about how volunteer service is frequently idealized. We like to hear stories from people we serve. We like when we have something to give, a tangible way to help. We like to see the difference we make. We like to feel appreciated. But those things don’t always happen — and if they do, it is hard to keep the ensuing ego-boost from partially blinding us to the truth of the people we encounter and their experiences on the margins.
That day in LA, I left wondering why I didn’t know anything about acrylic nail removal, or why I couldn’t even learn this woman’s name. Why was the rain destroying these peoples’ homes? And why does the horrific injustice of homelessness continue to exist in such tight juxtaposition to immense wealth?
It was only then that all of the pretenses around “service” were stripped away, and I was forced to confront the value of sharing our presence with others. It is a beautiful type of encounter because it is so simple — it asks two things of us: that we show up, and that we stay.
“Power of proximity,” is the phrase lawyer and justice advocate Bryan Stevenson uses to describe this value of positioning ourselves close to the margins. “If you find ways to get past the barriers that exclude those who are disfavored, and you get proximate, you will discover something transformative,” Stevenson explained in a 2018 commencement address. In another talk, he explained, “Our understanding of how we change things comes in proximity to inequality, to injustice.”
I have no idea what the woman was thinking when she walked out that day. I don’t know her story. But I know she is part of mine because she was the first person to force me to simply give my presence. My proximity — without the expectation of impact or gratitude — was the only thing I could offer.
And isn’t presence the whole point of all of this? To communicate to the person across from us that they matter? That they are important and we are grateful for them? To love them?
The first step of love is showing up with an open heart. The second step is staying — just stay. Stay and be.
Sometimes staying is the most courageous thing to do: staying with a situation; sitting in the complexities of injustice; staying with a question; staying with the goodness that is within each of us; staying with God while God walks with us on a path where we can’t see the destination; staying with a friend in their pain; staying long enough to tell a story; staying long enough to listen to a story; staying long enough to see; staying long enough to build connections.
Staying when it feels uncomfortable probably means we are vulnerable. When we are vulnerable, we can be authentic. And an encounter between one authentic person and another can be just as nourishing as a bowl of warm soup.