By Grayson Hester
It’s difficult to know what to make of Jesus’ words to the disciples in Matthew 28:20. He who said, “And, remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” was also he who, not too long before, had died and was buried.
We could forgive the disciples a bit of incredulity at hearing these words. They were likely still grieving the shocking, brutal, cataclysmic crucifixion of their friend. Yet here he was, hands still scarred, head still pierced, reassuring the disciples that he would never leave them.
This is presence. This is presence at its purest, its holiest, its most spiritual. And as supernatural as it may seem, it is not altogether foreign to some of us, even here, even now.
One such place is Grace & Main Fellowship—an intentional, Christian community in Danville, Va. When fellowship! magazine highlighted the community back in Spring 2018, it featured the testimony of one of Grace & Main’s most integral members—a man named Bruce Hopson.
Bruce did not live to see his story published in words. Shortly after he was interviewed in 2017, he lost his battle with cancer. But Grace & Main and those who loved Bruce did not lose him. His presence, the substance of spirit and the manifestation of memory remain even as his body has long since passed away.
“We feel like he’s still here. The stuff he had done—he brought this community to a bigger place. We’re growing now,” said Vince, a member of Grace & Main. “I think his presence is still here even though he isn’t here. We always still think about him or ask about him. He’s still in our minds; he’s still with us.”
Vince was interviewed in 2021 and featured in a “then and now” video as part of the 2021-2022 Offering for Global Missions campaign with the theme “Because Presence Matters.” Four years after Bruce’s death, his presence still permeates the walls of the community, enriching the lives of its members as surely as he had helped cultivate its garden. Indeed, the evidence of Bruce’s life and legacy can be seen in blooms unfurling to sunny, springy life, bulbs breaking through deep dark soil, and lives slowly returning to verdant vitality.
“His loss was a real blow to the community,” said Jessica Hearne, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel and a leader of Grace & Main. “He was such a great man. He helped us build our urban farm, and he established our tool library system. It was really tough when we lost him. It was a very sudden loss, as well.”
This urban farm played a primary role in fellowship! magazine’s 2018 feature of Grace & Main. The author used the metaphor of fruit trees, which can take up to four years of constant care before producing any harvest, to describe the kind of commitment required of CBF’s field personnel in establishing long-term, loving relationships.
Strangely enough, it has now been four years since Blake Tommey wrote those words. And the fruits of Grace & Main’s work—and, more specifically, Bruce’s life—are only just beginning to flower.
If all this seems unremarkable, that’s because it is. From a consumerist perspective, nothing about Bruce, nothing about Grace & Main, nothing about an urban farm or a tool library system evokes awe or excitement. It is doubtful they would garner Instagram likes or YouTube subscriptions. Yet, these plain, ordinary things, like the bread and wine of communion, plant us squarely in the presence of Jesus. They reconnect us to the One who promised to never leave us. In short, they save lives.
Bruce initially joined Grace & Main just to get someone to shut up. Matt Bailey, another one of Grace & Main’s leaders, persisted in inviting Bruce to join their community at one of their weekly meals. At the time, Bruce was experiencing homelessness, addicted to alcohol, and sleeping under a porch and out of society’s concern.
But while Bruce initially sought little else than an absence of noise, he eventually found an abundance of relationship. He found friendship. He found community. He found presence.
And that changed everything.
This is what CBF field personnel offer to the world’s people who are on the fringes, from Danville to Uganda and everywhere between. They don’t extend anything flashy; they don’t provide anything that would likely sell for much on a store shelf. They provide consistency in a world that can be totally upended by something as small as a virus, or a town ravaged by neglect and the greedy flight of industry, or a near majority-Black city that once served as the capital of the Confederacy, still reckoning (as is the whole country) with the realities of racism left swirling in its wake.
Danville needs presence as much as any place. It is like many cities whose economies once depended on manufacturing and industry. The average household earns $20,000 less than the national average. The city faces persistently high rates of poverty, meaning of course, that it grapples with the issues to which poverty inevitably gives birth—drug dependency, homelessness, desperation.
While CBF may not be able to author policy or advance legislation geared toward the amelioration of these ills, what it can do is plant a tree. It can offer stability, friendship, companionship and partnership. It can voice a Christlike promise of being with Danville and people like Vince and Bruce until the end of the age, whatever that age may be—the age of coronavirus, of persistent poverty, of unfettered greed.
That’s why Grace & Main, and the entire global network of CBF’s field personnel, feel a need to reassert a most basic truth—that presence matters. There would be no “then and now” for Bruce Hopson if not for presence. There would be no urban farm and no tool library if not for the presence he was extended and then reciprocated.
Following the example of Jesus, CBF Global Missions field personnel draw near to and go with those among whom they work. Doing this, they cultivate beloved community because “presence matters.” They don’t descend upon “poor” communities to paint a bench or provide a quick fix. They enter into long-term commitment, into Christlike covenant to live with those they serve, to learn from those among whom the Suffering Servant can be found. They don’t just throw money at difficult situations. They plant a tree.
“It is ultimately all about relationships. And relationships can’t happen without presence, without long-term presence. Because presence matters,” said Shauw Chin Capps, CBF Foundation president and chief development officer for CBF.
The presence of the poor, who, Jesus reminds us, will always be with us because they are embodied evidence of our society’s immoral priorities. It calls us to radical hospitality, to advocacy and action; in other words, it calls us to be Christian.
The presence of Christ matters because it is what sustains us and motivates us. It is that after which we model our work and from which we derive our purpose. The presence of field personnel matters because it is, for many around the world, the only evidence of grace they can find.
And the presence of folks like Vince and Bruce and countless others, matters because they matter. They always have and always will—perhaps not to our systems of domination, but to God and therefore to us. It is incumbent upon us to use our time on this earth to remind ourselves and others that presence matters. It is incumbent upon us to plant a tree, to extend an invitation, to open a door, to embrace a hand, to fix a meal, to simply be with someone, until the end of the age and maybe even beyond death. For we never know what fruits our work may yield.
“My hope for my future is that the urban farm thrives and that more people become interested in it, and maybe grow into other spots throughout the city,” Bruce said. “And I just hope to stay right here and be a part of everything for the rest of my life. That’s what I want. That’s what I pray for.”
This article first appears in the Winter 2021-2022 issue of fellowship! magazine. Read and subscribe at http://www.cbf.net/fellowship.