Online presence

If I close my eyes, I can picture exactly where I was when I entered the brave new world of social networking. I had arrived in London, England, two weeks earlier for a three-month novitiate ministry experience, living with our U.K. sisters and working at a day center for the homeless near Westminster Cathedral. The Internet access in our house was spotty at best, and so I had taken to plopping down in strange spots in my bedroom where I could access the network. On this particular day, that meant that I was sitting in the middle of the floor with my laptop propped precariously on my knee.

It was September 30, 2007. Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, I not only know the date, I also know that the first two people to accept my friend requests were young Jesuits. I find this entirely fitting, especially given that the advent of social networking coincided nicely with my own entry into religious life.

During my first nine years as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace, I have lived in two countries, three states and six cities. Yes, that is a lot of moving within a short period of time. Normally, this level of mobility might lead to a certain sense of isolation or disconnection. Yet, my 21st-century reality means that despite moves necessitated by religious formation or ministry, I have been able to stay connected with family and friends through social networking, email, video conferencing and text messaging.

Just a few weeks ago I logged onto Facebook to find an adorable photo of my goddaughter, fashionably clad in her Girl Scout uniform, selling cookies outside of a grocery store in Portland. I did what any self-respecting long-distance godmother would do and placed a cookie order via text message. Was it the same as that special day when I was present in person for her first communion? No. But it was a way to be present across the miles, to support her and honor our relationship.

Presence is not necessarily a word that comes immediately to mind when we think of social networks or the Internet. If we’re honest, the first is probably “distraction.” The second, in my case at least, would be “procrastination.” To be sure, social media serves these functions in our busy lives. If we view the technology through the perspective of human relationship and community, however, it seems that there might be a higher function as well.

My thinking on this topic has been informed not only by my own lived experience, but also by a webinar I recently attended in which Sr. Julie Vieria, IHM, of A Nun’s Life Ministry shared her reflections on ministry in an online world. A Nun’s Life is a meeting place of sorts, where people come from around the world to engage in conversation about God, faith and religious life through social media, podcasts, forums and a blog. In her webinar presentation, Julie offered a theological reflection on social media as a space where we can deepen relationships and build authentic relationships if only we are truly present to those we meet in that virtual space.

Presence. In my own religious community’s tradition, we say that we value the “ministry of presence.” By being present to people in their own situations, we witness to an important dimension of the gospel of peace. When I think of the ministry of presence, our sisters in our retirement centers immediately come to mind. While they may no longer be out and about in active ministry, they are truly present to everyone they meet and to the needs of the world through prayer.

In my own religious life, I suppose I first began to understand the value of the ministry of presence during those months I spent working with homeless men and women in London as a novice. When I say working, I mean making toast. Every morning I would wake up at 5:30 a.m. – and I am most decidedly not a morning person – in order to get to the center and have the industrial toaster warmed up and ready to go by the time breakfast began at 7. For the next four hours, I would place slice after slice in the toaster, look each person in the eye, and ask the all-important question: “Would you like your toast buttered?” It was such a simple exchange, and yet it was also a deeply human encounter, being present to folks who had spent the night sleeping rough on the streets.

I wonder what it would be like if we were truly present to the simple exchanges and folks we encounter through social media and the Internet. Imagine if instead of approaching social media as a consumer of information and minutiae, we considered it as a sacred exchange. I find myself thinking of a greeting from the Hindu tradition, “Namaste,” a recognition of the divine light present in all of us. In our own Christian tradition, we recognize that each of us is created in the image and likeness of God.

Those words on the screen, unless they are the product of a spam bot, were written by a human person. That’s easy to forget, especially when it’s a snarky comment on an NCR article or a political diatribe on a cousin’s social network feed that offends our own sensibilities. Namaste. Yes, your words may make my skin crawl, but you too are a child of God, and so I respond accordingly.

Social media is just another human interaction, albeit aided by technology. As such it can build up human community, or it can tear it down. The difference in that equation comes down to a simple yet challenging question: How am I present to my brother and sister online?

[St. Joseph of Peace Sr. Susan Rose Francois is a Bernardin Scholar in Ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Prior to entering religious life, she served in the City Elections Office in Portland, Oregon, for eight years.]

Note: Julie’s webinar about ministry in an online world is archived and available free online via Loyola University New Orleans.