By Joe LaGuardia
In our professionalized American culture, we do not often hold hands. Holding hands is reserved for couples in love or, in a brief welcome of mutual greeting, in the shaking of hands of a colleague. Sometimes you don’t even get that — the “fist bump” is quickly becoming the in thing as people are weary of spreading germs, especially during flu season.
Other cultures are not as hesitant as ours. When I traveled to Ghana, Africa, during a mission trip, I learned that friends hold hands. It was jarring to see people holding hands everywhere as they did business, walked down the street, or simply spent time together. When we ministered to children, all they wanted to do was hold hands. All I wanted to do was protect my space.
By now, there is enough research to show that holding hands–the power of touch–has a powerful healing quality to it. In fact, there is an entire research institute at the University of Miami devoted to studying the effects of touch in medicine and therapy.
Jesus also knew the value of touch–consider his willingness to place his hands upon the eyes of a man born blind (John 9), or his embrace of children who were usually seen but not heard (Matt. 19:13). In one instance, a women was healed of a life-long bout of hemorrhaging because she touched his robe (Matt. 9:21).
My guess is that we do not touch often because we have a thing about personal space here in the West. We fear that if touch goes too long that it is creepy at best and a threat of harassment at worst; yet, in ministry and community, we claim that we are to be the “hands of Christ” because we insist that touch and proximity have the power to heal and transform.
Two recent instances of holding hands has been especially meaningful to me. The first was when I had to escort an elderly woman–a parishioner at our church–who needed help walking across an uneven, grassy yard.
She suffers from memory issues, but she is faithful in attending church and Bible study. For one such study, we changed the location to the music building, and she parked on the other side of campus. When I saw her going to the wrong building, I met her and told her of the new location. When she saw the expanse of field, she feared that she might fall.
I told her I would hold her hand as she walked the field, and we had a delightful time talking and walking together as I guided her step-by-step across grass, over roots, and around anthills.
“Last time I held hands with a handsome man like you, I was a teenager,” she said. I was flattered, but regardless of the compliment, we made each other’s day in that moment of friendship. Joking aside, there was deep meaning and healing for this widow who lived alone for years and relied on brief hugs and handshakes at church for affirmation and support.
“For some elderly people, shaking hands with the minister on the way out of service is the only human touch they receive for weeks on end” –Oswald and Jacobson, The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus, p. 103.
The second instance happened (and happens) whenever I meet with another parishioner, Ace, who had a fall this past week. Ace is quickly becoming my hero because of his joy, positive spirit, and loving presence no matter what situation he finds himself in.
Ace is the patriarch of a large Vero Beach family and is father to more people than just his children. He is an uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend to many, and he is known for encouraging people and being a faithful, listening ear to those in need.
As I have gotten to know him, I have found that he has a big smile that can light up a room–even if its a hospital room (I visited him in the ER last month, and I was greeted with that smile–thus, he is now my new hero!).
I visited with him this past week, and I was again greeted with a smile. He is having trouble walking and maintaining his balance; his daughters have been staying with him around the clock. But he smiles.
And Ace likes to hold hands. When I first met him, I would shake his hand like everyone else, but found that he doesn’t let go. Sometimes, after you shake his hand, he offers his left hand and expects you to take it–not for another handshake, but to hold it and have some conversation.
In these moments, I have found that I — the minister who is called to provide a healing presence for others — have been ministered unto. His smile and hand offer blessings that you have to experience (first-hand?!) to understand.
There is indeed something healing about touch, something deeply moving about holding hands that embodies the love of Christ and stresses the incarnate presence of God in human relationships and the spiritual bonds that brothers and sisters in Christ ought to share with one another.
It is not uncommon for me to be accused of being too Pollyannaish, of being mushy at times. I grew up in a large, Italian family who knows the value of hugs and the healing power of affection. We are all, for instance, “momma’s boys” in the LaGuardia clan, and that is more Christian–more Christ-like–than we’d like to think.
I doubt that our culture will ever become the hand-holding one that defines places like Ghana, and for many the “fist-bump” will be more than enough intimacy between friends, thank you very much. But in those moments of ministry, holding someone’s hand can make a day, transform lives, and work miracles that go beyond expectations.