Desperation has a way of taking us out of ourselves. Some of us are inconvenienced by injustice. In other words, the injustice that we suffer forces us to make decisions we may not always make.
Those of us who live in freedom — who are gainfully employed, who have a roof over our heads and food in our bellies, who have physical and security needs being met and money to spare — cannot always comprehend the lives of the poor.
We cannot comprehend how someone would risk the lives of their children walking across a desert to find freedom. The desperate immigrant knows they are putting their lives and the lives of their loved ones at risk, but they do it anyway because they don’t have any choice. People make life and death decisions because they are living in circumstances of life and death.
I’ve heard a number of people complain about illegal immigrants coming across the border and condemning them for coming here illegally. Those who condemn don’t know the circumstances that have compromised the lives of immigrants to the point where they need to make these seemingly rash decisions.
Those who condemn don’t realize that there are people who are so poor and can’t find work in their own communities. They don’t realize that in some of these countries you’re, either, very rich or very poor and there is no in between. Those who condemn don’t realize that there may be circumstances of health where one needs medical care they can’t get and they need to find hope elsewhere. Those who condemn don’t realize that when the poor in these countries try to speak out against these injustices, they are labeled as rabble-rousers and labeled as subversives, which leads to their deaths or the deaths of family members.
As ministers and pastors, it’s easy for us to condemn this thinking of those who lack compassion, but it is not our place to condemn. It is our job to work toward helping those we serve to be compassionate. This is very hard to do. It’s very hard to help another to see without making them feel as though they are condemned for their thoughts.
The central question any pastor needs to ask is “How do we help people develop compassion?” “How do we help people see with the eyes of Christ?”
This is where spiritual direction comes in handy. You engage them where they are. Some of the people you’re ministering to are already in those circumstances themselves. They feel desperate, they feel they are not in control of their own situations and that’s why they are seeking advice or seeking comfort and direction.
A good spiritual direction question to ask to help one develop a mind of compassion would be the following: “What has happened in your own life where you’ve been lost? When have you felt desperate? What was the circumstance and how did you feel? What did you do to resolve it?”
Consider the resources you used in being able to resolve your problem. Consider the advantages you’ve had of community. Now, consider those disadvantages when considering the plight of someone who doesn’t have those resources.
I once asked Sister Helen Prejean, the author of “Dead Man Walking” what do we do when we haven’t reached someone to help understand compassion? She replied, “We move on. There are more people out there” It’s true. We may not be able to reach people the way we think. We can only communicate what we know the best we can. Jesus said, “Those who have eyes to see will see and those who have ears to hear will hear.”
But we also learn from Scripture that “every knee will bend”. We speak truth to what we know. Those who have experienced that truth themselves will see it. The truth comes at us in many different ways.
It is sometimes forced through experiences that we didn’t expect. Like the refugee who has experienced the harsh realities of this world, every beating heart in this world will be forced to recognize the importance of humility and a heart that is opened by desperation.
Compassion arrives when we have experienced deep pain ourselves and one has attended to our needs in a moving and meaningful way in life. When we can relate that experience to the experience of another, we have placed ourselves in the womb of empathy.
The very point of our being is to learn compassion and allow that compassion to serve others. It is this idea of understanding compassion that opens our hearts to the possibility of loving more deeply, richly and inspiring our hearts to see the love of Christ in the lives of the poorest of the poor.