A Lesson in Compassion and Empathy

Proximity has the ability to change our perspective.

When my kids were smaller, I was involved with a non-profit program in Oklahoma City that assists refugees, called The Spero Project. Through that program, I became connected with a refugee from Iraq. She and her family had been in the U.S. with an immigrant visa for 2.5 years. Her husband had assisted U.S. troops in Iraq and was then targeted by Iraqi soldiers for this. Due to her circumstances, the mother was pretty isolated from connection while she stayed at home with her kids.

She spoke no English. She was Muslim. Our differences couldn’t have been greater.

I started to visit her weekly. I taught her embroidery, and we practiced some conversation. In our time of sitting with needle and thread, we built a relationship. Reflecting on this interaction years later, I’m not entirely sure how this all worked out, except, in the great silence, we discovered our commonality. She had this gift of hospitality. Every week she welcomed me into her home, offering my children and me food and drink, and shared warm hugs, smiles, and encouragement in our embroidery progress. Our kids played together. It was something I looked forward to, and she did too.

Embrace Discomfort

All this to say‚Ķit was extremely uncomfortable at times. Despite our differences in our religion, our ethnicity, etc. we were able to share something very common to the human experience. To have empathy and compassion for people who are different than you, requires our discomfort. It requires humility and the desire for understanding. It required proximity, not making judgments from afar. Bridging human relationships can be hard and messy, but it’s necessary.

Muslims are wonderful people. The LGBTQ+ community are amazing people. Immigrants are some of the most wonderful people I’ve met in my life, and we’ve been privileged to know many. Some of the most profound encounters of love I’ve had with people were from those who wouldn’t darken the door of a church. But God is love. Love can be hiding in places and in people that you least expect. That means love is at work, and can be at work, with every single type of person you can imagine, no matter their race, religion, or background.

Embrace All People

2021 can be a year of opportunity to reach out with compassion and empathy towards our fellow man. God knows we need it. Can we dismiss the hateful rhetoric of the last 4 years and reject the idea that the “other” is our enemy? I hope so. May love, compassion, and empathy prevail through all our human interactions. May we do the messy work of getting outside of our bubble, and creatively imagining what a United States looks like when we embrace all people, and not see them as an enemy.

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