God creates humans to enter into the service of others. The necessity of an individual to demonstrate compassion reveals a potency in the one who engages. A helper represents a coming aid, support, and answer to a call of distress. The helper represents a person who is able to offer relief when the one in distress is unable act. The helper immediately represents a woman who God artfully crafts to become the one who aids the man in the tasks of serving as God's vice regents in creation.
We are made to participate in service to one another.
We are made to function as a support system to an individual or group who vocalize distress.
We are made for so many beautiful, powerful, and creative acts. Yet our reality demonstrates there is much ugliness, alienation, and destruction. If we would be honest, much of the distress we observe in our world occurs by the imagination of our minds and the activity of our hands. Our original purpose to participate in the service of others descends into thoughts, behaviors, and actions which harm others. It is no wonder we are so quick to stereotype and alienate those who are dissimilar. We unfortunately spend much time questioning God and his ability to prevent harm, not realizing the greatest perpetuator of evil looks back at each of us in the mirror every morning as we brush our teeth.
This year has been instructive. In my opinion, we are at a place right now in America were many citizens feel as if they are in a sort of exile and yet through the terrible experience of suffering, we have found community. Consider we have been at each others throats about President Trump and Hillary Clinton. We have clashed over Confederate Flags, Confederate statues, and anti-fascism. Christians verbally bludgeon each other regarding statements about sexuality. We cast aspersions on those who want the law upheld in regards to immigration and aspersions on those who are seeking mercy in the law to begin a new life in this country. Yet in the midst of all of this, suffering comes in the name of Harvey.
Harvey takes us all by our tribal, political, religious, and nationalist necks and says,
“This is what it means to be human!”
My worldview communicates a personal God who enters into the suffering of humanity and he stands with humanity in the pain and agony. God runs and essentially demonstrates what it means to be in solidarity with another living being. We vocalize our inability to remedy our suffering and God demonstrates his power by becoming like humanity to triumph over mankind's greatest need so humans would flourish as intended. Regardless of our ethnic, political, religious, or economic backgrounds, Harvey has given us another opportunity to put down our verbal swords to rejoice with one another and suffer with one another. It has been amazing to see the number of persons who have run into suffering. They have jumped off the proverbial horses of comfort and security for the sake of others, in fact strangers.
What kind of people will we now be in the shadow of Harvey? We can not be people who are unchanged. Khalil Gibran reflecting on suffering stated, "out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls, the most massive characters are seared with scars." The Apostle Peter said something similar centuries earlier as suffering was serving as a refining fire to bring about the purity of faith in those who belief (1 Peter 1:6-7). So will we be persons who forget these living examples of compassion and cries of suffering, returning to our tribal corners to continue conflict and exile? Or, will we be people who rediscover the beautiful experience of brotherhood as we stand peaceably with each other and recognize how much better we can become through love, grace, and yes, suffering?
Suffering can communicate exile has come to an end. Compassion is a transformative act in which persons who may have never interacted previously, experience powerful moments of listening, understanding, and cooperation. I encourage you to act compassionately this week. Take a long moment to listen to God speaking through the experiences of Harvey and other types of suffering. Hopefully in the end we will hear what God made us to be; people with the capacity to love.
The incarnation reveals a God willing to see and personally address the variety of sufferings which exist in the human experience. Therefore, as the resurrection influences the people of God to live in the reality of a new creation, we possess the ability to see and act compassionately among ourselves and the citizens of our world.
Worldwide, humanity with all of her variety is experiencing varying degrees of difficulty. Young teenage women in Africa are being kidnapped by military groups such as Boko Haram for marriage. In the Middle East, Christians in the Jordan, Egypt and Syria are kidnapped by ISIS and beheaded for their faith. This past weekend, ISIS chose to extend it's violent influence into the great city of Paris. Populations of persons are struggling under financial debt to create a stable economy for themselves and participate at some level in our global economy.
The tensions in America are great. We are familiar with a variety of shootings from Tennessee to Chicago. Consider in Chicago, on any given weekend some young African American male will lose his life in gun violence. Young children are being killed in the womb and their body parts sold. Families are struggling to find work. The homeless are looked as potential criminals and drug users. The recently incarcerated are released and struggle to find a place to live and secure adequate employment.
In the Church people suffer in silence. Maybe because of some domestic or sexual abuse, or an inability to forgive within the community of faith, men and women grieve on the inside. This past summer people who have communicated grief because they feel as if their voice is not being heard by other Christian brothers and sisters who prefer an earthly Southern heritage over the grief of their brothers and sisters.
The context in which we live is fraught with difficulties. I wonder if our eyes are open to recognize the difficulties people are living in at this present moment. Can we observe with our new eyes the strain people are under? Can I hear beyond the words of "I'm fine," the possibility a person right before me simply needs my presence? When we hear and see someone or some group in difficulty maybe the question we need to ask is, "What will happen to him or her if I do not do something?" instead of the usual question, "What will happen to me if I do something?"
Compassion represents a very human and deep activity which places an individual in the storm of another individual's experience. Compassion is made up of two words, "together" and "to suffer." In essence, I gain knowledge-hearing or seeing-about your situation and this emotion rises out of the depth of my being to propel me to embrace another person in his or her difficulty.
Why should we respond? We should respond on the basis of the recognition of our sameness. Our sameness is rooted in the truth we are image bearers of God. I have either experienced my own suffering or I know at some point a difficulty is on the horizon. Nevertheless, I understand to be alone or to be isolated as a human being when all hell is breaking loose is not how I am supposed to exist.
So, we acknowledge the humanity of another by entering into difficulty. I acknowledge you are there and I acknowledge by my actions you will not be alone. Can we grasp how transformative it becomes when in the middle of my pain, my grieve, my tiredness, someone says, "I see you" and "I am joining you in this moment?"
Compassion Close to Home
Who among us in our city and state are physically and/or emotionally weary? An easy situation involves the work each of are involved in on a daily basis. Husbands. Wives. Students. Lawyers. Childcare workers. Mothers. These are vocations the Lord has empowered us to accomplish to announce his kingdom, bring about healing, and silence darkness. At the same time, we must be able to recognize when those among us are in need to get to a desolate place, rest, and refresh. Our acts of compassion will require us to enter into another person's difficulty and say, "It is time for rest." A more difficult situation involves the use of physical force in order to enter into difficulty of family and friends. An often used statement are phrases such as "turn the other cheek" and " those who live by the sword will die by the sword." These two famous statements of an Ancient Near East Rabbi serve as instruction to gain the hearing of an enemy and an admonish of how a kingdom will be established. I argue what these statement\s do not infer is a pacifist approach in situations in which a family member's life is under severe threat. I enter into the apparent suffering of another individual when I perceive his or her life is threatened. While I may die by the sword the compassion involves me choosing to value life of an innocent individual. Ask any mother or father worth his or her salt as a parent and I believe we will hear words which convey compassion in order to protect his or her offspring.
Second, acts of compassion can not remain among our homogeneous groups or persons we have an affective relationships; compassion must extend to those like us. How much in need are these men and women?
It is here we are having difficulty right now. Our inability to enter compassionately into the lives of "others." It is very disconcerting this past week to see Christians make arguments against compassion. We begin with arguments which implicitly value American citizenry above Christian principle reflective of eternal citizenship. Second, we apply Old Testament text which were given to a covenant people-Israel-expecting a non-covenant government-America-to honor those text. Our American government is not a theocracy and under no obligation to obey those texts. Christians must offer and apply these texts of compassion first and primarily to ourselves. How will Christians who live in America act compassionately within local churches in our individual vocations? More specifically, to those in political office, you have the difficult challenge of executing your duties as an duly elected servant and your Christian principles. Elected officials are part of an entity designed with the purpose of protecting its citizens and use of the sword on evil. Therefore, if you are pro-life in matters of birth, "How does compassion influence your pro-life principles to address the current refugee discussion?" "How does compassion influence your responsibility to execute the sword in order to bring about justice?" To the larger Christian community, we must ask ourselves "Why are we appealing to establish a criteria first to carry out compassion when this is antithetical to the Gospel?"
Christians, Jesus did not cast judgment first when he demonstrated compassion. Jesus extended compassion through instruction for the soul and nourishment for the body. How can we go about living compassionately in our context and live as a prophetic voice which powerfully encourages all to be compassionate abroad?
Finally, I have this fear in one weeks time we will return to business as usual. We will use the immediate situation of Paris and by extension Syrian refugees as ideological footballs to be kicked around for a moment. We will pontificate on Facebook, Twitter, radio programs, and television for a moment, returning to "normal" life when its time to cut turkey and watch football. So I ask myself, do we as Christians truly have a significant grasp of what it means to live compassionately in the Church, America, and World. I am glad you changed your Facebook profile picture to the French flag but then what? When the refugee situation fades into to background there still will exist people in our context-homeless, orphans, abused, and others-still in need of persons who will enter into their suffering.
The Church-the people of God-stand on the other side of the resurrection. We are men and women empowered to see and act with compassion. As God entered into the suffering of humanity and reconciled humanity back to God through the cross, we now enter into the suffering of humanity because Christ has triumphed. He has made us alive because he is alive. Therefore, to live means being active and aware. It means being able to move into situations which are powerfully difficult and situations in which we will not completely understand.
I don't want to suffer alone. I am hoping someone will see me in a storm of emotional, physical, or spiritual distress and say, "I am coming to suffer with you because God in Christ showed compassion and suffered with me."
Let's go people of God. Let us move into difficult human experiences and be present. Let us join with some person, group, or ethnic group who needs to discern the presence of God in us and be his hands, his voice, his ears to act in a way which will have people declare, "I have seen the Lord!"
Growing up in California, I had the opportunity to visit many wonderful scenic areas. One of those opportunities was a visit to the Grand Canyon in the neighboring state of Arizona. If you have ever been to the Grand Canyon then you know it is an awesome spectacle of nature. As you stand above and look across the vastness of the terrain and look over at the depth of area, you get the sense of your smallness. Yet when you travel down into the canyon by foot or mule rides and looking up, look around, feeling the textures of the canyon, you gain an entirely new appreciation for the visit.
Perspective or how one views an object or situation can make all the difference in how solutions are developed. Perspective aids the artist who views her work from a different vantage point to clarify color or create depth. Perspective can aid a coach on the sidelines as he asks his quarterback what the defense is presenting from his vantage point on the field of play. Perspective offers us - nonprofit practitioners, academicians, and private citizens the opportunity to engage with greater depth, vibrancy, and innovation to develop solutions and engage in social justice, specifically, poverty.
So this morning I want us stand around a table and link arms as equitable partners to think through poverty from the perspective of the theological, the nonprofit, government, academic institutions, and importantly the poor.
Any discussion on poverty and for that matter any discussion on concerns which face the welfare of human beings I believe must have a perspective in which humanity itself is seen as a worthy and dignified object. Humanity has a dynamic and powerful origin in which the masses-regardless of nationality, ethnicity, economic class, and gender-possess a very specific quality or dynamic character which has been powerfully and purposefully woven into its very being. This dignity which has been purposefully threaded into our person is based on the goodness and righteousness of a perfect God. We are made in his image and likeness. We are crowned with royalty and strength. This sacred dignity is the commonality among all persons and this sacred dignity can not be removed from us. While men and women, systems and institutions throughout world history have done a variety of actions-legal and illegal-to diminish the dignity of men and women, I assert to you the sacred dignity present within all humanity has an origin which transcends the finite efforts of ignorance.
The sacred dignity in human beings distinguishes us from the rest of the visible and invisible creation. This statement does not diminish the sacredness of nonhuman beings such as animals, trees, or our oceans. Rather it provides us with a proper perspective on justice. A justice which considers as priority the need to affirm the dignity of persons who suffer in all types of unjust circumstances. Look at your neighbor. I challenge you to look past the hue of their skin, the length of their hair, the size of their bodies, and the title in front of their name. Look past these beautiful and useful distinctions and see what is common between the two of you. We possess a sacred dignity and because of that possession we have reason to view the poor not as objects to be solved but as men and women who are to be invited into the human process of sympathy, compassion, and poverty alleviation.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu offers a stellar example of the importance of recognizing our sacred dignity applying the concept of ubuntu. What is ubuntu? It is the concept one human being should demonstrate the sacredness of humanity to another. Why? There is the belief of a universal thread which connects all of us. Because of this interrelatedness and because there is this indestructible and powerful dignity which resides in all of us and transcends all of our racial, economic, and social barriers, we have the opportunity to affirm one another. That my ability to flourish as a human being religiously, economically, and socially depends on you flourishing as a human being as well. It is the interrelatedness of life I believe God himself has woven into our lives. It was demonstrated in teachings of Jesus who communicated compassion to poor Israelites and correction to Israelite religious leaders, a man has greater value than a donkey stuck in a ditch and a sick man has greater value to be healed rather than obey an poor interpretation of a beautiful Sabbath law.
Therefore, it is important for those who lead from a theological perspective to think and produce statements which affirm the sacredness of mankind. My Christian perspective proposes the people of God have the opportunity to affirm the sacred dignity of the human soul and body because of the resurrection. We all possess the sacred dignity which offers the opportunity to participate in a human-divine collaboration to see the poor as they truly are; human.
Let's move around the table now and see poverty from the perspective of the nonprofit. I love nonprofits. I have started two and I work to assist others to open nonprofits to address persons in low income and poverty situations. Nonprofits represent one of the best examples of human compassion coming together through intentionality or circumstance to address a social need. In the city of Conway, UCA has the privilege to collaborate with and support a variety of nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits such as CoHO, Soul Food Cafe, Bethlehem House, and CAPCA represent the formation of groups who identified a need among the poor and have sought to address that need in a particular manner. Nonprofits in my estimation function as living extensions of compassion, demonstrating mercy to those on the Jericho Road of life. Populated with a variety of volunteers, nonprofits look in the face of the hungry, smell the aroma of the man who has been homeless and without a shower for multiple days. They have heard the cries and outburst of people who have reached the end of their rope. Nonprofits similar to religious institutions enter into suffering and say, "You will not suffer alone. You will not be left out here on this dangerous path to suffer the dehumanization which can lead to emotional, psychological and physical death." These organizations leverage human and financial resources to enter into the suffering of the poor powerfully demonstrating poverty will not have the final say over the sacredness of a man, woman, or child's humanity.
This event today represents a critical resource opportunity for nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations possess limited financial capital and expertise to execute a variety of tasks. Organizational tasks such as marketing, developing a technology infrastructure, creation of solid financial procedures, and human resources require skilled individuals willing to unite expertise with compassion. Service-Learning opportunities provide nonprofits with the necessary skills and individuals to develop and execute tasks which can translate into thousands of donated dollars and hours to improve services to the poor.
The Declaration of Independence, one of the world's most poignantly penned documents contains in word the reality of the sacred dignity of mankind. "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Now as a historian, I painfully admit these words on paper have slowly found realization in the variety of American citizens. From the abolition of slavery, to women suffrage, to voting rights, and even the recent decision of same sex marriage, the ability for men and women to flourish as the Declaration of Independence declared is a long journey.
If the poor of our city are created equal then government at all levels must take steps to protect this sacred dignity creating an environment in which the poor can flourish just as powerfully as the middle and upper class. In our nation the federal government has had a mixed bag of success and failure when it comes to the poor. While I will not specifically affirm or reject a particular administration's policies to address poverty, what we can agree on is that government must approach poverty from the perspective of seeing the sacredness of the individual who participates in community. We are a society composed of autonomous persons who interact with one another on a variety of levels. As such, how can government create an environment in which the individual's hard work and creativity is not supplanted by the larger group and how can government protect the group so that it is not overcome by individual interest. This is a difficult tension we must consider. It is a shameful thing for the nation to tell the poor, "Pull yourself up ! All it takes is hard work!" when policies and regulations exist to stifle opportunities. Yet it is equally shameful for the government to seize from individuals their hard earned income and property for the good of the nation when the majority of those finances support administrative overhead and not the people its intended to aid.
I have hope for our own city government. While I am still grieved over the city's decision to prevent the opening of a highly needed crisis shelter downtown, this past summer revealed to me many people in our city prefer economic flourishing over human flourishing. Our city government needs to create policies that stimulate compassion and not stifle it through application fees and debates. The poor, like all other human beings have a desire to have profitable labor, own land, own quality lodging, and have some fun money. They need the opportunity. The poor of our city need to be seen and not hidden in some dark corner. These men and women walk our city streets. Shop in the stores and have children who attend our schools. Are they not as worthy as those who live on Round Mountain, West Conway, or Hendrix Village? Our city government can create an atmosphere in which innovative economic and educational opportunities are available for all individuals if our city government will remember in their votes the sacred dignity of all Conway residents.
As we continue to move around the table we come to the perspective of the academic. The academic institution is a beautiful place where the human mind can exercise theory, develop hypothesis, and produce information which can extend knowledge. Martin L. King Jr. stated, "the function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically." As academics I want to challenge each of you to engage with an intellectual vigor to research and develop solutions which affirm the sacred dignity of poor men and women. Your quantitative and qualitative approaches are means to affirm our humanness. Second, critically engage with the current approaches to address poverty. Nonprofits and government need to have programs observed and evaluated in order to sustain or create the best approaches to alleviate poverty. This is another benefit of service learning. Faculty and students collaborating with many of our nonprofits to create case studies and program evaluations which can offer recommendations which can stimulate the best use of resources.
This academic institution can position itself to support nonprofits as innovators to develop new approaches to homelessness, address food insecurity which impacts 19.2% of Arkansans or 560,000.00 persons. Imagine this institution leveraging its Nursing program to offer opportunities to address health concerns or those securing teacher certification developing new approaches to improve literacy in children and adults.
All of these perspectives carry great validity. Who we need to invite around the table though is who I believe possess the greatest perspective; the man or woman in poverty. It is their real life experience of being poor, homeless, unemployed, or hungry which should inform how we approach our theology, nonprofit programming, government policies, and theory development. Far to long, we have left the poor at the kiddie table while the "adults" have sought to develop the best ways to help "those people."
Let me tell you about "those people." I think of an older woman named Sheila who serves her community as a form of public transportation. Her sacred dignity shines powerfully as she maneuvers her mini-van to provide people rides, offer her van as a moving truck, and carries people to get food from Soul Food Cafe. Imagine the perspective she can offer our city on public transportation.
Let me tell you about Brian King. Brian two years ago had the idea to develop a garden for his community. He came to my office, offered the idea, and then proceeded to mobilize some people at his sister's church. Today Brian King's idea has led to community gardens being in three low income communities. Sadly, Brian passed away two months ago due to a heart attack but his contributions have been immeasurable as many families have benefited from available food sources.
I point to these two beautiful people because even though they may be economically poor, the same human dignity that resides in us exist in them as well. They possess ideas and motivation. They possess creativity and compassion. They are a small sampling of the poor and they exist in our city.
In conclusion, we have a variety of perspectives around the Grand Canyon of poverty. These perspectives offer us the opportunity to address poverty in such powerful ways in Conway and Central Arkansas we can become a great beacon to light the way for other cities in Arkansas.
(Note: Keynote address given at University of Central Arkansas on October 6, 2015)