We can have a compassionate ministry with a ready and loving heart when we remember our place and how we are called to love. There are a myriad of things that make it hard to be present and compassionate for people we are trying to care for. All caregivers carry stories about times when we have felt fearful, self-conscious, angry, rushed, or prideful, which caused us to not be able to be compassionate with people in crisis. Each of those stories teaches us what it means to be present and how grace carries us all through our ministries. The journey is always one of trail and much error, and none of those errors means that we are not worthy of the ministry. Those stories, in fact, lead us deeper into ministries and spaces that ground our faith. For me, all along this twenty-year road, I believe that learning to be compassionate is one of the great healing tools we can carry with us in our vocation. Compassion is a gift to be celebrated and a skill to be honed in the work of chaplaincy.
Sixteen years ago I started a ministry called Magdalene that serves women with criminal histories of prostitution, addiction, and trauma. We have six residential communities where the women live in community and a social enterprise called Thistle Farms that manufactures and sells all natural bath and body care products. The goal is to learn to live and work together and try to love each other without judgment. We work hard to be about healing and to be about mercy. The hard part for me is to trust that others won’t judge us. I trip over myself and am too self-conscious to think about the person in front of me, when I worry too much about what others think about us. There have been times when I was so worried or preoccupied that I tried to hide our failures or exaggerate our successes. Especially in the cases of relapse and death, I worried people would think I am incompetent, the program doesn’t work, or that we are not worthy of their time or consideration. Over and over the lessons people have preached, in their words and deeds to the community of Magdalene and to me, are that if I am honest and present, people will be kind and love generously. When there is brokenness, people will cry with you.
Compassion Is Not about Me
I don’t have to be fearful in how I love people. I do not have to let my fears of inadequacy or judgment get in the way. If I let myself stay guarded, feel inadequate, or feel afraid of what others think of how I am doing my ministry, I am not able to be truly compassionate towards someone else.
One time my family walked into a church in Rome and my son asked me if he could light a candle for his aunt, Sandi. He was being a healer. For him to heal his aunt all he needed to do, in his six year-old heart, was to light a candle. To light a candle needed no certificate, no degree in medicine or pastoral care, or no institutional affiliation. For us to be compassionate caregivers, all we need is a heart open to wanting healing for another person. My son loves his aunt and wanted her to be well. She had suffered a horrible injury to her arms and hands in a bus wreck in Cameroon, Africa. Our trip to Rome was after she had endured three or four surgeries, but still had some big obstacles to overcome in her healing.
I loved the act of my son lighting a candle. He got a euro from his dad, walked into a side chapel in the church that was several hundred years old, lit the long match, and then lit a small votive that might burn for an hour or two. Watching him go to the small side altar and light the candle was stirring. It called me to the beautiful, magical thinking of children and my own faith. It stirred in me the wonder of tradition and the hope that lives in all of us for the people we hold dear. It also stirred in me the helpless feeling of being human. No matter what, no matter how hard we work and pray, it may not be enough. It may not be enough or maybe it is more than enough. One candle may be more than enough to cut a path through the darkest hour and lead us to a dawn where we are washed in light. That single act by my sweet child may be more than enough to keep him connected to his aunt forever in an eternal, loving bond. As we left the church, I wanted to hug my son and hold on to him in this state of pure compassion, not mixed with any guile. But he is bound to grow up and carry all the feelings of self-doubt and reality and hesitate to light candles someday. Someday he may wonder what difference this small act of compassion makes and he may forget how it can set a heart on fire.
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you,
O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life. (Isaiah 43:1b – 4a)
“Gracious and Compassionate Lord, thank you for the gift of freedom to live fully in the light of your forgiveness. You teach me to love others as I love myself. Give me eyes this day to see myself as your holy child. Thank you for the gift of another day to love you again. Remind me of your gentle spirit and give me the strength to bear my cross this day. Remind me that every person is worthy and deserving of your healing and to uphold the dignity of every human being. Amen.”
excerpted from: The Gift of Compassion: A Guide to Helping those Who Grieve by Becca Stevens. ©2012 Abingdon Press. Used by permission.