Compassion is a choice

March 2nd, 2017

At a time when so much of our world seems out of control, compassion remains a choice everyone still owns. Not the programmatic expression of the word compassion; the heart-sized, personal version. The type anyone can do. Or any group — even a church. 

When a principal learned that a nearby congregation planned a vote on whether to start a mentoring program, he agreed to visit and share his thoughts. He knew that at-risk students in his elementary school had a common need outside his ability to provide: someone to make them feel noticed, valued, even loved by a grown-up. With constant budget cuts and staff reductions, fewer adults worked in his building every year. So the opportunity for an organized group of volunteers to meet with kids was, literally, a no-brainer to him.  

However, the church had concerns about their ability to launch any new programs. They, too, had budget constraints to live within. They, too, had fewer adults — or that’s how it looked on weekends. Significant risk existed about this program launching, so the principal decided to accept the pastor’s invitation to show up at church on Sunday morning before the vote.

During the announcements portion of the service, the principal walked forward and stood behind the microphone and in front of the church body. He gave a brief description of the program to be voted on, but he sensed ambivalence. So he concluded his comments with a request meant to appeal to hearts instead of heads. “I understand you will now vote on this program,” he said. “If the decision is ‘no,’ then I ask you to consider sending a couple people each week to stand along the playground fence and wave to a few of the kids who have no adults in their lives. They will at least feel noticed by someone.” 

The church voted to start the program.

The principal succinctly communicated a key truth often obscured by a program’s operational details: To truly show compassion requires a person to notice another person — and then choose to do something about it. Would the playground fence approach to noticing work? Probably not. But it sure worked to shake a church congregation awake and arouse individuals’ compassion as they pictured the kids.

Deep in their hearts, most people know exactly what a vast number of individuals (young or old) need most in this world: At least one person willing to spend time, to offer encouragement, to prove that there is someone who cares. Not someone who offers a handout or waves from the other side of the fence. Not someone who speaks or writes or blogs about this need (a self-reminder). Someone who takes action. Evidence continues to pile up that points toward loneliness as one of our nation’s largest, yet under-reported, societal issues.

Embracing this truth about what a vast number of people need most, and giving emphasis to the word “most,” invites an inconvenient truth  —the need for “one person” to show up in someone’s life is far greater than a need for material goods, such as backpacks and boxes of bagels delivered to the teachers’ lounge, or safe distance prayers.

Before allowing your blood pressure to spike because your church does any, all, or other serving projects for your school, please know there’s nothing wrong with such efforts. The key point is to resist the urge to believe they are something they aren’t. Lives don’t change from backpacks or bagels. The people who give them can, though. Just as prayers do make a difference, as long as they are not in-lieu of personal interaction. So keep the backpack drive and remember to bring the flavored cream cheese—but add efforts to build real, personal relationships with people who need them. Same goes for the food truck or food pantry, community serving project, and other local outreach initiatives.    

After noticing a person who needs someone, and with just a calorie of forward motion, compassion will easily outmaneuver complexity. A program will become the setting for people to establish personal interactions. Or, even better, establish relationships.  

The desperately needed result: People passionate to be someone to someone. 

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