I noticed her shoes first.
They didn’t have a speck of dirt on them.
I looked at the ground and traced her steps through the filth on the muddy path and wondered how in the world she managed to keep them so clean.
She smoothed her skirt, probably the only one she owned, and stood proudly in front of me.
She looked at my muddy Toms and raised an eyebrow.
I shrugged and smiled.
I was tempted to feel sorry for her–I mean, how could I not? She gets up at 4 am every day, dresses in the dark because she doesn’t have electricity, drinks porridge, a breakfast that fills but doesn’t satisfy, leaves her shanty home in the heart of a dangerous slum and walks a sewage and litter-filled path to school every day–when she can afford to go.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for her and millions like her who squat on the rugged pathway to their home to use the pit latrine, a crude hole in the ground covered with a small piece of wood, because their tiny home doesn’t have a bathroom or a kitchen or a bed for that matter and they don’t have the nickel it takes to use the public restroom at the top of the slum.
But the last thing she needed was my pity.
It’s easy to see how others live–often so different from how we do– and feel sorry for them..
Her uniform was clean because she was proud to own it. Her shoes didn’t have a smudge of dirt because she had dignity.
When Jesus looked over the city, he didn’t feel sorry for the people who needed help. He wept because he felt compassion towards them.
The poor don’t want our pity; they want our compassion.
When we feel compassion for someone we feel deep sorrow.
But if that’s all we feel, it’s short lived and really not helpful. Our pity may offer them food for the day, but our compassion offers them a way to feed themselves for a lifetime.
True compassion is sorrow
I will never forget the question one of my African friends asked me, “Do people in America really know how we live?”
I will tell them, I replied. But not everyone will care.
Because if we really cared about the poor, we would do more than feel sorry for them. We would do something-anything-to alleviate their suffering.
Two weeks ago, on a Thursday morning, I sat among a group of mothers in the poorest and most dangerous place I’ve ever been. They held their children’s hands, sang a song, laughed and cried, drank hot tea and listened to a few Bible verses. I told them the mothers in America would buy what we taught them to make so they could get off the streets.
Last week, two Thursdays later, I sat among a group of mothers from a large and luxurious church in my town. They held their children’s hands, sang a song, laughed and cried, drank hot tea and listened to a few Bible verses. I told them about the mothers in Kenya who’s babies were stolen and sold and I asked them to buy what these ladies make. But not out of pity, no, buy to empower.
One place was heaven. The other hell.
It’s easy to feel pity for one group more than the other.
But longing is longing. And emptiness is emptiness.
After I spoke (okay, mostly cried), a mother walked up to me and with tears rolling down her cheeks, she said, “My soul has been awakened today.”
It was such a profound statement. Isn’t that what we all want? We want to feel alive. We want to be whole. We want to be satisfied.
There’s nothing more satisfying than we offer those in need our action instead of our words, our passion instead of our platitudes, our compassion instead of our pity.
I keep thinking about those white shoes. I never learned her name. I don’t know if she is in school. But I know she matters. She is priceless.
May 10, 2016 is Mercy House’s Global Giving Day. It’s a day for us to join together as The Church and work together in compassion.