Monday, September 10, 2012

How to Act (Be) Compassionate

Do you know the "Loaves and Fishes" story from the Bible? Jesus is a traveling preacher, and a crowd of 5,000 has gathered to hear him. Jesus wants to feed them, but the disciples think that's rather impractical. Then Andrew says...
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?”  Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. John 6:9-11
This was the mass reading a few weeks ago, and the teaching afterward really stuck with me (and not because of my name). Think of all the people who had to contribute something for everyone to be fed. Maybe, like the disciples, our talents involve organizing, finding resources, distributing goods. Maybe, like Jesus, we are good leaders and inspiring orators. Maybe, like the boy, we have some insignificant resource to contribute, and instead of casting it aside as worthless, we volunteer our meager resources and someone else makes them great.

The pastor let us think about the ways our careers and work life contributes to our shared goals.
Then he said something surprisingly direct:
Oh, and of course every Christian must feed the poor, literally. Christ is very clear on this point. We have two homeless shelters nearby that need you today. No one should be hungry in a city with Christians.
That simmered in me for a few weeks, then last Thursday we volunteered at Second Harvest. It's a non-religious food bank that serves all south Louisiana. It is the most well-connected, efficient, and effective operation nearby, and I happened to know their head chef. To give you a sense of the scale of the operation, before Isaac he was able to freeze 500 gallons of high-protein chili, made entirely from donated goods and volunteers (by volunteers). He averages about 3,000 meals for kids every week, and the facility distributes about 42,000 pounds of food weekly. These people are serious   rock   stars

Thursday was a special post-Isaac sorting day, since a bunch of stores donated their older stuff (food their insurance would replace anyway). We didn't get to teach or cook, but our meager gifts - three hours, a good back and a basic knowledge of food safety - helped the five in our group process about 4,000 pounds of food, which Chef will use all week.

I could be hanging out here instead!
Compassion lowers me down the hierarchy that I have worked to climb. I am not hungry. My fridge is full. Even my cats eat well. I buy some cheese and alcohol sometimes - luxury goods - and I even eat at restaurants. That's because my family has stable income that is generous enough that we can spend surplus on comfort and entertainment.

We have worked hard and risen a (short) ladder of success to have these things.

Why would I hang out with hungry people and the accessories of hunger, like donated food? Why would we remind ourselves of the things we have worked hard to avoid? Why would I voluntarily experience the downward movement towards poverty when I'm achieving that upward movement towards prosperity?

Because compassion is both the central pillar of human progress and   the fundamental teaching of Jesus. Jesus' humanity is an act of divine compassion. And true compassion is not looking down from a safe, privileged point of view, it is (like Jesus) building a home among hunger and want. 
I'm not there yet. But if  you've ever stopped yourself from doing something insignificant to help feed the hungry, get a shift from Catie:

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