Radical Compassion

Last August I happily accepted a position in the UCC’s Justice Leadership Program. I was excited at the prospect of living in a big city, of working at Real Change, and of living in community. I had never experienced any of these things before. But I was excited to take a leap of faith. I wanted to try something new, I wanted to be challenged! Now, many months later…I’m living in Seattle, working at Real Change, living in community… and I’m eating my words. Who knew being challenged would be so hard?


Real Change is a street newspaper that provides low barrier employment for low income people, and people experiencing homelessness. For those of you that don’t know, low barrier means we do not require background checks or official identification to be employed at Real Change. I started my work there with a lot of grand ideas about what justice looks like. My bleeding liberal heart espoused a lot of well-intended beliefs. I believed justice was compassion in practice, and I still do believe this. But my idea of compassion itself has changed. Before this internship I foolishly believed I was a compassionate person for doing small things, like gently correcting my well-meaning white family members when they said problematic things, or showing up to protests with big signs… but these were relatively easy things to do. This compassion didn’t push me. It didn’t even really inconvenience me.


I’ve learned through my time with the Justice Leadership Program, and working at Real Change, that I was wrong about compassion. True, meaningful, world-changing compassion pushes our boundaries. It does not accommodate our preconceived notions. It challenges our ideals. It does not discriminate, or judge. Exercising this sort of compassion is a privilege, a responsibility, and should be treated as such.


There is a man who sells Real Change, let’s call him James. When I first started working at Real Change James was one of the first people to introduce himself to me. He’s the kind of person that makes everyone smile. He’s got a never ending collection of corny puns and jokes... he really prides himself on brightening the days of others. And his customers love him for it-- around the holidays he was raking in armfuls of presents from appreciative customers. He often talks about how, if he’s made one person smile in a day, he’s served his purpose. I find this quality to be very admirable, especially coming from a person who struggles each day to have his basic needs met. James lives in a shelter. Nothing in his life is guaranteed. Yet still, he has the energy to care about making people smile. And I find that incredible.


A few months into my internship I was interviewing James for a position as a paid speaker for our advocacy department. Real Change has a program where we train some vendors in public speaking, then book them to get paid to share their life stories. James’ interview was going well. Until he divulged to me a heinous crime he’d committed over 20 years ago, which has since prevented him from job opportunities, and contributed to the cycles of poverty and homelessness that he’s been stuck in.


I found myself, quite honestly, disturbed. How could I be so friendly with someone who’d done something so awful? What did that say about me as a person, or about our organization? I struggled for a while, wondering how or if I’d be able to look James in the eyes from that point forward. Would I still include him in our advocacy efforts, still encourage him to participate in the community building aspects of Real Change? I did a lot of deep reflecting and worrying. I liked to think I was someone who believed in second chances and redemption. I’d always said I believed good people sometimes do bad things. But these ideas are easier said than practiced. This felt… really hard. I questioned if he deserved my kindness, or even my civility?


Then, one day after the interview, James approached me. He said he’d heard I’d be spending the afternoon in city hall in support of eviction reform in Seattle, and that he wanted to come with me. My chance at discerning was over, I had to make a quick decision, and in that moment I found myself saying yes without thinking much about it. We walked to city hall together. We laughed when I tripped on a crack in the sidewalk. I bought him a soda and encouraged him to speak to city council members about his experience with housing discrimination.


Afterwards, I felt content with the way I treated James. I was in the privileged position of being able to act on my compassionate ideals, and when those ideals were challenged, I still followed through. I believe in second chances, and got to act on that belief. This would have been an entirely different story if he’d done something atrocious to me personally, but he’d been nothing but kind and respectful to me. I was presented with a situation where it was not easy or comfortable to be kind or compassionate, but I did it anyway. And that’s the way, I think, compassion should be.


Compassion does not discriminate. It does not judge. When I think of compassion, I’m reminded of the grief Real Change has recently been through, and how our community handled it. Months ago a beloved Real Change vendor, let’s call her Terry, was diagnosed with a degenerative disease. Terry had been involved with Real Change since it first began in the ‘90s. She sold papers and was passionate about housing justice. She created a name for herself through her activism throughout the city, and her general welcoming demeanor. When asked how she was doing, she’d often remark that she was, “blessed and well.”


We watched as Terry slowly became more and more sick. Staff members would give her rides when we noticed she wasn’t in a state to drive, we’d sit with her when she became frustrated with her sudden inability to communicate clearly with others… everyone did their best to show Terry she wasn’t alone. Eventually, my boss felt compelled to find Terry’s family and let them know what was going on.


In her last months Terry got to reconnect with her son. She lived comfortably in hospice surrounded by family members, Real Change staff, and friends. Real Change board members coordinated rides on weekends so vendors could visit Terry where she was being cared for.


Terry has since passed away. And her last words were the words she said so often in her life, when asked how she was doing: she turned to one of our Real Change board members, who was visiting her in hospice, and whispered, “blessed and well.”


We have some peace of mind knowing Terry passed away surrounded by loved ones, sheltered, and cared for. Nobody was ever obligated to make sure Terry’s last days were comfortable and meaningful. But the kinds of people who choose to work at Real Change are generally loving, compassionate people who feel called to do the right thing. And in these past few months, there was never any question of whether we should or shouldn’t become more involved in Terry’s last days. Staff saw someone they cared for was struggling, and then did what they knew was right.


Perhaps as you go about your days, you do the same. Maybe when you see someone struggling, you feel called to help them. Even when it’s not your responsibility, or doesn’t feel easy. I hope you see the humanity in everyone. This includes people whose existence might make you uncomfortable, like the people you see living in tents on the sidewalk.


In my own experience, I’ve found I get just as much from helping others as the people who I’ve “helped.” Working for justice issues helps me feel as if I have some semblance of control in a world that often feels chaotic or unfair.


When things feel especially bleak and the news is full of awful stories, I at least know I’m doing what I can to change things for the better. Even if that sort of change starts with small, day-to-day choices.


If you too want the world to be a more just place, I invite you to start with yourself. Ask yourself how and when your compassion shows up, what it looks like, and how you feel when you’re being compassionate. Then, I invite you to dig a little deeper, and start asking tougher questions: Who or what am I ignoring? Who am I not being compassionate towards? Why? And in what ways might I be able to change that?


This sort of discernment isn’t easy. But together, as a church and as a community, I believe we can wrestle with these questions in a loving way.


Dr. Cornel West once said, “justice is what love looks like in public.” And I believe each and every one of us has it in our hearts to love each other deeply, and to be radically compassionate.

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