Reflections on Developing Empathy: What is the Role of the Church in Serving People who are Homeless?
St. Bart’s member Rita Moufarrenge offers her reflections on the recent 9am Forum with Matthew Works, a homeless person who shared with us his (so far unsuccessful) efforts to end homelessness in the United States by opening up churches to homeless people like himself.
Matthew Works asks the churches to “unlock their doors.” While he seems to be referring to the doors of the church buildings, I am reminded that “the church” is the people who follow Christ. Perhaps it is we who need to unlock the doors to our hearts.
It is often easy to feel sympathy, or to feel sorry for “the other” who is less fortunate. It is especially comfortable to do so if we feel that their circumstances are very different from our own. We are blessed with stabile housing, a warm bed, and food on the table. Perhaps we would rather not think too hard about what it would feel like to not have those necessities. It feels safer to differentiate ourselves from “them.” So, we label them as “the homeless” and maybe in the back of our minds believe that “they” must have done something “wrong” to end up living on the street. We don’t like to think that there are people who have jobs and work hard every day, and yet don’t earn enough to afford shelter. It’s uncomfortable to imagine that a family member, friend, or perhaps we, ourselves may be a few paychecks away from homelessness.
So how do we develop empathy versus sympathy? Empathy requires seeing “the other” or “the homeless” as human beings. It means getting to know the person and listening to their story. It means building relationships. Seeing someone as a person first; in fact, it means seeing the person at all, not just walking by them on the street as if they were invisible. Seeing them as a person in need of permanent housing. If that person in need were my family member or friend, I’m sure I would offer them a place to sleep and food to eat until they could get back on their feet. What am I willing to risk to help the person I don’t know? Will I at least risk having a conversation? Making eye contact? Saying “hello?”
Listening to Matthew’s story began to help us “open the door of understanding and empathy.” Thank you, Matthew, for giving me much on which to ponder and reflect during this Advent season!