The woman out front at the coffee station turns to the rest of us in the soup kitchen and yells, "I just bent down behind the counter for 15 seconds. When I looked back the milk carton was gone. Someone took it."
All I can whisper is, "Gosh, that's heartbreaking."
I say it half to myself and half to the woman standing beside me as we make sandwiches in the prep kitchen. This desperation is the reality for the 60 or so people who come to this soup kitchen and food bank once or twice a week. One of them has resorted to taking a nearly full carton of milk.
I've been told stories of people filling their disposable cups or an empty water bottle full of milk (both are big no-no's at this soup kitchen). Other days I've seen cups filled with spoonfuls of powered milk. That same cup gets a tiny dribble of coffee. Those who can't afford it are hoarding the milk.
Do I need to know hardship to have compassion?
I've fortunately never been faced with similar circumstances to be able to relate to these people's pain or struggle. I sometimes wonder if it disqualifies me from feeling so heartbroken over their need. Yet, even if I haven't experienced those hardships, Jesus in me has experienced it all.
In a tweet earlier this week, author Burk Parsons wrote , "we've been rescued by a homeless, tortured, murdered Messiah." Indeed, Jesus has experienced poverty. No place to lay His head. Eating kernels of wheat from the field just so He and His disciples wouldn't starve. He was shunned. Hated. Killed. I may never experience those same things. But He did.
I know this same Messiah lives in me, and it's Jesus' compassion that, if I allow it, will overflow from me to others.
To show compassion, sometimes we need to feel it.
There are times when I know I should show compassion. I should help someone in need. Often that's enough to get me motivated. There are people out there who need something I can offer.
Other times, I just plain and simply don't feel like it.
Yet there is something integral to feeling what another person is experiencing that helps spur us to action. In Jesus' ministry we read that He was moved with compassion to heal the sick (Matthew chapter 14 verse 14) or to feed the thousands of people who had gathered to hear Him teach (Matthew chapter 15 verse 32).
The original Greek in these passages is σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai), which literally has to do with having feelings down in a person's bowels. In ancient Greece the bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity.
The root of the English word compassion comes from the Latin to "suffer along with". So compassion, based on its origins, is something we can and should feel.
Compassion is the right thing.
Then again if I waited until I felt like helping every time I recognized that someone needed help, it could be awhile before I ever got around to it. As a generation of Christians we need to be moved not simply to compassion itself, but to the realization that acting with compassion is simply the right thing to do.
A recent wedding in Turkey had a bride and groom giving up their own pricey celebration in order to feed 4,000 Syrian refugees. They gave their money and time, serving meals at the mobile soup kitchen in their fancy wedding attire.
According to the charity they helped, which was quoted in The Washington Post, the idea to give generously came from the groom's father who is a soup kitchen volunteer. He "thought that hosting a banquet for family and friends was 'unnecessary' when people living 'next door' were in need of food.
There's no mention of which faith this Turkish couple follows, but I can hear instructions to the early Christian church in Jerusalem being told to live this very same way:
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don't show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, "Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well"—but then you don't give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn't enough. (James 2 verses 14-17 NLT)
Capacity for compassion.
Some of the regular soup kitchen volunteers argue, "Those people shouldn't be let in here if they're stealing milk." Someone finds the now empty carton of milk in a trash bin in the building. Other volunteers grumble about how unfair it is to keep serving food or drinks when people are hoarding them.
Yet, those same volunteers come back week-after-week to make a meal for those who need it. Maybe we're all there because we know it's the right thing to do. Or we're all serving because we feel compassion for the ones with whom we come face to face.
Each week we put out more milk. I'd like to think that by extending our hand of compassion we are giving those in need a glimmer into God's endless capacity to offer the same.
Lisa Goetze is a 30-something woman trying to love Jesus and love people. She's on a journey to find how to do this best through her love for turning ordinary spaces into welcoming ones, encouraging women of all ages to recognize their value and whenever possible including coffee and good food.
Lisa Goetze's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/lisa-goetze.html