There are small moments that become defining markers in life. You rarely anticipate them and often don’t realize what they are until much later. It was only days into my first international experience. I was eleven, and my parents had moved us to Central America where they were to work as church planters. We were riding in the car of fellow missionaries who were helping us get adjusted to our new country. As the car pulled us to a red light, a couple of raggedy kids about my own age ran to the driver’s window with their hands outstretched in an obvious plea for money. Having never seen such a thing back home, I was horrified and waited for one of the four adults in the car to do something to help these kids desperate enough to dodge city traffic for the chance of a few coins.
“Get a job!” My mouth dropped open at the words harshly spoken as the light turned green and we sped away. My parents’ co-worker spent the next ten minutes talking about the street kids in the city and warned us against giving them handouts because that “only contributed to the problem.” He had a point, but I could barely see it past the big, black eyes full of hunger and disappointment backing away from our car to wait out another green light before trying again.
That night my dad approached me and asked if I was okay, I had been unusually quiet. I burst into tears. With sobs, I asked him why the kids had been given disdain instead of compassion. My dad could only tell me, “Sometimes, when we stare at pain day after day, we become numb to it. It hurts too much to care, so we stop caring.” I didn’t know how prophetic those words would be in my life.
For the next six years, I lived among the poorest of the poor who were exploited by an elite upper class and abused by the powerful. Honduras was a particularly dreadful place to be if you were female, and I saw friend after friend given away as adolescents to men who beat them, raped them, and disregarded them while the community nodded their heads in acceptance. What’s a 15-year-old to do when she is powerless to stop the violence, and the adults around her do nothing or, worse, tell her “that’s just our way”? She stops caring and starts seeing the victims as the problem. Those girls should have protected themselves. They should have known better and gotten an education or a job instead of looking for a man to take care of them. Surely they had seen a million times how it always ended in that country.
When I left for college, I took pride in my reputation as a mature, tough, independent young woman. It was a reputation that grew for the next several years. Nothing fazed me, and I could handle any messy situation with detached intellectualism. Say what you want, do what you want. It can’t affect me.
I recall sitting in a class during my senior year of college and talking about the Compassion International sponsorship program with a classmate. She was in tears just thinking about children living in poverty around the world; I was unperturbed… and that bothered me. I remembered my first experience with the least of these, and I realized that I too had cared so much over the following years that I had finally stopped. I prayed that God would awaken that compassion in me again. A short time later, I heard about another Honduran friend, one who had actually stood up for herself. She was hacked to death in front of her toddler by the street gangs she had spoken out against. I couldn’t even cry.
For the next couple of years, God chipped away the brick wall I had constructed around my heart. There were a lot of layers to go through, and sometimes I wanted to quit feeling because I wasn’t so sure that it wouldn’t break me. For the first time, I wept for my Honduran friends, the ones beaten, starved, raped, and murdered, and tried to forgive myself for not being able to do anything about what had happened to them. I tried to forgive myself for ultimately refusing to care about it. I was still a tough woman able to bear a heavy load, but I could actually feel the load of grief I was holding.
Looking back now, I can see that my dad was so right when he said that so many people cope with tragedy by refusing to care about it any longer. I wonder if that is what has happened to the Church. We are blasted all day, every day through various media about the pain inflicted on humanity by nature and hatred. We see visual images of starving children, dead war victims, hopeless slaves, and suffering refugees, and our hearts die as well. We stop caring because it hurts too much to keep caring. Another brick goes on the wall.
Yet our Savior doesn’t give us that right. In Scripture, over 2000 times we hear the cry of God’s heart for the exploited, the poor, and the marginalized. He made it clear that His Bride is compassionate and spends herself on behalf of the needy, even to the point of being terrifyingly vulnerable. The church that doesn’t look like that is not His Bride, only goats masquerading as sheep.
I’ve wondered why God would give such an excruciating task to His beloved when surely He could have found an alternative plan. I think it’s because only the Bride has the arms of her Beloved to comfort her as she weeps for the pain around her. His comfort becomes her only source of strength to give food to the hungry, to seek justice for the exploited, to heal the sick, and to wage war against those who would dare to call unworthy what Christ’s blood was shed for. Situated in His arms, we spend ourselves to be His hands.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.