What Does Compassion Really Look Like? (Part 1 of 2)

By Kizombo Kalumbula on June 6, 2016

Editor's Note: This week, we've invited Pastor Kizombo Kalumbula to write on a challenging and crucial topic—compassion. We believe doing compassion right is central to the mission of the Church, and Kizombo offers wise reflection to open our eyes and challenge our hearts.

In January 2015, Forbes Magazine published an article, "The cities where African-Americans are doing the best economically." My city, Grand Rapids, Michigan, ranked 51st out of the 52 largest cities in America—second to last. Then in October, the Huffington Post, published another article ranking Grand Rapids 5th among the top 10 worst cities for Black Americans to live. It's hard to be Black in Grand Rapids and expect to flourish economically; it's hard to hold onto hope.

Although in 2012 Forbes ranked Grand Rapids as the #1 place to raise a family, many people of color don't seem to be experiencing all of the benefits of this city.

As I read these articles, they give me pause. What kind of future will my children have? When I think of Grand Rapids, one of the prominent descriptions that comes to my mind is one of wealth and Christian heritage. We are a prosperous and church-saturated city. We are the Christian publishing mecca—a cultured city known for Art Prize, craft beer, a beautiful zoo and gardens, museums, manufacturing industry, reputable colleges, universities, and seminaries and a state-of-the-art medical care system.

And yet, the reality of these articles cannot seem to escape my consciousness. What is lacking in my city for it to develop such a reputation of overall prosperity, but also economic struggle for many of its citizens?

Perhaps we lack compassion or altruism. Yet statistically we are known as one of the most charitable cities in Michigan. Perhaps something else is missing. Perhaps we are deficient in something more essential to true compassion.

The American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology (APA, 2007) defines compassion as a strong feeling of sympathy with another person's feelings of sorrow or distress, usually involving a desire to help or comfort that person.

Christian scholars employ a similar definition. In Alaster Gibson's 2015 article, "Meaning and applications of compassion in teaching: A practical review of the Bible and educational literature," Gibson, defined compassion as "to care deeply and practically for those suffering or in need" (p. 16). And McNeill, Morrison, and Nouwen (2006) suggest that compassion is "a full immersion into the condition of being human" (p. 4).

Compassion, then, is more than charity. It involves taking the steps necessary to immerse ourselves into the lives of those who suffer in order to ease their suffering. Gibson asserts that compassion is a virtue that is acknowledged and understood across diverse cultures, political platforms and religions.

The Bible has excellent examples that can aid in our understanding of compassion.

One clear example may be found in Exodus 2:6 describing Pharoah's daughter's response to finding Moses in a basket, "And she opened it, and saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews' children" (ASV). In this case, we find the privileged daughter of Pharaoh showing compassion to Moses afloat in a basket on the shore of the Nile River. Her immersion into the suffering of the Hebrews through rescuing Moses is set against the horrific practice of genocide and slavery enforced by her father.

Another perhaps more profound example of compassion appears in Luke 4:18-21, quoting Isaiah 61:1 where the Messiah presents himself as the one who is sent to proclaim the good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom to the captives and to release from darkness the prisoners. Compassion is woven throughout the ministry of Jesus. In Luke 10:30-37, He tells the story of the compassionate Samaritan's immersion into the life of the victim of the merciless highway robbery and juxtaposes it with the uncaring attitude of the religious leader who passed by.

Finally, Paul sums up his teaching to the Corinthians by saying that one thing of great importance remains and should underline all of our compassionate actions—selfless love. Paul says at the end of everything only three things (faith, hope and love) will last forever, and the greatest of these is love. Such a notion equates to the idea of "sadaka," a Swahili word derived from Arabic meaning to offer oneself (voluntary charity). This term is related to the Hebrew concept of righteousness spoken of in Proverbs 11:10, "When the righteous (tsaddiqim) prosper, the city rejoices." In other words, lovingkindness is a life of sadaka, and it benefits the entire community. This knowledge pushes me to engage our community with compassion, desiring to see in it what I hope to pass on to my children and the next generation of Grand Rapidians.

With these two definitions and biblical references in mind I continue to ask myself, "Do the rest of the people of my city realize what others seem to notice about the plight of 20 percent of its citizens?"

Yet, I notice signs of this sadaka in others in my city as well. A year ago, I joined a group of advocates for the plight of refugees and new immigrants to the USA who are choosing to resettle to the greater Grand Rapids area, the Freedom Flight Task Force (FFRTF). During our meeting last month, many commented that West Michigan is a favorite secondary migration location for refugees, especially Congolese. These comments left me scratching my head in light of the Forbes and Huffington Post reports that my city is amongst the worst for Black Americans to live or raise a family.

Could it be that there is more than meets the eye in Grand Rapids? Could it be that God is beginning to do something new to reverse the findings of these two articles?


Works Cited

  • Gibson, A. (2015). Meanings and applications of compassion in teaching: A practical review of the Bible and education literature. Christian Education Journal, 12(1), 8-25.
  • McNeill, D. P, Morrison, D. A., & Nouwen, H. (2006). Compassion: A reflection on the Christian Life. Garden City: NY: Random House.
  • VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2007). APA dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Categories: Culture, Theology