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Compassion: what does it look like? Come with me to 915 South Bloodworth Street in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I grew up. If you come in you will see us: evening time, at table -- set for ten but not always all seats filled -- at the point when dinner is ready to be served. Since mom had eight kids, sometimes she said she couldn't tell who was who and where they were. Before we could eat, she would ask, "Are all the children in?" And if someone happened to be missing, we would have to, we say, "Fix a plate" for that person, put it in the oven, then we could say grace, and we could eat.
Also, while we were at the table, there was a ritual in our family: when something significant had happened for any one of us -- whether mom had just been elected as the president of the PTA, or whether dad had gotten an assignment at the college of our denomination, or whether someone had won the jabberwocky contest for talent -- the ritual at the family was, once the announcement is made, we must take five, ten minutes to do what we call "make over" that person -- that is, to make a fuss over the one who had been honored in some way. For when one is honored, all are honored.
Also, we had to make a report on our extended "visited" members, that is, extended members of the family, sick and elderly, shut in. My task was, at least once a week, to visit Mother Lassiter who lived on East Street, Mother Williamson who lived on Bledsoe Avenue, and Mother Lathers who lived on Oberlin Road. Why? Because they were old and infirm, and we needed to go by to see if they needed anything. For mom said, "To be family, is to care and share and to look out for one another. They are our family."
And, of course, sometimes there was a bonus for going. They would offer sweets or money. Mom says, "If they ask you what it costs to either go shopping for them, you must always say, 'Nothing.' And if they insist, say, 'Whatever you mind to give me.'" This was the nature of being at that table. In fact, she indicated that if we would do that, not only would we have the joy of receiving the gratitude from the members of the extended family, but she said, "Even God will smile, and when God smiles, there is peace, and justice, and joy."
So, at the table at 915, I learned something about compassion. Of course, it was a minister's family, so we had to add God into it. And so, I came to think that mama eternal, mama eternal, is always wondering: Are all the children in? And if we had been faithful in caring and sharing, we had the sense that justice and peace would have a chance in the world.
Now, it was not always wonderful at that table. Let me explain a point at which we did not rise to the occasion. It was Christmas, and at our family, oh, what a morning. Christmas morning, where we open up our gifts, where we have special prayers, and where we get to the old upright piano and we would sing carols. It was a very intimate moment. In fact, you could come down to the tree to get your gifts and get ready to sing, and then get ready for breakfast without even taking a bath or getting dressed, except that daddy messed it up.
There was a member of his staff who did not have any place on that particular Christmas to celebrate. And daddy brought Elder Revels to the Christmas family celebration. We thought he must be out of his mind. This is our time. This is intimate time. This is when we can just be who we are, and now we have this stuffy brother with his shirt and tie on, while we are still in our PJs. Why would daddy bring Elder Revels? Any other time, but not to the Christmas celebration.
And mom overheard us and said, "Well, you know what? If you really understand the nature of this celebration, it is that this is a time where you extend the circle of love. That's what the celebration is all about. It's time to make space, to share the enjoyment of life in a beloved community." So, we sucked up. (Laughter)
But growing up at 915, compassion was not a word to be debated; it was a sensibility to how we are together. We are sisters and brothers united together. And, like Chief Seattle said, "We did not spin the web of life. We're all strands in it. And whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves." Now that's compassion.
So, let me tell you, I kind of look at the world this way. I see pictures, and something says, "Now, that's compassion." A harvested field of grain, with some grain in the corners, reminding me of the Hebrew tradition that you may indeed harvest, but you must always leave some on the edges, just in case there's someone who has not had the share necessary for good nurture. Talk about a picture of compassion.
I see -- always, it stirs my heart -- a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. walking arm in arm with Andy Young and Rabbi Heschel and maybe Thich Nhat Hanh and some of the other saints assembled, walking across the bridge and going into Selma. Just a photograph. Arm in arm for struggle. Suffering together in a common hope that we can be brothers and sisters without the accidents of our birth or our ethnicity robbing us of a sense of unity of being.
So, there's another picture. Here, this one. I really do like this picture. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, that day, everybody in my community was upset. You heard about riots all across the land. Bobby Kennedy was scheduled to bring an inner city message in Indianapolis. This is the picture. They said, "It's going to be too volatile for you to go." He insisted, "I must go."
So, sitting on a flatbed truck, the elders of the community are there, and Bobby stands up and says to the people, "I have bad news for you. Some of you may not have heard that Dr. King has been assassinated. I know that you are angry, and I know that you would almost wish to have the opportunity to enter now into activities of revenge. But," he said, "what I really want you to know is that I know how you feel. Because I had someone dear to me snatched away. I know how you feel." And he said, "I hope that you will have the strength to do what I did. I allowed my anger, my bitterness, my grief to simmer a while, and then I made up my mind that I was going to make a different world, and we can do that together." That's a picture. Compassion? I think I see it.
I saw it when the Dalai Lama came to the Riverside Church while I was a pastor, and he invited representatives of faith traditions from all around the world. He asked them to give a message, and they each read in their own language a central affirmation, and that was some version of the golden rule: "As you would that others would do unto you, do also unto them." Twelve in their ecclesiastical or cultural or tribal attire affirming one message. We are so connected that we must treat each other as if an action toward you is an action toward myself.
One more picture while I'm stinking and thinking about the Riverside Church: 9/11. Last night at Chagrin Fall, a newspaperman and a television guy said, "That evening, when a service was held at the Riverside Church, we carried it on our station in this city. It was," he said, "one of the most powerful moments of life together. We were all suffering. But you invited representatives of all of the traditions to come, and you invited them. 'Find out what it is in your tradition that tells us what to do when we have been humiliated, when we have been despised and rejected.' And they all spoke out of their own traditions, a word about the healing power of solidarity, one with the other."
I developed a sense of compassion sort of as second nature, but I became a preacher. Now, as a preacher, I got a job. I got to preach the stuff, but I got to do it too. Or, as Father Divine in Harlem used to say to folks, "Some people preach the Gospel. I have to tangibilitate the Gospel." So, the real issue is: How do you tangibilitate compassion? How do you make it real?
My faith has constantly lifted up the ideal, and challenged me when I fell beneath it. In my tradition, there is a gift that we have made to other traditions -- to everybody around the world who knows the story of the "Good Samaritan." Many people think of it primarily in terms of charity, random acts of kindness. But for those who really study that text a little more thoroughly, you will discover that a question has been raised that leads to this parable.
The question was: "What is the greatest commandment?" And, according to Jesus, the word comes forth, "You must love yourself, you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself."
And he answered it by telling the story of the man who fell among thieves, and how religious authorities went the other way, and how their supporters in the congregation went the other way; but an unsuspecting, despised person came along, saw the man in need, provided oil and wine for his wounds, put him on his own transportation, and took him to the inn and asked the innkeeper, "Take care of him." And he said, "Here, this is the initial investment, but if needs continue, make sure that you provide them. And whatever else is needed, I will provide it and pay for it when I return."
This always seemed to me to be a deepening of the sense of what it means to be a Good Samaritan. A Good Samaritan is not simply one whose heart is touched in an immediate act of care and charity, but one who provides a system of sustained care -- I like that, 'a system of sustained care ' -- in the inn, take care. I think maybe it's one time when the Bible talks about a healthcare system and a commitment to do whatever is necessary -- that all God's children would have their needs cared for, so that we could answer when mommy eternal asks, "In regards to health, are all the children in?" And we could say yes.
Oh, what a joy it has been to be a person seeking to tangibilitate compassion. I recall that my work as a pastor has always involved caring for their spiritual needs; being concerned for housing, for healthcare, for the prisoners, for the infirm, for children -- even the foster care children for whom no one can even keep a record where they started off, where they are going. To be a pastor is to care for these individual needs.
But now, to be a Good Samaritan -- and I always say, and to be a good American -- for me, is not simply to congratulate myself for the individual acts of care. Compassion takes on a corporate dynamic. I believe that whatever we did around that table at Bloodworth Street must be done around tables and rituals of faith until we become that family, that family together that understands the nature of our unity. We are one people together.
So, let me explain to you what I mean when I think about compassion, and why I think it is so important that right at this point in history. We would decide to establish this charter of compassion. The reason it's important is because this is a very special time in history. It is the time that, biblically, we would speak of as the day, or the year, of God's favor. This is a season of grace. Unusual things are beginning to happen. Please pardon me, as a black man, for celebrating that the election of Obama was an unusual sign of the fact that it is a year of favor. And yet, there is so much more that needs to be done. We need to bring health and food and education and respect for all God's citizens, all God's children, remembering mama eternal.
Now, let me close my comments by telling you that whenever I feel something very deeply, it usually takes the form of verse. And so I want to close with a little song. I close with this song -- it's a children's song -- because we are all children at the table of mama eternal. And if mama eternal has taught us correctly, this song will make sense, not only to those of us who are a part of this gathering, but to all who sign the charter for compassion. And this is why we do it.
The song says, ♫ "I made heaven so happy today, ♫ ♫ Receiving God's love and giving it away ♫ ♫ When I looked up, heaven smiled at me ♫ ♫ Now, I'm so happy. Can't you see? ♫ ♫ I'm happy. Look at me. I'm happy. Can't you see? ♫ ♫ Sharing makes me happy, makes heaven happy too ♫ ♫ I'm happy. Look at me. I'm happy. Can't you see? ♫ ♫ Let me share my happy loving smile with you. ♫
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Join Rev. James Forbes at the dinner table of his Southern childhood, where his mother and father taught him what compassion really means day to day -- sharing with those who need love.
Known as the preacher’s preacher, Rev. James Forbes is a spiritual leader with charismatic style and radically progressive opinions. Full bio »