Part Two: The Transformative Power of Compassion; Charity

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Last week, I began a series of articles on compassion.  After years of being involved in conversations related to church transformation and revitalization, it became clear to me that compassion is a key component to any congregational effort at transformation.  I defined compassion as the capacity to identify with the needs of others and then to work toward the meeting of those needs.  I also wrote that compassion has three aspects – sympathy, charity and justice.  The first article was how sympathy is a key element in the building of community.  Sympathy is at the heart of the ministry of presence, when we “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.”  With sympathy for one another, especially in times of sorrow or tragedy, we share the light of how the church is to be a community of mutually supportive care.

This week, charity is the topic for discussion.  First, let me say that I recognize that the word “charity” is one that carries a lot of baggage with it in this time.  In fact, I am presently reading a book called “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help.”  Its central claim is that much of what we do in our efforts to help people is not as helpful as we think it is.   The problem is that we too readily evaluate our giving by the rewards we receive from our service, rather than the actual benefits received by those we serve.   Charity can be understood in ways that carry with it a sense of colonialism and paternalism, the “haves” sharing out of their abundance with the “have nots.”  I understand the baggage that goes with the present understanding of charity.  I think there is truth to be found in that critique of what we often call charity.  But I don’t think the word charity needs to be cast completely aside. Maybe just reclaimed with a different understanding.

I like to think of charity as that aspect of compassion which calls us to respond to the immediate needs of people which they, for whatever reason, cannot meet on their own.  I once heard that Mother Teresa responded to a reporter asking her if it wouldn’t be more beneficial if she were to use her enormous powers of influence to work toward the changing of the system that allowed there to be such large underclass in India by saying, “The more that can be done to change the system the better, but right now what this poor person needs is for me to pull the worms crawling on them off their body.”  This is how I like to think of charity, the immediate response to the needs that have to be met.  It could be the need for food, for shelter, for medical treatment, etc.  Charity is directed toward meeting some immediate discernible need.  A need which a person, family or community cannot meet on their own.

When there are monumental tragedies, such as hurricanes, floods, mudslides, etc., this is when compassion as charity can be seen in a very positive light.  People often have a sense of complete devastation and may very well have lost everything they have.  They need concrete forms of help in the present moment.  In the same way, there are numerous people every day who suffer their own personal tragedies. The loss of a job for a person who lives paycheck to paycheck can mean a quick eviction notice and lack of money for food.  An illness that requires an overpriced prescription that means a choice between medicine, food or electricity.  Compassion as charity means that we help alleviate that unfair choice for people. 

How does a church have this kind of positive charity as part of its life?   One way is to make certain that it highlights ministries that respond to immediate needs such as the Disciples of Christ Week of Compassion.  I also believe that a church seeking to have a sense of revitalization should do more than highlight such a ministry so that individuals in the congregation can give to it, but actually put such ministries in the yearly congregational budget, reminding itself that part of who we are as the church is to be a people who together respond to those in need.  In a time of declining budgets and resources, such a statement helps us to continue to claim the heart of who we are.  Another way, is to become actively engaged in specific needs in your local community.  We have a group in the congregation that I serve called “SAW’s” (Servants at Work).  Their task is to build ramps for people in our community who are no longer able to navigate the stairs that lead in and out of their house.  Most of these ramps have been built for people who have limited resources available to pay for such an expense.  The ramp is usually built in a week to ten days after the request.  This, I believe, is charity as it can best be understood.  Meeting immediate needs for people who are at a point in life when they can’t meet those needs on their own.

Sympathy and charity are important aspects of compassion and can play a vital role in helping to transform a congregation. There is a third aspect of compassion and it can be found in the words of Mother Teresa above, “The more that can be done to change the system, the better . . . “ The third aspect of compassion is justice.  Justice calls us to work for a world in which everyone has a fair chance to share in the abundant blessings of God’s good earth.  Sympathy and charity are beautiful aspects of compassion, but they are incomplete without our work toward a more just world.