The Quest for Empathy

The Quest for Empathy

By Ken Walker-

While more than 20 years have passed, I still vividly remember the message that touched me deeply at the spiritual retreat that focused my attention on the importance of servanthood.

Naturally, while I can’t quote it verbatim, its essence was: In the long run, the cumulative effect of thousands of small decisions will create a bigger impact than a major event that attracts nationwide attention.

Recently I experienced this reality. It happened when our pastor preached about the need for white people to stop taking sides on the George Zimmerman verdict so they can try to develop more empathy for the feelings of African-Americans. Better to devote time to praying for both families then engaging in inflamed debates, he said.

An earth-shattering message? On the surface, probably not when you consider our church numbers around 150 (and fewer during the summer vacation season.)

Yet, as this one resonates with other, similar themes filtering into public arenas, there may be hope for less politically- and racially-charged vitriol. More listening and understanding could create more empathy on both sides.

No Bleeding Heart

It will be easy for some reading the words that follow to dismiss them as the rantings of some “bleeding-heart, mainline-denomination liberal.” Except that they came from a conservative evangelical.

It was the timeliest of messages with much of the nation reeling in the aftermath of Zimmerman’s acquittal and subsequent protest marches in support of victim Trayvon Martin.

Indeed, our pastor said that God got ahold of him at 4 o’clock the previous afternoon while he was working on a home improvement project. The Lord reminded him that heaven will not be predominantly white, but people who are red, black, yellow and other colors and ethnicities.

“It will be a multitude of diversity the likes of which you have never seen—all wearing robes dipped in Christ’s blood,” he said.

“God created diversity. He knew there would be racial conflict because of fear and misunderstanding. When an Indian and an Asian and a white guy go to Starbucks together, God is glorified by that. It’s not natural for people to come together like that.”

Turning People Away

Significantly, right before the sermon a woman involved in an inter-racial marriage asked for prayer because her family’s conservative, judgmental stances are turning people away from God instead of toward Him. And she had no idea of what they pastor was about to say.

After talking about the church needing more diversity to reflect the surrounding culture, he mentioned getting a small taste of minority status during our church’s recent mission trip to Haiti.

“When I went to a restaurant and saw other white people, my natural reaction was to gravitate to white people,” he said. “You feel this pull when you’re surrounded by people who don’t look like you. Just then, God whispered, ‘Is this how black people feel in West Virginia?’”

He also made the salient point that as part of the majority culture it is easy to rationalize the outcome of circumstances and events from that dominant point of view. When those who agree with the Zimmerman verdict angrily ask, “Can’t they see the facts?” they fail to acknowledge the reality of racism and discrimination in America’s history, he said.

Listening to Others

As if to emphasize the timeliness of this sermon, the next day a national news service posted a column in which noted spiritual teacher Michael Brown made some of the same points.

“It is a costly and painful process but one that is crucial if we are to reach those outside our camp—theologically, culturally and socially,” Brown wrote. “In order for me to gain (others’) perspectives, I need to recognize the limitations of my own…and listen with an open heart to those from other cultures and backgrounds.”

Exactly our pastor’s point. He mentioned that demographic forecasts show that in another three decades whites will no longer represent the majority in the U.S. So starting to build bridges with people of other backgrounds is a good idea today.

He concluded with a prayer that God will help us to learn to love and embrace diversity. Considering the fractured nature of American society, that is a tall order. But then, we serve a big God.


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