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“Walk a Mile in their Shoes”: The Essence of Empathy

“Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that.” (Luke 6:31-33 – Jesus)

“Ah, he cool”, says Anthony to his friends who warily regard my approach in the alley behind their place. It had taken a while to gain his trust as I had invited them to our youth house next to the church in St. Paul. My greatest challenge was not in befriending them or their parents, but in working through the distrust between parents of our “churched youth” who came from the suburbs, and the unchurched “neighborhood youth”. The answer to these issues lay in a couple dedicated, loving youth volunteers who met them half way, and regularly invited these kids into their home to be part of their family.

My eyes widen as I learn from brothers and sisters with backgrounds far different from my own. I dare say that I’ve learned more about God “on the ground” than over the 8 years of Biblical/Theological education in college and seminary. Of course, there is so much to be learned through careful study in the books, but actual application of these truths is a whole new lesson learned.

Perhaps you have been grieving with me on the tragic loss of life in Charlotte and Tulsa, which brought about protests and continued discussions/dialogue on racial inequality in our country. Just when I think I’ve seen/heard it all, another perspective forces its way to the foreground. So I want to take a moment to caution you, particularly those in Christian circles, from taking anything other than a humble, open-minded approach toward those who cry out against racial, gender, and even “marriage-inequality”.

I’m not talking about open-mindedness that causes one’s brains to fall out, or lets the ever-changing cultural values redefine God-revealed absolutes found in His Word. I am talking about what Christian love looks like in the School of Life, something I’m finding myself having to re-learn and readjust again.

So how are we to respond to those who view “justice” and “inequality” differently from us? Would they feel welcome discussing this with you? Would you be willing to cross over into their group discussions and communities? It may only take one life experience to warp one’s view of the group as a whole, for them, and for us.

Dr. Michael Henderson, Vice President of Converge National Ministries and Senior Pastor of New Beginnings Church in near Charlotte, N.C., is closely invested in bridging the divide between city officials, the police, and the African American community. He gives challenging perspectives through sharing key inequality issues through “White Eyes, Black Eyes, Blue Eyes (police), and His Eyes”. These perspectives can only be grasped by those who are willing to listen to the heart behind the discourse: to life experiences.

I recently listened to a fascinating 3-part broadcast on Family Life Today, on the testimony of Pastor Caleb Kaltenbach, who grew up with two parents who divorced when they each “discovered” they were gay offering a unique perspective on rejection, encountered both from the church towards gay visitors seeking God, and the gay community when he turned to Christ! Pastor Caleb points out that all people are ultimately seeking a loving accepting, empathetic community, whether it’s in a church, bar, or elsewhere.

What does God want from me? “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) But what does that mean, to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly?” The answer is in putting feet to your Christian walk. Taking the extra step to bridge the divide, first by offering a listening ear, then offering “to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)

That “answer”, your testimony of your hope of a bright future in Christ, comes from the One who first “bridged the divide”, and walked thousands of miles in our shoes! It began with his empathy & compassion towards us (Matthew 9:36), and portrayed itself through lovingly washing dirty feet, taking the mockery, flogging, blame, and death that we deserve (Matt 20:19, 27:29-31).

Our response to the injustice we encounter? Let us go to our knees, “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), and begin our “labor of love” by walking a mile in their shoes.

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