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Stepping beyond sympathy to help the poor

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I was moved by the number of people who commiserated after my last column about finding grace through a kitchen renovation. Many understood the misery of redoing a kitchen. Even more people understood the terrible feeling that comes with realizing you just set a lousy example for your children.

That got me to thinking about empathy. How well can those who have, empathize with those who have not? How would our behavior change toward the poor if we could empathize as well as sympathize?

To abuse several dictionaries’ worth of distinctions between the two words, “sympathy” means feeling compassion for someone else’s plight without having experienced something similar. “Empathy” occurs when you have been through the same plight, or something like it, yourself. An empathetic response is usually deeper because of the shared bond of common experience.

Last week I visited our St. Ambrose Family Shelter in Dorchester. I met a woman there -- let’s call her “Grace”-- who had fled Puerto Rico with her 17-year-old daughter after suffering domestic abuse. When she and her daughter arrived at St. Ambrose, they had nothing. The shelter provided them with some summer clothing, a place to live, and support for transitioning to employment, education and permanent housing.

I asked Grace what the most important things were that St. Ambrose could do for her. She expressed gratitude for all the shelter already had done, and then admitted to a couple of deep-seated fears.

First, she was worried about how she was going to clothe her daughter and herself for winter. Second, she was worried about her daughter getting her GED -- General Educational Development -- diploma. Her daughter is ready to take the test, but doing so requires two things: a Massachusetts ID and a $60 registration fee for the test. The two items together cost about $140.

When was the last time most of us watched our own child fail to achieve a major life milestone because we didn’t have $60? When was the last time most of us genuinely worried about the turning of a season because we did not know how we would get clothes to keep ourselves or our children warm? I have two kids, ages three and six. I go crazy at the thought of not being able to give them what they need. Just the thought of it.

Therein lies the point. St. Ambrose will help Grace and her daughter with the winter clothing and the fees. Our social justice mission drives us to it. We will find the means to do it based on our supporters’ sympathetic response -- their ability to imagine what it must be like for Grace. Based on that sympathy alone, they will help us serve hundreds of thousands of people like Grace this year.

Imagine what our communities would do if everyone involved didn’t just imagine what it must be like for Grace, but actually knew?

Salvation Army bell ringers will tell you anecdotally that the poorest people seem to put the most money in the can. Those with cancer say that survivors offer the best support. Addicts find solace in pursuing recovery guided by other recovering addicts. Some staff in Catholic Charities, including sometimes those at St. Ambrose, have actually been homeless or near homeless as well.

I don’t wish poverty on a wider swath of people in the Commonwealth. But I do wish our sympathy could drive a constant and Commonwealth-wide response to poverty that reflected the depths of true empathy. I believe that is the depth of response Christ called us to, and that it would be transformational.


Tiziana C. Dearing is President of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Boston.

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