Five Circles of Christian Compassion
Poverty and homelessness are complex issues and for those of us in Community Service work, that complexity requires us to think about five circles of Christian compassion. At the center of each circle are our Christian values and at the outer edge of each circle are the boundaries of our compassion. Understanding the circles of compassion help us develop a Christian response and frees us from the paralysis of being unsure of the “right” and “wrong” action to take. In a series of articles, I want to explore the Christian response to human need.
Even in my brief tenure as the Executive Director of PACS, community members, faith leaders, and church members who are concerned about the poverty and homelessness that they see on the streets have asked me, “what can I do?” or “what can my church do?” Often the question is loaded. On one hand Christians understand the biblical ethos of compassion and service towards those who are poor, oppressed, and broken in spirit and, on the other hand, many have difficulty translating that compassion into action.
In this article, I overview five circles of compassion. Coming from a career in public health, I was trained in systems thinking and in the socioecological model of addressing social needs. I promise this is the only time I will ever use an eight-syllable word but it is a reference in case you want to study the idea further (see here). The socioecological model suggests that solving social problems, like poverty and homelessness, are complex and require solutions that help individuals and support their families, neighborhoods, communities as well as change community systems through public policy. When you superimpose the idea of biblical compassion on the socio-ecological model, we end up with five circles of Christian compassion.
Personal Compassion – A the most basic level, we are all member of the human race created in the image of God. Compassion is a gift we receive and give as we embrace our spiritual self (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Yet for many, understanding how to express compassion in the face of need can be challenging. When we encounter the person at the freeway entrance with a sign asking for help, are approached by a “panhandler” who is “working” the crowd at a bus stop, or we pass by a homeless woman with a shopping cart full of belonging, our compassion cries out to help. At the same time, we are conflicted with thoughts ranging from “how can my $1 bill possibly help,” to “I bet this person is just looking for drug money.” At times, the competing thoughts in our head paralyze us. Welcome to the first circle of compassion.
In this circle, connecting with those in need on a human level is important. From a smile to asking a person their name, to offering encouraging words and perhaps a prayer, these are all acts of compassion. Compassion is first and foremost about connection. But in this circle, we must also reflect on where our compassionate help starts and where does it end. Personal compassion has boundaries. For some, the boundary may be to offer to buy a person food rather than give cash. Others might give cash with predetermined limits. Others may carry hygiene kits (see here) or non-perishable food bags to give away. One can also have 211 Info’s app on his/her cell phone to help individuals locate organizational support nearby (see here),
Church Compassion – The second circle of compassion is at the door of your church. When God’s people come together, it is important to respond to needs of your neighborhood and community. While the economics of many cities concentrate poverty in zip codes or census tracts (see here), most churches, regardless of location, confront human needs related to poverty as people walk through the door. Here again, providing compassion requires a human connection. Perhaps an invitation for the individual to stay for a potluck or offering a place to plug in a cell phone charger are simple ways to invite human connection.
In this circle of compassion, a church must actively discuss the boundaries of its collective action. Do you distribute nonperishable food box or grocery gift cards, hygiene kits, or give out local bus tickets? Are there circumstances where you would pay for a hotel room. Do you have a dedicated church ministry to the poor? What does it include? Again, there are no right and wrong answers. There are only intentional answers that are supported by a written church policy.
PACS/Agency Compassion – For Seventh-day Adventists in the Portland metro area, the third circle of compassion is here at PACS. At PACS we extend the work of individual churches by offering long term support to some of the highest poverty communities in our city. PACS provides the ability to leverage volunteers, donations, and partnerships with other community nonprofits to enable us to provide food to over 6,000 adults and children monthly and provide adults with health services and low-cost thrift goods (clothing and household items). Again, we start with relationships and tangibly provide ongoing support for many families and individuals.
In this circle, the individual Christian can also engage. Time, expertise, donations, and prayer are four tangible things you can do. I encourage you to explore our website for opportunities to engage or to stop by PACS for a tour.
As a side note, there are limits to our compassion at PACS too. We can offer little who show up at our door addicted to drugs, with mental health challenges, or other complex social needs like housing, or a safe place as a person is fleeing domestic violence. We are simply not equipped to support complex needs. Fortunately, there are two more circles of compassion.
Community Compassion – The fourth circle of compassion is the compassion of the broader network of social service agencies. Too often faith-based ministries are insular and operate in a vacuum. When we recognize that there is an extensive network of compassionate agencies working to solve the endemic problems such as poverty and homelessness then our ability to impact change is magnified. While some might label other social service agencies as “secular” and may disagree with the cultural underpinnings of their work, we, as a community, are in it together. Your compassion can engage in this circle as well. Learning about the programs and impacts of other agencies can better equip your compassion. Volunteering and/or donating to other agencies further extends your compassion. For example, in addition to my work and support of PACS, I donate monthly to two rural nonprofits that work with those in poverty. These include a homeless youth shelter, and an agency providing transitional housing for veterans, and families.
Public Policy Compassion – The final circle of compassion is the compassion of public policy. Our Christian compassion must be active in public policy. Disclaimer: I am a big believer in the Johnson Amendment and the SDA Church commitment not to jump into the political fray (see here). We are in a highly charged and polarized political environment that focuses too much on political leaders and party labels. Nonprofits and churches must insulate themselves from becoming partisan –left or right. At the same time, this does not absolve us from being engaged in public policy. Compassion must get beyond the cult of politics and engage in thinking about the direction of our public policies contrasted against the biblical principles of justice and mercy. Public policies and government budgets are moral documents. Hubert H. Humphrey once said that “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life — the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” Our compassion must extend to personally paying attention to public policy, communicating with our political leaders, and engaging in activities to elect candidates supporting compassionate public policies.
With this brief outline of the five circles of compassion, my goal is to help equip is us with a wider range of thinking about compassion. I once read a quote that said, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Hopefully, you can see space in every circle where we can learn, engage and contribute to the solution of complex social needs.
So, I invite you to join our community of service and, remember, your thoughts are welcome.