Pity and Compassion in Harlem

On our last day in New York, we spent the afternoon in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. We handed out water and juice (great for a near-100 degree day), sandwiches and cookies, clothing, and offered to pray with anyone who came by.

Some people were very thankful for our efforts, and some were not interested at all, but I did a few interesting responses. There was one lady who, when she found out what we were doing, began to encourage all the neighborhood people with whom she had contact to walk over and get some of what we were offering. And by “encourage,” I mean “order.” She brought young kids and adults, people to whom I think she was related and one about whom I’m not so sure. She would see people walking by in the park and if she recognized them she’d tell them to get over to where we were immediately. She’d tell them what she’d already seen that we had that they needed to get for themselves. And when a young man she knew seemed to be just in the way instead of doing what she had said, she was more than willing to shoo them off for us.

I learned something from that woman. Not so much about the people with whom she interacted, but about my view of those people and her interactions with them. I discovered the difference between Pity and Compassion. Pity told me to feel sorry for the people that came by (including the woman herself), and glad I could help them out in some small way. However, when the people were hesitant or suspicious of our group, or that woman became abrasive in her commanding of the people around her, or that young man was distracting us and interfering with my opportunities to pray for other people, Pity immediately told me to give up on them. Pity didn’t want to have anything to do with people who weren’t the epitome of pitiful. “God helps those who help themselves?” Well according to Pity, God only helps those who look like they’ll accept help the way we want to give it.

Compassion, on the other hand, couldn’t care less what pity has to say. Compassion cared about the people whether they responded to me with joyful acceptance or wary retreats. Compassion loved that woman who was determined to make sure that everyone in her circle of influence had the chance to participate in what we were offering. Compassion wanted to know more about the young man who wanted to know more about each of us out there that day. Compassion cared about the people, regardless of whether they cared about us.

Pity says, “I’ll give you what I think you need, but only as long as you act in a way that makes me think you need it.” Compassion says, “Regardless of how you act, I’ll offer you what I have to give, even if it’s not what either of us expected.” Pity’s story ends at the point of divergence; but that’s where Compassion’s story begins.

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