Walking & Driving To Empathy
I had been serving as the Vicar and Executive Director of LOTS for just over a year when I had two experiences in a 5 day period that changed me profoundly.
That autumn of 2016 my wife and I had opportunity to make a quick trip to New York City where our youngest and her family live. I had been dealing with plantar fasciitis, but still chose to wear some loose fitting, no-tie shoes to make it easier to navigate airport security. When we arrived we were surprised and delighted to find our school-age granddaughters there to greet us – allowed to skip afternoon classes to have an outing with us. Without changing any clothing, or shoes, we dropped our luggage and spent the next four hours walking from place to place. That night I could tell my feet hurt more than they had for weeks. And the next day, and for the next 5 days, I was in extreme pain. The shoes I wore had not provided adequate support for the distances we walked.
I arrived home to Houston that Saturday evening and, as usual, was up a bit before 5am the next morning in order to meet with our Sunday worship service volunteer core team at 6:15am. It was pouring rain, with extremely limited visibility in the still dark hours of the morning. Upon leaving my office to drive the ½ block to the parking lot, I stopped at the intersection, strained my eyes in search of vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and lightly pushed the gas pedal. I never saw her. One of my homeless neighbors, covered in black plastic garbage bags in an attempt to stay dry, had been invisible to me. Hearing a thump, I stopped, jumped out even while in the intersection, wondering if my car had hit her. Through the pelting rain I shouted, “I’m so very sorry. Did I hit you?” She didn’t answer my question, and instead hurled salty invectives my way before slowly moving on. I was shaken and in tears when I got to the church, still unsure if I had hurt her.
Seeking a spot of isolation 15 minutes prior to the start of our 7am service, several thoughts occurred to me. I decided to begin the service not with a prayer, but with an inquiry and a confession based on my reflections. “I have a couple of questions I want to ask you before we start the worship service, and I want you to tell me the truth with your answers.” Even the ones who were accustomed to laying on a pew and heading to sleep sat up, curious about where I was going with this. “Here’s my first question. How many of you are wearing shoes that don’t really fit you, or they are so broken down they cover the outside of your foot but they make walking difficult?” Heads nodded and hands shot up and more than a few uttered something akin to “You know it.” “I’m sad about that,” I said, “because I know most of you rely on walking as your primary means of transportation. So, let me ask a follow-up question related to that. How many of you experience pain in your feet on a regular basis?” Roughly half the room of 160 -170 people indicated that was their reality. “One last question”, I requested. “How many of you have ever been almost hit or have been hit by a car when crossing a street?” Again a large number let me know it happened to them … including one woman at the back of the sanctuary who shouted, “Just this morning some fool almost hit me.”
With more than sadness, I shared why I asked.
“This week I was with family in NYC. Walking is a way of life for many of that city’s residents. I had worn loose fitting shoes and didn’t change to better ones for walking before we ventured out as soon as we arrived. For the next five days, and even this morning, my feet are in pretty extreme pain. It occurred to me, 'this might be what my LOTS neighbors have to endure every day.' Then early this morning, even though I was trying to be very careful, I was driving in the pouring rain and I didn’t see someone walking in the intersection until it was too late. I still don’t know whether or not I hit her with my car, and I feel sick about it. But another thought occurred to me: 'I wonder how many of my LOTS neighbors are simply not seen, whether in daylight or dim light, and have been hit or almost hit by those of us driving the roadways?'"
“So,” I continued, “I want to say two things to you this morning: First, I hate that you hurt from all the walking so many of you do in shoes that don’t support your feet enough for all the wear and tear you put them through. From now on, I promise that whenever I feel the pain from my foot condition, I will pray for you and not just complain about my hardship. And I will regularly ask donors to make good footwear available at LOTS as part of our clothing ministry. The second thing I want to say to you is this: On behalf of myself and all the other drivers in Houston who simply don’t see you, for whom you are invisible for whatever reason, and who have endangered you while you’re walking, I am so very sorry and I ask your forgiveness.”
After the service, I had dozens of our neighbors make a point to speak with me, thanking me for showing that I understood and that I cared. More than a few simply hugged me…and held on rather than offering a quick and light embrace. And one woman, from the back of the sanctuary, with rolled up black plastic bags under her arms, waited to be the last and simply said, “Thank you for what you said. I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier and called you names. I forgive you for almost hitting me, and I ask you to forgive me for cursing you.”
I came to LOTS in 2015 fully realizing that most of the circumstances of my life had been far different than those of the homeless neighbors I would be doing life and ministry with. But I also came convinced that if I was authentic, transparent, and willing to listen and learn, God could and would transform me while building substantive connections between my homeless neighbors and me. I’m convinced that this is true for any and all of us.
The only way to ever truly engage in “relationally-focused ministry” (from our LOTS Mission Statement) is from the wellspring of empathy – when moments of insight allow us to glimpse what life is like for another person and we let that glimpse change our mind and soften our heart. One of our prayers for LOTS is that “walking in another’s shoes” will be more than a slogan, but a reality that permeates the very atmosphere of our shared life and ministries.