Hannah Coe: Everyday Theology: Compassion as a Catalyst

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July 7, 2016. I dropped both girls at school. The NPR show On Point came on the radio as I left my last school drop-off. On Point is a show hosted by Tom Ashbrook that looks into pressing issues of the time and is conversational in style (panel discussion, call-ins, etc.). Since I’m usually running late (does anyone else feel like they’ve survived WWIII after they drop off the last child?), I hear the first 30 minutes or so of On Point.

The topic of the day was originally to be on the shooting death of Alton Sterling on July 6, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But the shooting of Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota on the night of July 6 was added to the On Point discussion. As the show’s host and panel guests for the day reviewed and discussed the video footage of the shooting of Alton Sterling and the moments after the shooting of Philando Castile, it was as if these shootings happened before their very eyes. Even as the host and panel discussed the day’s questions, breaking news rolled in. Disbelief and horror rang in their voices. They could not believe what they were seeing and hearing.

I could not believe what I was hearing. I drove to the wrong place. Scheduled to do weekly hospital visits, I drove to the church and realized, only after parking my car, I wasn’t where I meant to be.

Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend, narrated for the world the moments after her boyfriend was fatally shot. Her voice was calm and direct. She became upset once in the back of a police car. In the background, we can hear the voice of her four year old daughter say, “It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you.”

It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you…

It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you…

It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you….

The words ring in my heart. They ring, and they do not stop ringing.

They are beautiful because they are words of compassion, mercy, and empathy. They are words I hope this four-year-old little girl has heard over and over and over again from someone who loves her very much, hearing them so often, they came out of her mouth when she saw her mother in pain. Because that’s what you do when someone is in pain. You show compassion, mercy, and empathy. These are Christ’s words, are they not? We can hear them coming from his heart, because Christ, our Companion, is here with us, here with that little girl, here with Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds.

It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you…

The words ring in my heart and they change me. I’m not good with chemistry, but compassion is a catalyst, is it not? Compassion urges, encourages, and births impossible transformation. The words tell me that things must change. And I must be a part of the change. I have known this for a long time.

But on July 7, 2016, compassion urged my imagination to see my black, male friends dying in the front seat of that car. Friends, colleagues, brothers who prayed for me at my ordination, sat next to me in seminary class, walked me to my car after class because it was dark, and joked with me on Facebook about the hilarity of life with young children.

Compassion urged my imagination to put myself in the passenger seat, my worst fears coming to fruition–fearing for my life, fearing for my future, fearing for my child, damned if I do and damned if I don’t. Compassion urged my imagination to see my four year old daughter in the back seat of that car. Compassion tells me things must change. Friends, they must change.

I must do compassion and mercy and empathy. I must do the ministry of reconciliation. Just when I feel like it doesn’t matter anymore, I must remember that it really does matter.

It really does matter.

I am praying each day about how God calls me to be a part of change in my community, in my country, in the world. I am praying each day about how to use the privileges I’m afforded to work for justice and for reconciliation. I am praying each day about how I am called to share compassion, mercy, and empathy. I am praying, praying, praying.

I am going to town hall meetings, forums, and other places where I can listen and learn and (somehow) join my voice to build bridges and build hope. I am dreaming up curriculum and planning conversations with children’s ministry leaders in our church in hopes that we can be intentional about teaching the explicit commands of Christ to love our neighbors. I want us to be honest and real about the problems of this world (because children know about them anyway) and to be direct in our conversations about race, class, ethnicity, and the love of Jesus which transcends all those boundaries (cause, yeah, children really believe that, they just need to know adults do, too).

Today I need to tell you that it really does matter. I need to tell you that it really does matter because I need to hear it. I want to tell you because maybe you need to hear it too. Wherever you are on your journey of motherhood and ministry, right now, today, what you are doing matters. Every word. Every hug. Every act of service. Every gracious response. Every explanation of “Katherine, how would it make you feel if Annalina took that toy from you? Sad? Maybe we can find a different way to share toys.” With every act of compassion, mercy, and empathy, the ground becomes more fertile, the seeds are spread, and God’s Dream grows a little more.

I must teach it to my children by telling, doing, and sharing it with them. I must tell it to them over and over and over again, believing that it will come out of their mouths and the very living of their lives. This four year old girl is changing me with her words of compassion. That could have been my little girl in my back seat

Another layer to this story is that I’d selected Luke 10:25-37, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, to preach on the coming Sunday and had spent significant time meditating on the word “mercy” as used by the lawyer to describe the one who was a neighbor. That Thursday morning I had nearly settled on what one scholar calls a Christological reading of the text. A reading in which we picture Christ as the man lying half-dead on the side of the road, in need of mercy. A reading in which the lawyer, and we, are able to see ourselves as the man lying half-dead on the side of the road, in need of mercy. This reading of the text speaks to the world’s deep and desperate need for compassion, mercy, and empathy. This reading of the text gives us eyes to see one another for who we really are: human, which is to be created and loved by God.

There is no ribbon to neatly bind this reflection. No color-coded arrangement that will organize or make sense of the injustice before our eyes. It is what it is. Ugly. Unjust. Unceasing.

The traditions of our faith tell us more than once that we must see the world with double-vision. As it is and as it must be. I’ll admit that seeing the world with double-vision leaves me feeling dizzy and sick to my stomach. Though discouraged, the calling is ever-stronger. Practice compassion. Follow the way of mercy. Work for justice in a spirit of love.

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A Georgia native and graduate of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, Hannah Coe serves as Associate Pastor of Children and Families at First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Missouri.  Hannah and her husband, David, are parents to Katherine and Annalina. They enjoy playing, eating, and the occasional nap.

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