By Ajung Sojwal
One of the greatest tests that I face as a pastor is empathy. Not only for my parishioners, which is a natural expectation, but also for the one-legged homeless woman who parks her wheelchair right around the corner from our apartment building, shaking the few coins in her paper cup for all who care to hear, and the dust-covered 5-year-old Syrian boy against the brilliant red seat of the ambulance as he is readied to be taken from his bombed home to the hospital. Psychologists agree that empathy is essential for genuine human connections. Jesus probably had empathy in mind as one of the facets in the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Paul Parkin, on one of the TEDx talks says, “Empathy doesn’t make assumptions… Empathy forges communications that is inquisitive, that is non-judgmental, that is validating and compassionate.”
However, empathy does not well up easily when you are sitting with the fourth family in two months who have lost their loved one. Empathy is hard as you hug, again, the sobbing single mom who has had yet another abortion because every form of birth control makes her sick, she says. Empathy is hard as you pass around the peace in the sanctuary and you realize your 80-year-old Mrs. Smith is, as always, happier than most, not so much because of a great worship service, but because she is inebriated. But most of all, empathy is downright impossible when you try to be with someone in their pain and suddenly you realize you have become for them the very thing to fling their pain at.
For all the joys of being present for people in their time of celebrations and their cautious inquiry into Christian discipleship, there is nothing more formative for the priest than being present to someone in their sorrow of being a finite human being with all its pitfalls. To be able to peer into the agony of someone’s loss, someone’s shame and guilt, someone’s fear and anger, and someone’s helplessness is to find the courage to see myself in the pain-stricken eyes of the one who gives me the privilege to enter their vulnerability. I step into this ministry of presence with the reminder that this is the stuff of Jesus’ own incarnation amongst us. I pray that I too will find it in me, to allow another, a glimpse into my soul and see our shared efforts to summon a holy mandate to care. When all is said, it becomes profoundly clear that deep down we all yearn for one thing desperately: to be known and loved for exactly who we are.
Like a warm shower after battling the cold winter wind,
compassion washes over me from far above my armored heart.
From the crown of my head — drenching every single hair,
mingling with tears, finding every crack and dry patch;
unfurling my soul, hugging my guts and clearing my pores;
sweeping down in a torrent around my mud-caked feet,
I feel Jesus’ unfettered love; not just for me, not just for him;
but for us all who inhabit this fragile network of connections.
Such can only be divinity seeping into my callousness,
for this infinite flow of compassion to be shown,
for the one who falls yet again here in this pool of pain.
Here is where I dare hope in our healing — in
the presence of the one who climbs the ravine to find us.
The Rev. Ajung Sojwal is an Episcopal priest based in the Diocese of New York. Originally from the state of Nagaland, India. Currently, she lives in New York City with her husband and one of their daughters.