I heard an interview last month on NPR with the musician Will.i.am about the remake he had done of the Black Eyed Peas’ song “Where is the Love?“, a song that was written shortly after 9-11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq as a prayer of sorts—a way to talk about what was happening in the world and ask the question, “Where is the love?”
The new version was written this year in response to much of the turmoil and conflicts that have arisen in cities across the country around issues of race, injustice, and the places in our world where institutional racism have caused us to take a hard look at what is happening around us.
When asked by the interviewer what the solution might be, Will.i.am said that while there were no simple answers, one of the challenges in the world today is the lack of empathy—we don’t learn how to be empathetic, and we have a hard time understanding what it means to have empathy towards other people’s situations.
I’ve been thinking about empathy and how we as youth leaders might help our students develop a sense of it in their lives. I came across a video by Brene Brown about the difference between sympathy and empathy. She equates it to seeing someone who has fallen into a hole—who is in pain, who is sad and hurting. A sympathetic person may offer help, but it’s from a distance, it doesn’t make a true connection, and it often doesn’t take into account what the person actually needs or what the problem might actually be.
In contrast, the empathetic person sees the person in the hole, climbs down there with them and sits by them—not necessarily offering advice or solutions, but abides with them in their pain, is willing to feel with them what it is like to be hurting, is willing to make a connection between the other person’s pain and their own, and to sit with that.
Empathy is hard. It requires us to get real with our own pain and hurt, and to be in the moment with someone else’s. It’s uncomfortable—it forces us to listen to the stories and experiences of other, to feel their pain, to be present to their experiences. Often we would rather just try and help to ‘fix’ their problem, rather than admit that maybe what is more important is to just be present. Or, we think it’s easier to just walk away and ignore the problems to begin with.
I think that Will.i.am is right when he talks about the need for more empathy in the world, and as I work with my students and we talk about the challenges in our communities today, I have to recognize that it might be easier to ignore the problems that surround us, to not have the difficult conversations, and to not address the need for change. Ours is a predominately white congregation in a suburb of Milwaukee, one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. It would be easier to ignore the needs of communities just beyond our own and believe that it is not our issue. But I believe God is calling us to change our understanding of who is in our community, of who we should be in relationship with, of what it means to love our neighbors.
Change is difficult, but I’ve learned that change comes with practice. It is the act of practicing that brings us closer to change—practicing conversation, practicing relationship, and practicing empathy. John Wesley once said, “Preach faith until you have it.”
We aren’t going to solve big problems right away, we won’t always say the right thing or do the right thing, and as my youth continue to examine the ways that we understand and are a part of the challenges of institutional racism in our community, there will be times when we want to walk away from the conversation. But like the process of showing empathy, it is more important for us to practice the art of being present than to find something that looks like an easy answer.
At a community forum last week where clergy and community leaders gathered to continue conversation on creating change in Milwaukee after the unrest that occurred in Sherman Park this past summer, one youth center program director spoke about his work with his students. “I tell my students that whenever they are not sure about how to create change in a particular situation to ask themselves, ‘What can I do to make a positive difference in the community?’ and then to do that. Then, to ask others around you—‘What can you do to make a positive difference in the community?’’’
It begins with us first—our willingness to practice our faith through loving others, through difficult conversations, through developing relationships—and then we have the opportunity to challenge those around us (especially our students) to do the same.
(“Changing hearts and lives” is the theme of the 2017 Progressive Youth Ministry Conference. Check it out and get tickets here.)