Recently a friend sent me one of those broadcast emails with the sarcastic subject line “Detroit is Making a Comeback.” The message contained nine photos presumably taken in Motor City. None was flattering. They showed business signs with misspellings and grammar mistakes like “We open” and “Closed—Out of Meet.” Some were offensive: a fat woman with the words “Child Support” tattooed across her buttocks, a second woman wearing large earrings that said “Trust No Bitch.”
There were more, but I’ll spare you the details. A comment introducing the pictures read, “Corrupt politics, handouts, and dysfunctional family units will get you this in a short while.”
I can’t tell you exactly what led to Detroit’s monumental problems, although corrupt politics and drugs certainly played major roles. I do know, however, that similar photos could have been taken in numerous U.S. cities—Camden, for example, or New York or Oakland. And the coal country of West Virginia, although the citizens portrayed there would be white. The Detroit residents shown were all black. Most of us seldom encounter poor people of any race, because we don’t venture into poor neighborhoods.
I’ve spent time in Detroit. I’ve seen the blight and hopelessness. But I’ve also met people there who are working with the poor—and in the process creating miracles. More on that in a moment. First, a word about empathy, that cornerstone of Seva.
In an October 2013 New York Times column, the psychologist Daniel Goleman writes that the amount of attention paid by rich people to poor people has reached a near historic low. Before you can feel empathy for others, Goleman notes, you must try to understand their pain.
That’s incredibly difficult to do, especially when dealing in stereotypes. The ugliness portrayed in the Detroit photos is not uncommon in American society. What do most of us do when confronted with it? Hold our noses and turn away. I’m guilty of this too.
Goleman ends his column with these words:
“Since the 1970s, the gap between the rich and everyone else has skyrocketed. Income inequality is at its highest level in a century. This widening gulf between the haves and have-less troubles me, but not for the obvious reasons. Apart from the financial inequities, I fear the expansion of an entirely different gap, caused by the inability to see oneself in a less advantaged person’s shoes. Reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy.” The link to the column is here.
Two years ago I had the privilege of spending time with the Rev. Faith Fowler, a Methodist minister and the executive director of Cass Community Social Services, a charity that’s working to create an oasis of safety and prosperity in Detroit’s notorious Cass Corridor. Empathy is one of Rev. Fowler’s guiding principles. Employing humor is a close second. The stories about her work at Cass are incredible; I’ve devoted a chapter to her in my new book.
Fowler’s staff and volunteers turn abandoned buildings into housing for the homeless, offer care and training to mentally disabled people, clean up trash, create jobs, and make lives whole again. They accomplish all this with ingenuity and hard work. But above all else, they take time to see the people inside even the least attractive bodies—their worthiness, and their gorgeous human spark. As Father Greg Boyle says, Fowler and company keep seeing the inner value that their clients don’t see in themselves, until they do.
There’s no doubt I’d be stunned if confronted by an overweight woman with “child support” tattooed on her buttocks. Why would anyone stoop to that, much less wear her pants so low that the words can be seen? I’m working to reach the point where my first reaction isn’t, “How disgusting,” but rather, “Hmmm . . . I wonder what that’s about?” What makes that person happy or sad? Who loves her? What are her strengths? And is there anything I’m being called to do to serve her gracefully?
This is in no way easy. But above all else, selfless service is a spiritual practice. It begins with changes in me.
I encourage you to learn about Rev. Fowler’s work in Detroit at www.casscommunity.org.