While leading a worship service I encouraged the congregation to think about ways to make people with disabilities feel welcome. I praised them for several things they were doing well, and I pointed out several areas for improvement such as making pew cutouts for people who use wheelchairs. After the service, one man defended his church, “If someone comes in a wheelchair, he can sit in the front.”
I wonder, “What if the person using a wheelchair does not want to sit in the front? What if he wants to sit next to his family?”
It seems that these questions did not occur to this man. I don’t think he lacked compassion, but I do suspect that he lacked empathy for people with disabilities.
Empathy is a perspective, a decision, and a skill to reach outside of yourself to connect with someone else.
People who practice empathy put the Golden Rule into action. “Hmmm, I like to sit with my family and choose where we sit when we worship. Probably people who use wheelchairs would want to make the same kinds of choices. Maybe our church should make pew cutouts several places in our sanctuary to give wheelchair users a choice where they want to sit.”
Here are a few more examples of empathy.
“I don’t like to be referred to as ‘the bald man.’ I prefer that people call me by name. Maybe I should do the same for Charlie instead of calling him ‘the Downs boy.’”
“I want my kids included in Sunday school. Our church needs to make sure that Jenna, who has autism, participates in Sunday school too.”
Deciding to see life from some else’s point of view takes work. A good starting point is to ask others, humbly, what life is like for them. Ask Jenna’s parents to describe a typical day. Ask what Jenna likes and dislikes, what makes her sing and what makes her cry.
Exercising godly imagination also grows empathy. “I wonder how I would feel if I had a Master’s degree in engineering, but no one would hire me because I have cerebral palsy.”
The more different someone’s experience is from our own, the more difficult empathy becomes. How do you empathize with a person who has paranoid schizophrenia or someone who cannot speak or show emotion? Spending time with someone else, even if he can’t talk with you, helps to grow empathy. So does prayer. Pray that God will open your heart to people whose experiences and life are different from your own. Pray that God will give you greater empathy.
(This article first appeared in Hope Network Ministries, volume 6, issue 1, Winter 2010.)