Empathy is a way of feeling one’s way into the experience of another person—of seeing the world through their eyes and feeling the world through their heart. Experiencing deep empathy can be difficult. At times it’s painful, exhausting, and feels like a burden, but I believe such willingness to enter into the chaos of those in need is a critical part being an effective helper, as well as an indispensable part of what holds a community together in the face of adversity.
I’ve been thinking about the role of empathy in our organization a lot lately. We exist because there are caring people like you who make our work possible, and much of your support embodies a habit of highly empathetic people: the desire to seek social change—to make the world a better place. As such, we’ve heard from some of Good Shepherd’s most passionate supporters that they want to know more about what we’re seeing in the community right now and what we’re doing to keep hope alive for those we serve.
Almost daily, our Good Shepherd team witnesses the inequities that exist within our community, inequities that have only become magnified during the pandemic. A disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases and deaths are in communities of color. This is not because dark skin is a factor in how the virus operates. Rather, it’s a function of the fact that in the U.S., and especially in St. Louis, skin color negatively predicts income and socioeconomic status as well as access to quality healthcare, good education, healthy food, safe neighborhoods, productive employment, and stable housing. As an agency that works primarily with people in poverty, this racial disparity is not a surprise to us. We already know that skin color predicts who is more likely to need our services; what has been startling to watch is how impossible it is for our clients to protect themselves during the pandemic.
When facing harsh realities like the presence of endemic racism in our society, it is important to put ourselves in the shoes of those we serve and let it strengthen our dedication to help. In the spirit of that sort of empathy, Good Shepherd developed and our Board unanimously approved a Commitment to Racial Equity policy in 2019 because we realized that the business of helping the poor is also the business of working to end racism.
This policy started to take shape in 2018, when we began separating some of our key program outcomes by race to see if inequities in society also existed with regard to the impact of our programs. After two years, I am extremely proud to share that although skin color appears to predict who needs our services, it does not appear to predict who succeeds in our program. In our own way, we are helping to level the playing field for those we serve.
Yes, empathy can be uncomfortable, even painful. However, empathy is precisely what we need to help us focus our collective attention on where help is needed most and make the world a better place for everyone. We are all, after all, equal in the eyes of God.
We are deeply grateful for your support of our mission to connect children with families and keep families connected. Thank you for being willing to feel your way into the experience of those in desperate need.
Yours in Christ,
Michael P. Meehan, Ph.D.