Empathy Means Stepping Out

Which comes first in your parish–Believe, Belong, or Behave?
Are people expected to conform to a certain (hidden at times!) code of behaviors about where kids are sent to school, how one dresses, or what kind of music you listen to–before you can really fit in? Or, is it about belief–that if you’re not ready and able to say the right things, to have the faith that moves mountains–well, um, then you probably shouldn’t be here.
In Divine Renovation, Fr. James Mallon observes that the order of these three words matters in our parish life. All people–the unchurched, cradle Catholics, atheists, on-fire-evangelizers, agnostic relatives visiting for the weekend–all people have a desire to be loved and experience belonging. It’s written on our hearts, as we’re made in the likeness of God, who is perfect love and communion of three persons.
It’s nice to talk about belonging, but how do we make it a lived experience for more people? It’s a tough question to tackle, because it’s beyond something merely intellectual. We can’t think our way into creating an environment where another person actually feels that they belong.
Chris Adkins, director of the Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, writes about integrating our cognition, emotion, and motivation to be truly empathetic–a key for belonging. Adkins writes:

an empathetic response isn’t simply sympathy — feeling for someone. It also isn’t compassion — feeling with someone. Empathy means feeling as someone and thinking as someone.

The word “seeing” is also important because it focuses on imagining another’s experience.

“Empathy involves your imagination, seeing another and their world, in your mind’s eye,” he says. “Can you actually walk into their world and see what they see, hear what they hear?” [Read the rest, here…]

True empathy motivates helping others, improves our communication with various groups and individuals, identify “blind spots,” and in the end, stay curious about learning from the people around us. Empathy is essential for belonging. When we leverage our thinking and emotions to truly “walk into” another’s world, that’s when people least likely to experience belonging suddenly “fit in,” they suddenly belong, and it’s got nothing to do with changing of beliefs or behavior.

As evangelizers, we’re all called to take that step into another person’s world. To not hold back. To not settle for nice feelings or good intentions, but to extend empathy so that every person we talk to feels a greater sense of belonging, from us as individuals and within our broader Christian communities.

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Reiss Vermeulen, M.Div., M.N.A., blogs, ministers in parish life and lay/deacon formation, and serves as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. She and her husband, Luke, have been married since 2011 and live in Ypsilanti, MI with their two young sons.

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