A Grain of Compassion

rice distributionI was preparing to cook rice the other day when some grains overflowed the scoop and fell to the floor. As I reached for the broom, a memory halted my hand. It was my first year working in refugee resettlement. We had prepared an apartment for the arrival of a refugee family by furnishing each room and stocking the kitchen. When the family arrived that evening, we brought them to their new apartment and showed them around. Upon entering the kitchen, the mother eyed a large bag of rice on the countertop. Tears overflowed her eyes. I asked if something was wrong, wondering if, perhaps, it was the wrong kind of rice.

She explained that she had been living in the refugee camp for 16 years. During this time, she said, they would get “this much rice for the week,” nodding down at her tightly cupped outstretched hands. Then, motioning with pinched fingers, she demonstrated how she would divide the grains of rice so that each family member would have a few for each day of the week. It was about a cup of rice for a whole week for a family of four for 16 years. Hers were tears of gratitude for long-awaited relief from starvation.

A different kind of tears welled up in my own eyes. How was I to respond? What words could I even say? I didn’t know any way to deal gracefully with the pain that her recollection caused me as a mother and as a fellow human being. And this part of her story was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the painful stories I would hear over the years. Every time I hear a refugee’s story, I have the same reaction: “We are all human! How can we treat each other this way?”

In a recent OpEd in the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks of the de-humanization of those unexpectedly finding themselves with the label “refugee.” In his characteristically eloquent and piercingly truthful style, he writes, “…refugees are the zombies of the world, the undead who rise from dying states to march or swim toward our borders in endless waves.” He speaks of his own arrival in the U.S. as a refugee child as a time when “the world thought us to be less than human.”

How is it that when we give a person the appellation of “refugee” we often forget our shared humanity? How have we forgotten that where we are born—into peace or strife—is simply the “luck of the draw?” And how do we forget that we are all created by God, in the image and likeness of God, and this endows each of our lives with a value and dignity that must be respected?

Pope Francis’s universal prayer intention for September is for a society “that puts the human person at its center.” He warns that “humanity is experiencing a crisis” that is not only related to the economy but a crisis that is “ecological, educational, moral, and human.”

In his advocacy for refugees and others on the margins, Pope Francis renews St. Ignatius’s call to enter into the suffering of Christ. In the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius invites us to contemplate the Passion. He urges us not just to reflect on Christ’s pain and suffering conceptually from afar, but to enter right into it with him. We are advised not to flee from the uncomfortable feelings that arise within us, but rather to listen and sit with them and stay with Christ. And so arises the spiritual fruit of compassion as we “suffer with” Christ. The Cross invites us to stay and accompany Christ in each suffering person, outcast and alone, despite the urge to flee when we start to feel their pain.

Pope Francis has given us some serious food for thought. How can we create a society “that puts the human person at its center”? How can we answer the call to practice compassion in the world today? Where are those people on the margins in my life, my community, and the world that are suffering? In what ways might I accompany these, my fellow travelers, on their journey?

Our action on these responses shall, quite literally, change the world.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I would go back to the moment when she reached for the broom and ask a simple question: Do you now pick up the tiny grains of rice and use them, rather than sweep them up and throw them away, without thinking? I wonder if we can say we have truly been touched, when our daily habits are changed profoundly, as a result of the “cultural encounters” we have with persons living “on the edge” such as refugees, the poor, and others who are marginalized in our world. Is this an important question for us all to ask? I wonder.

  2. It is beyond my comprehension a cup of rice for a week for sixteen years. As an Australian not accepting illegal refugees when we accept some many legally. What is the answer when we see some many drowning the Mediterranean.

  3. What a lovely reflection. We are all connected and yet there is so much disconnect! May we remember that the face of the refugee, the marginalized, could be ours!

  4. Wow !!! This was touching to my very soul. Thank you for this!!! God help us to reach out and help our refugees among us . Amen

    • I strongly disagree that is “the luck of the draw.” Each of is individually created by God in His image through a deliberate act of His will. Each of us is individually gifted. While traveling some years ago along the Egyptian Nile, I was told that those people existing in poverty along that river, looked at us tourists as impoverished by our wanderlust and searching. The Egyptians believed we toured because we lacked foundation and family connection.
      The realization that we are gifted differently should lead to a profound gratitude to God for our gifts as well as a inquiry in to how others recognize their individual gifts from God. When we see refugees as children of God with individual gifts and grace from God, we dignify them.

  5. The writer’s deep compassion for others just flows from her words.
    The refugee woman and her family who, for 16 years, had so little food finally were able to eat abundantly. All because others reached out to help. We are all connected. Thank you for this reflection, Rebecca..

  6. Thank you for the “Grain of Compassion” reminder. How can we get people to feel compassion for these poor souls, when so many are treating them as if they are criminals for wanting a normal life for their Families. Where I live , it is a Subject that causes so much angst, when raised. These are Catholic people too. Our Prime Minister is a convert and he, plus many politicians are Catholics, but don’t even sound like Christians; when they talk about protecting our borders. Dear God, WE live on a continent (Surrounded by water) & he is at present instructing Europe about keeping out those fleeing from war. It would be funny, if it wasn’t so tragic! Maybe you won’t print this , but at least I have put it in writing. There but for the Grace of God, it could be any one of us. I don’t know the answer. Just don’t try and come to Australia by any leaky boat please. My thoughts and prays and what money I can give to help is with you.

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