Compassion means to feel “with” another person. Compassion is the basis for ministry, for even if we cannot feel like another person or group, we can still feel with. Compassion is not the child of sympathy, but rather the offspring of love.
I do not know what poverty feels like. I have never been poor a day in my life. To posture myself like a poor person is pretense for me and an insult to them. But compassion does not ask me to pretend, it calls me to care. I do not have to try to imagine what it feels like to be poor, I only have to envision myself caring for those who are.
One way the saints of the ages have taught us to increase our compassion is to draw from similar experiences. For example, I have never lost a home, but I have lost a friend. I have not been shunned because of my race, but I have been shunned because of my faith. As we enter the experiences that we have had, we find bridges into the experiences others are having. Empathy can emerge from similarity; it does not require an identical experience.
Compassion essentially means not being willing to leave another person alone in whatever situation they find themselves in. Whether in large or small ways, direct ways or indirect ways, seen ways or unseen ways–we act on behalf of someone else.
Compassion is the basis for ministry because it is what enables to hear the cry of the needy, the lament of the marginalized. It is what turns invisible people into flesh and bone–it is what transforms separation into embrace. It is what makes the stranger known and the enemy a friend.
Compassion is God getting us past the artificial, demeaning barrier of having to know what others feel like in order to care about them. Compassion is the response to grace which moves us to be with others, because we share a common humanity, the recognition that I am connected in some way to everyone I meet.