On Pity and Compassion

"What in the world am I doing here in Ethiopia?" I wondered, as I rode in the jeep with missionary doctor, Dr. Harold Adolph.

Our motor vehicle was the only one in sight. Slowly, we navigated our way through a sea of pedestrians, ox carts, and chickens, down the dirt road into in the village of Soddo. It was just as if I had been plucked from the northwoods and dropped into a National Geographic documentary on Africa.

Arriving at the clinic, we got emerged from the jeep, and were immediately met with hundreds of needy people seeking medical attention. Most had been waiting for hours to see the doctor. Many would have to wait much longer. I saw a grieving mother, holding a lifeless infant in her arms. She looked at me with pleading eyes. I looked away.

The immensity of poverty and human suffering was absolutely overwhelming. Never, in all my life, had I witnessed such need, and felt so powerless to do anything about it.

A grotesque begger approached me. One eye and most of his teeth were missing. The horrible stench was almost unbearable. He reached a gnarled, upturned hand towards me. I looked away and pretended he wasn't there.

Dr. Adolph, observing our interaction, came up beside me. He smiled, reached in his pocket and gave the poor man a few coins. Then, with a caring touch, he spoke a few kind words of blessing. The beggar beamed, as if he had just been touched by Jesus.

Maybe that's what happened. Maybe I witnessed a miracle.

Later, back in the jeep, I questioned Dr. Adolph. "How do you do it? How can you find the strength to deal with this every day?"

He answered, "I just try to remember what our Lord said, 'When you've done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me'."

And that day, I learned the difference between pity and compassion. Pity emphasizes the distance between people. Compassion, on the other hand, is a bridge of blessing that brings us all together.


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