Shared Grief and Shared Compassion

I heard the word of God come through the book of Job. I sat in a classroom at Memphis Theological Seminary and God’s word described those considered outcasts. With minimal paraphrase, Job 30:5-8 gave a harshly accurate and contemporary description of people labeled “homeless.”

“They were forced to live away from people;
people shouted at them as if they were thieves.
They lived under bridges,
in cat-holes, and among abandoned buildings.
They cried out like dogs in a junkyard
and huddled together in illicit campsites.
They are deemed worthless people without names
and were forced to leave the neighborhood.”

When Job spoke these words, he tried to set himself above and apart from those he described. But through suffering, he learned compassion born of the solidarity of shared humanity. He came to listen and learn from people on the margins. Suffering “de-centered” Job so that he could both hear God and become compassionate. That is what I learned in the classroom.

On Thursday morning, the word of God came as I and other volunteers prayed with our guests gathered on the front porch of Manna House. In prayer, we placed before God the grief of those who live in the way Job described. The guests who come to Manna House live that life and carry that grief. They are pushed away, despised, and disrespected. They are seen as other than human, as wild dogs or feral cats, dirty, and disgusting. They arrive tired and cold from the places where they fitfully slept in the abandoned nooks and crannies of the city. We prayed in recognition of this grief, calling for God’s loving justice.

Then in our prayer we went a step further. We placed before God the additional grief our guests carry, which is the grief of human loss we all share. Talk with any one of our guests, and the stories of loss spill forth. They are stories any one of us might be able to tell. Loss of parents, caregivers, spouses, friends, jobs, sanity, sobriety, health. But for our guests, their stories are made worse by the fragile social safety net they already experienced in poverty, which unraveled under the weight of such loss.

Yet there is the human connection of loss and grief. Neither volunteers nor guests are immune to the vulnerability of human life. We cannot change the reality that we lose those we care about and love. And we, too, will get sick, our bodies fail us as we age, and death will come to us as certainly as to all who live.

So we prayed from the shared grief in our hearts to the loving heart of God. Heads bowed in recognition that yes, we are in this together. Touch us God with your healing love. Help us embrace our shared vulnerability. Help us to learn solidarity in suffering, grief shared in grace, and to end the illusion of separateness, and the denial of our shared humanity.

Sharing in vulnerability, we turned to God and to each other to learn compassion, and we turned against seeking to control and dominate and exclude.

Job’s words describe the results of control, domination, and exclusion. Job’s word deny the humanity of those “deemed worthless people without names.” There is no recognition of our common human experience of loss and grief. Solidarity is shattered when we refuse to open ourselves to the grief of others, and our own. In the absence of compassion born of shared grief, we exclude those we deem “different” and do them violence.

Job learned a way of solidarity and compassion from his suffering and grief. This is the way, the truth, and the life that we can learn from Jesus, who was moved with pity to heal others, who wept over Jerusalem, and who suffered and died, and who in rising calls us to new life.

In this way, in this new life,

we welcome the stranger.

We come together as people.

We greet each other as brothers and sisters.

We call each other by name.

We live together in community.

We invite each other into our homes.

We know love that shares grief.

We know the grace of God.


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