A Lesson On Empathy

I have never been a “feeler”.  You know those people who can listen to anyone tell a story and no matter how good of a story teller that person is, they can literally feel what the other person is feeling or may have felt?  “Uber-empathizers.”  I have always been amazed by people with the gift of empathy and wondered how in the world they could feel a person’s joy, pain, sorrow, or frustration without ever of having a similar experience themselves.

Romans 12:15 says,

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

I have been praying for this gift for awhile now.  Often times I’ve felt guilt because I cannot make myself feel the slightest of what another person is feeling, unless I have a similar experience of which I can relate.  Especially as I have spent time here in the Horn with women who have endured such hardships, abandonment, and utter poverty.  I hear several difficult stories a day, and although I feel sympathy for these women and children, I cannot empathize.  So many times I have been frustrated by myself and feel like a horrible, hard-hearted, desensitized person with walls all around me.

The women of the Sr. Staff

The women of the Sr. Staff

I am not sure what the change, maybe it has something to do with our adoption and the difficult conversations we’ve had to their birth mother and best friends in the transition home, but this week I have felt the pain of these women as they tell me their stories.  My heart is heavy this week.  My eyes are tired from tears.  But I have a deeper love and appreciation for the people of the Horn than I did last week even.  Somehow, by divine power, I understand their struggles and pain.  Although I am by no means from a “wealthy” family, we never struggled.  I have never had to work hard labor and have always had the support of my family and good friends to trust and confide in.  How is it then, that I can feel what these women from stark different backgrounds are feeling?

The other day, the hospital rang Grace Centre and asked if we could look after a 14 year old boy who came from the countryside.  As I sat with our social worker to interview him, we learned that he had been in the hospital, by himself, for a month.  He had previously lived with his grandmother in the countryside who sent him to the city for medical treatment.  Both of his parents had died and he has no brothers or sisters.  Since be admitted to the hospital, his grandmother has gone to live at the church, which has left him homeless.  This bright young boy has passed 8th grade (which is a BIG deal here) but he had left his school certificates with his grandmother and cannot enroll in school here in the city without them.  The only option was for him to make the 8 hour trek by leg to the countryside, get his certificate, and return the 8 hours.  After calling up his doctor to make sure he was strong enough for the trip, we gave him enough money for food and transport (when available) and sent him on his way.  Fourteen years old, but like an adult.  He seemed so strong and unfazed by the events of his life.  I cried.  I couldn’t imagine being 14 and completely on my own.  I have a niece who is nearly 14 and a nephew not far behind her.  I kept thinking, “what if this were them?”  I felt myself starting to question God and becoming resentful.

Our social worker and sister in Chr*st noticed the tears in my eyes and knew it wasn’t like me.  I have a hard time allowing others to serve me, let alone minister to me, but I allowed her to speak and soaked in her words.  She said that there are many many hard stories.  We must be strong so that we can serve others better.  We must see the hope in situations rather than focusing on the disparity (ironically, I had been saying the same thing to her weeks earlier as she had struggled with hearing anymore difficult stories).

Was it possible to empathize with difficult situations, and focus on the hopeful rays of light at the same time?  I had never really thought about it, but what I realized is that I had been assuming that in order to truly serve these women, I must be able to feel what they feel.  But I had forgotten that while it is important to empathize, I must also be able to speak words of hope, and BELIEVE those words to be true for these women.  I must set my eyes on the one true God who can make all things new and heal all suffering.  I need to be able to feel their suffering and weep with them, while being strong enough to set my mind on things of the Sp*rit in order to speak hope into their lives.  It’s a “both/and” equation.

Romans 8:5

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Sp*rit set their minds on the things of the Sp*rit.  For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Sp*rit is life and peace”.

To set our minds only on a feeling, is to set our mind only on the flesh and worldly circumstances.  But we must set our minds on things of the Sp*rit, being heart broken by the spiritual state of darkness that so many people live in, and being comforted by the hope that we are promised through the *Son.

Romans 8:18

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Sp*rit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved.


The World Will Soon Have Two Less Orphans

Today was very emotional and very long and to be honest, I am relieved the events and conversations of the day are over.  We started off with a meeting with the mother of our boys.  At first I thought she was drunk as she was slightly shaky and off balance and when she was asked to close the door to the office, she was trying to close the closet door.  Turns out, she had “gotten sick” this morning at work (must have had a seizure of some sort) and had gone home to rest before she came to Grace.  She had forgotten that anyone was wanting to adopt her children, but at the same time is very proactive in trying to get what she needs in order to get Habtamu’s father’s death certificate.  Apparently she has not connected the two.  I wonder if part of her disability isn’t PTSD as when he died, he was in an accident and she had to go identify the body, which apparently was unidentifiable.  Anyways, her only concern was that she wants to see her boys.  We explained that it is our plan to stay in Ethiopia, but only God truly knows the future and there is a possibility of us moving away.  She also was told that we would be in America for time to time, but regardless of where we are in the world, we will always send pictures and notes and will come back and visit.  We were surprised at how aware she is of her disability.  She said that she knows she cannot care for the boys (although she only ever mentions Habtamu) and that if they lived with her, they would have the same “head problem”.  We told her we know she loves them very much and we respect her and think she is very brave for allowing someone else to care for her children.  Surprisingly, she was not as emotional as I expected her to be.  But she knows that she will continue to see the boys as always so nothing really is going to change for her.

Next we met with our 2 boys.  Our psychologist and Dee (Grace director, close friend, and sister in Chr*st) were both present for that.  It was really hard to read them.  Andreas had the huge smile on his face as he always does and Habtamu stayed pretty straight faced, with an occasional smile as he glanced at either of us.  I’m not sure if the information was such a shock, or if he was worried about the others, or if he totally understood.  We asked him if he wanted to be present when we told the others, and he said yes.  He did say he wanted to come live with us, and we told him that we would be staying in Ethiopia and they would continue to see their mother and have their same friends. Later in the day they told a friend who is also volunteering here, that they were coming to live with us and seemed excited.

Finally, we had the other 2 boys come.  There were 3 of them, but one has been staying with his family and will likely go to live with them permanently (this is the one who said I was his mom just a few weeks ago).  One of them is about 7 years old, and nothing really seems to phase him, but I wonder how much he keeps in instead.The other child is about 9 and very tender hearted.  Dee, our psychologist, social worker, lead nanny from the transition home, and another Grace staff who is head over all the nannies and also lives at the transition home with the children were all in the room to add extra support and to help comfort the others.  This was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had and even now still feel so heavy hearted.  We started by saying how much we loved them and want to be more involved in their lives.  That we pray for all the children at the transition home and believe that God has a family picked out for each one of them.  Also we said that we had been praying and feel that God has told us to adopt Hab and And.  We said that our prayer was that they could be happy for H and A, and that this would give them great hope.  That H and A had waited so long for a family (Habtamu has been in Grace care for 6 years) and God had provided and that He would provide for them too.  I do truly believe this, but was so hard to say as I felt more like I was hurting them rather than giving them hope.  Dee wisely added that it is okay to feel sad and happy at the same time and again emphasized how loved they are.  There was an awkward silence and then I got up to hug the two boys.  That’s when the tears started rolling.  Everyone in the room was crying, even sweet little Andreas who probably had no idea what we crying for.  After sitting there for another 20 minutes or more, the tears started to dry and smiles covered their faces again, although they were unusually quiet.  My heart hurts for these 2 boys.  I keep thinking…what’s 2 more?  But there aren’t just 2 more, there are millions more orphans in this world who so badly need a family.

UNICEF and global partners define an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents. By this definition there were over 132 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean in 2005. This large figure represents not only children who have lost both parents, but also those who have lost a father but have a surviving mother or have lost their mother but have a surviving father. 

Of the more than 132 million children classified as orphans, only 13 million have lost both parents. Evidence clearly shows that the vast majority of orphans are living with a surviving parent grandparent, or other family member.  95 per cent of all orphans are over the age of five.”  (www.unicef.org)

Is the Body doing it’s part to care for these children?  We seem so pro-life and anti-abortion, quick to point our fingers and shake our heads at anyone who utters the word, but what are we doing to solve the problem?  Are we praying?  Are we giving money to support orphan care and adoptive family funds?  Are we fostering and adopting ourselves?

We are afraid to disrupt our perfect little family life.  What if the child has an emotional problem that will be difficult to deal with?  We can’t mess with birth order.  We can’t adopt a child with disabilities.  We must have baby with a “clean slate”; unblemished by a background less fortunate and ideal than ours.  “Open” adoption?…forget about it.

We’ve read so many books about adoption that we tend to go by what the books and blogs say more than by what the Spirit is telling us.  I’m not saying it isn’t important to consider our families and current situations, and all the factors involved in adopting a child.  We do need to seek wisdom of others and PRAYERFULLY consider all these things, while simultaneously forgetting about our selfish preferences and focusing on what the Father desires of us.  We need to put the books down, lay our thoughts and conceptions and own desires aside, and open our ears and our hearts to what God is telling us to do.  You might be surprised how he can change your heart if you allow him. It will be difficult and messy and emotional, but this is the life we are called to.

(Here are two blogs of some of our closest friends who have done just that and the Father has blessed, and is blessing at this moment, the outcomes):



“Rel*g*on that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  James 1:27

One person cannot give a home to the millions of orphans in the world who need a family.  But the entire Body of Chr*st should be able to.  Why aren’t we?