Introducing people to the God of compassion

Editor’s Note: We all have a role to play in influencing the areas in which we work and live. This article focuses primarily on one way individuals are making a difference in the lives of people facing terrible circumstances. I think there are larger lessons incorporated in these experiences that we can draw on and apply to our own lives in our efforts to engage our communities. Let’s accept the challenge as to how we too can practically bring Christ’s love to others.

He was dying, fearful of what was next, scrambling through his jumbled thoughts to make sense out of his diagnosis, and what his life had been all about. His heart was heavy as he questioned the existence of God and the afterlife, and then troubled at the thought of it all being real. Like many people facing a life-threatening diagnosis he began a spiritual journey that one Sunday morning led him to a small church, one he had often passed by without a second glance. He was desperate to obtain some peace for his troubled soul. Week after week he returned to the same church finding a momentary reprieve in the midst of the music and preaching, from his fears and anxiety.

One Sunday he conjured up enough courage to approach the pastor. Nervously he disclosed his HIV status, knowing from the past the negative repercussions it could have. This time though instead of being questioned about how he contracted HIV, the pastor with a sincere expression thanked him for trusting him with this painful secret and assured him that he was welcome in the church and that he would no longer have to journey alone. The pastor and this small congregation crossed over the barriers of fear, ignorance and prejudice, and instead demonstrated God’s love and compassion to a man dying of AIDS. This one act of compassion seeded the beginnings of the hospice I now direct, (Philip Aziz Centre), which over the past 11 years has served hundreds of people like this man, Philip, helping to make a difficult life journey more manageable and meaningful.

I recall joining the team of Board members and the Director to start the Centre from a small endowment Philip had entrusted to the church, with the request that they would continue to unconditionally reach out and support people living with HIV, like himself. At the time we began, HIV was predominantly affecting the gay community in Toronto and I struggled about how this small Christian organization could reach out to them genuinely and compassionately, and be trusted. We slowly built relationships with other AIDS service agencies and hospices, learning from their experiences as well as informing them of our endeavours. We recruited and trained volunteers and developed our hospice programs. Serving with excellence and compassion was our objective. We set up a spiritual care program to support others like Philip who needed to talk with someone about their spiritual concerns; someone who would listen without judging, preaching or moralizing. Compassion, education, a wash cloth and basin were our ministry tools and means by which we demonstrated God’s love for people. Philip Aziz, before he died, found the peaceful place in his life he had sought and said goodbye to the world with these passing words…. “at last I know I have the love of my creator.” Over the years I have heard those words spoken, cried, prayed and shouted in various ways from countless precious people who have experienced God’s love through the hospice services provided by our volunteers and staff.

“No one should die alone,” were the convicting words spoken by a young man I had the privilege of journeying with near the end of his life. This man was blessed with the support of family, close friends and hospice volunteers, who stayed by him throughout his battle with AIDS. But sadness and frustration invaded his voice one day when he recalled to me the situation his friends back home faced…they too had AIDS but were silenced by the fear of discrimination that only brought with it isolation, judgment and shame. Following his death, I visited this region of the world and was confronted by the painful truth of what this young man in Canada had shared with me. There I met a teenage transsexual living with AIDS who was ostracized by his family, because of sexuality. When I inquired about his support system, who was there for him….he shuffled and stared disconcertedly. His confusion grew when I pressed him further about spiritual care, wondering if he had struggled with the tough questions or thought of seeking out some of his religious leaders for direction. He laughed sarcastically. “I could never talk with them…look at me. I’m a reject (outcast) for them. Trash!” “That’s what they call people like me. I already feel bad enough – why would I go to them to feel worse?” Overwhelmed by his obvious pain, I blurted out: “Trash? No. God does not create trash.” I then began to share with him what I believed about God. “God does not breathe life into trash, but rather into human beings made in His own image, which you are. Life has purpose and meaning. You were created to be loved and to reciprocate that love.” Tears filled the young man’s eyes as he listened to my words about a God who loved him and understood his pain and confusion. His sad expression changed as he suddenly realized what this meant…he was not alone…nor would he die alone and unloved, even though those who had loved him, had walked away.

As I left, I was challenged in my own heart, and wondered what message I send people through my words, deeds, looks or indifference . . . what message does my Christian community send to people who feel ostracized, different, marginalized, or just unfamiliar , uncertain or skeptical about the church? Do I have hidden prejudices that cause me to judge people, instead of freely demonstrating respect and God’s love towards them? Mother Teresa said, “You can’t love those who you’ve already judged..” Judgment builds barriers, love alone will build bridges.

At first glance, she was not unlike any other girl her age; energetic, playing with friends and Barbie’s, laughing and dreaming about all the things she wanted to do when she grew up. If you looked closer however, you would notice a sadness in her eyes that disguised the pain of a secret she guarded with her life. Her mother had warned her that if her friends ever discovered her secret they would never play with her again. This little girl has AIDS. Her father and several other family members back in her home country have died because of it. I remember the day her mother and I sat together and she told her young daughter that the two of them had AIDS. She cried at first and then asked me if we could pray that God would not let them die until there was a cure. She is in high school now, knows her illness does not define who she is or devalue her worth and with this positive attitude she assists us in our hospice by helping other children in her predicament.

Her eyes were welled with tears, and through the sobs she tried to speak clearly though her English was weak…I strained to hear her as her words were directed downward and noticed how she was nervously trying to stop her hands from trembling by clasping them together on her lap. I touched her hands and smiled, assuring her that it was okay to talk and her story would be kept in confidence. She had carried the pain and secrets alone too long. This was the first time she felt she could talk to someone.

She began by expressing her thankfulness to God for allowing her to come to Canada, where she now had the opportunity to start a new life with hope for her children’s future. The journey to get here had been long and torturous, but now was her chance for happiness, security, freedom and health. However, lately her hopeful attitude had been interrupted by horrific images of her past, nightmares to which she could only helplessly respond to with tears. No matter how intentionally she repressed the memories, they erupted without warning and stirred a simmering anger just beneath her skin. Her nurse had called our hospice for support, recognizing that this woman was in spiritual distress and needed to talk.

I sat in a tattered chair across from her in a tiny, sparsely furnished basement apartment which she shared with her two teenage sons. After the small talk she opened up and began to share about her late husband, whom she missed dearly, and the horror she felt when she witnessed his murder. She confessed that only God could have helped her escape from the hands of her husbands murderers who took her as a slave for six months and left her with AIDS. She then stopped mid sentence, as if feeling guilty for the anger she felt towards these people and God, to say again how thankful she was to God for getting her out. After all it was God who gave her strength to endure the slavery, torture, physical and emotional pain. Then she started to cry….and asked sheepishly, “Why?” The fact she had any faith left astounded me. I wonder where I would be at if I had to endure such humiliation, pain and loss. Her faith had been challenged to the core, but she was still hanging on by a thread. Anger, guilt and sadness intermittently overwhelmed her and attacked the faith she had left. She didn’t want to lose her faith; it was the one thing she had left to hang onto from home, besides her children. I listened, careful not to offer a lame pat answer that would only shut her down or belittle her present struggle to make sense out of her past.

She lay in her bed reaching for the tray of McDonald’s food I had just picked up for her. It was her favourite. She lived alone in her apartment. It was a nicely decorated place, pictures of her daughters and her amateur paintings hung prominently on the walls. She had come a long way from the crack house where I first met her. Her daughters rarely visited, except to borrow money. She blamed herself, understanding their anger towards her as she had not been the mother they needed and had surrendered care of them to Children’s Aid when unable to nurture them or herself. She never had a real mother herself. Her only family had become the few volunteers from the hospice who visited weekly and an old friend who seemed to be more concerned with what he could take rather than what he could give her. Tossing back her thinning hair, a smile lit across her sunken cheeks as she boldly and with conviction said, “I know I’m beautiful, because God loves me. I don’t hate so much anymore, but my only regret is that my daughters won’t give me this one more chance to see I’ve changed…I want them to know I love them and pray for them. I guess I’ve conned them too many times that they’re tired of me crying wolf.” She asked me to pray that they would one day forgive her. She showed me a diary filled with letters she had written them, and asked that we make sure they get them at her funeral. It wasn’t always this way…..this young woman who was peacefully waiting for God was once a bitter, angry, violent and vengeful person. She was forced by her mother to go on the streets at 12 years old and there learned all the tricks for survival. She grew up hating and distrusting everyone – even herself. Her mother and the men she met told her she was trash, so she began to believe it and treated others the same. She had beat everything and everyone that got in her way, but against AIDS she was powerless. No amount of manipulation or drugs would make it go away. God softened this woman’s heart through the hospice volunteers who faithfully visited her when she was too ill to leave the house, and this opened the doors to her spiritual journey, which would lead her safely home.

The stories I have shared are some of the very real places in my life I have encountered God… Why? Because He is near the broken hearted, the misunderstood, the forgotten, the poor, the grieving, the lonely, the marginalized, the wounded, the ill, those struggling for answers. When I am near them I feel the closest to Him. AIDS is a devastating illness, a gaping wound across the face of our planet that festers with injustice, poverty, loss, disease, discrimination and gender inequality. It leaves a trail of broken dreams, hearts, lives, families and communities. It tests the church’s stand on compassion…do we do what we preach? In all the years I have been involved in hospice ministry I’ve never seen anyone, guilted, shamed, blamed or hated into the kingdom, but always loved. Love is not just a heartfelt emotion – it is the conviction to get involved. Do you remember the story of the Good Samaritan in the gospel of Luke, where an expert in the law approached Jesus and inquired how he could be assured of eternal life? Jesus replied… “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbour as yourself.” The lawyer was not satisfied and questioned Jesus further by asking “who exactly is my neigbour?” Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan. Allow me to paraphrase . . . A man was walking along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of thieves who beat him savagely, stole all his money and clothes and left him helpless to die in a puddle of blood. Two religious leaders simultaneously walked by and saw the man, but ignored his plight. Perhaps their religious reputations were on the line, or they didn’t want to be inconvenienced, or they were just simply indifferent or in a hurry. Then along came a Samaritan who saw this wounded man…he was moved with compassion and stopped to help. Jesus, upon completing the parable turned to the lawyer and asked who was the neigbour? The lawyer confessed it was the Samaritan…the one who showed compassion, who didn’t just express pity, cry a few tears, but rather got involved.

What’s interesting about this parable is we are told nothing about the guy lying half dead in the puddle of blood. We don’t know what beliefs he held…his views on religion, gay marriage, war in Iraq, abortion, euthanasia….etc. All we know is what Jesus makes clear to us…the initiative to reach out is up to us who have the ability to help the person who is hurting. We cannot judge someone and then label them and then determine by our comfort level with that label, how we will treat or ignore them. We are called to love everyone. We all have different gifts, but love is available to all and commanded to be expressed by all who call themselves children of God. Love is the demonstration of God’s kingdom in action through His church…His church in action! People, regardless of who they are or where they have come from, are candidates for God’s mercy and love, just as we were. We don’t know what road has led people to where they are today, only God knows – that’s why judging is up to him. We are not called to separate the wheat from the weeds, that’s God job. But we are called to see the image of God in every human being. No one is beyond His loving reach.

I have seen Jesus many times in the faces of the people I’ve had the privilege of journeying with. Do you want to be closer to God? Get involved where He is already at work. Do you want to find life and life more abundantly? Begin to give love away. All that is not given, in the end is lost. “Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothed you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? The King will reply ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.’”

God has so loved us and demonstrated his mercy and forgiveness towards us. How can we not freely share such a wonderful love with others? God is love and that is the mark of those who believe in Him. The world will not know we are Christians by the size of churches, style of worship, theological distinctives, preaching or colourful bulletins . . . they will know we are Christians by our LOVE.

Mother Teresa said: “I am but a small pencil in the hand of a writing God sending a love letter to the world.” What does God want to write through your life? Don’t leave the page blank.
“At last I know I have the love of my creator.”

Rev. Rauni Salminen is the Executive Director of the Philip Aziz Centre.