Empathy Through Proximity

by Lead Storyteller, Melanee R.

In February 2017, while riding passenger in a small hatchback Fiat with a yellow plate, I crossed a checkpoint from Jerusalem and entered an unfamiliar town that became my home for several months.

Bethlehem was a consuming and perplexing little town. Somehow, its strangeness and discomfort persuaded me to enter the foreign culture vulnerable, allowing for an immersion experience that would finally make Jesus visible and reachable.

I returned to the Holy Land again in 2018 and 2019, and although my mind has wandered back to the rolling hills and spice-scented streets of Bethlehem in the years following, a day has not gone by since October 7th that I have not felt grief, anger, and hopelessness over the atrocities unfolding daily in Gaza.

As many know, Haywood Street has its own tragedies and moments of hopelessness. Whether conscious or not, I’ve compartmentalized the emotions surrounding the Holy Land from my current reality working at Haywood Street—perhaps my body’s way of safeguarding the capacity to be attentive to the relationships and responsibilities it’s bound to presently. Either way, the heaviness remains.

However distant Palestine and Israel feel right now, the truth is I wouldn’t be at Haywood Street if it hadn’t been such an integral part of my life. If I hadn’t been woken in the early morning to shouts of soldiers raiding a neighbor’s home or walked with other Christians in the Palm Sunday procession from the Mount of Olives to the Old City of Jerusalem, witnessing their harassment for simply being Palestinian, I don’t know if I would have seen Jesus so clearly—so clear in fact that I know without a doubt that God is closest to those who suffer most and to those who have experienced perpetual disregard and exclusion.

The relationships built on this unassuming corner of 297 Haywood Street, though—those like Roy and Carla, Laura and Patrick, Seth and Tim, and Katlyn and Norma—have become my sources of hope for the Holy Land and the rest of the world. Each person has proven that change happens, and stereotypes crumble when we’re in close proximity to someone other. When our worldviews are challenged because we’re looking into the eyes of someone we perceive as different than us, listening to their story, becoming familiar with their very personhood—their movements, what causes the smile to dance onto their face, the sounds or memories that move them to tears—this is when we begin to see Jesus in the one we thought was so different.

Jürgen Moltmann describes this experience, saying, “When I love God I love the beauty of bodies, the rhythm of movements, the shining of eyes, the embraces, the feelings, the senses, the sounds of all this protean creation.”[1]  In this sense, loving God is an all-encompassing awareness that acts as a lens by which we view the rest of the world.  Moltmann continues to say, “When I love you, my God, I want to embrace it all, for I love you with all my senses in the creation of your love.  In all the things that encounter me, you are waiting for me.”[2]

Put another way, the desert father, Dorotheos of Gaza, says:

“Imagine that the world is a circle, that God is in the center, and that the radii are the

different ways human beings live.  When those who wish to come closer to God walk towards the center of the circle, they come closer to one another at the same time as to God.  The closer they come to God, the closer they come to one another.  And the closer they come to one another, the closer they come to God.”[3]

Whether we accept it or not, the plain and simple truth is that we are all irrevocably bound up with one another, held together by a Divine thread. In relation to God, we are formed by one another and for one another—whether housed or unhoused, American or Palestinian, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. We have been made for one another.

In each stranger or other we encounter, God is waiting for us, beckoning us to Godself and to them. Maybe it will take an immersion experience to see, or maybe it will just take sitting at a table with a stranger and passing a plate of food while asking for their name. Whatever it takes, my hope is that each of us will be willing to do what it takes to see Jesus a little more clearly.

———-

[1] Jurgen Moltmann. The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, (London: Fortress Press, 1997), 88.  

[2] Ibid., 88.

[3] Dorotheos of Gaza. “Dorotheos of Gaza (6th Century) Humility and Communion.” Taize. http://www.taize.fr/en_article5234.html.