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Serving in the Suburbs

3 ways to practice compassion in the land of comfort and convenience
Serving in the Suburbs

Rushing out of my local grocery store parking lot, I check my watch. I'm running late; I have 5 minutes to drive a distance that requires 15. While calculating whether I can make it through a yellow light, I spot a thin, weathered man standing on the median. Without enough time to accelerate past or enough space to switch lanes, I reluctantly pull up beside him.

Before I even read his cardboard sign, my pulse quickens with trepidation. Should I look at him? Should I roll down the window? Should I offer him food? No matter what response I choose, I'm uncomfortable with the whole situation. Yet I'm beginning to suspect my discomfort may be a sort of holy invitation.

Like many middle-class, suburban women, I'm often insulated from a world in need. When famine strikes in Africa, my supermarket's shelves remain stocked. When chaos erupts in the Middle East, my neighborhood stays secure. When floodwaters rise in New Orleans, my home keeps dry. Without concerted effort, the closest I may ever get to a needy person is the unsettling intrusion of the man on the median.

Still, I hunger to share Christ's care with those he loves. Jesus challenged his disciples, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36). Because Jesus responded to his Father's voice, God more than likely directed Jesus' gaze toward individuals in need of his merciful touch. We imitate Jesus when we, too, notice the needs around us, respond with compassionate action, and foster a genuine connection. Here's how to do these things in your neighborhood.

Pay Attention

A large crowd was gathered in front of the local Catholic Social Services office when my children and I drove by on the way to school one morning. I explained to my kids people were lined up to get help paying their rent. A little five-year-old voice piped up from the backseat, "Can we pray for dem?" My son's heart, sensitive to the Spirit's nudge, responded to others' needs.

"Most people dismiss these promptings as foolish," explains Bruce Main, author of Holy Hunches: Responding to the Promptings of God. Main calls these inner cues "holy impulses" or "divine hunches." Main explains, "What actually moves people into acts of service, acts of justice, acts of compassion, is this intuitive sense" that prompts five-year-old lips to pray for the poor while hurrying off to school. Main underscores, "It is not enough to have our hearts fill with compassion or empathy for others. We really need to convert these feelings into an appropriate response." Our faithful response springs from noticing what moves God's heart.

Scripture boldly articulates God's concern for the weak and his passion for justice. We see these twin concerns embodied in the One who announced his ministry with words of justice: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19).

Ideas for Action:
  • Pray over local, national, and international needs delivered to your doorstep via the newspaper.
  • Drive through a tougher part of town and pray over the needs you notice.
  • Learn the names of the curbside servants who process your garbage and recycling.
  • Get to know a cashier at your grocery store's checkout line.

Practice Compassion

In the pickup line at her kids' school, my friend Beth looks as if she's a typical soccer mom. But when she's not shuttling kids to playdates or piano lessons, she's caring for the poor and needy. A Peace Corps veteran, Beth now responds to Christ's call by tending to a neighbor with cancer. Beth's desire to serve others began early. "My parents and the church we attended instilled in me a love for acts of mercy," she explains. Today Beth notices the family resemblance in her ten-year-old daughter. "Catie cares for the homeless. When I go downtown to serve a meal, I invite her to go along. She has a real heart for service."

Beth's husband notes, "You can be involved wherever you are. Beth's made serving an integral part of her life. She thinks Christians need to be inconvenienced." Integrating practices of compassion into daily life keeps us responsive to others' needs.

Ideas for Action:
  • Cook a simple dinner of beans and rice once a week as a reminder to pray for the hungry.
  • Take your family with you when you serve to help develop a heart of compassion in them as well.
  • Ask a friend to join you in sponsoring a needy child.
  • Celebrate your birthday by requesting donations to a local food pantry instead of gifts.

Build Relationships

My friend Janine participated in her church's annual workday by volunteering at a nearby homeless shelter. She reports, "There my daughter and I met Rose, a single mom with two young daughters. Later I'd bump into them at the library or the mall." Janine smiles as she recounts, "Once my kids and I were driving past the grocery store when we saw them struggling to push a stroller and a huge cart of groceries. Together we loaded my van and squeezed in our four children, Rose and me, a stroller, and about 30 bags of groceries!" When Rose's family found permanent housing, Rose called Janine's family to help with the move. What began as a tenuous step of faith developed into a journey toward friendship—and service.

Ideas for Action:
  • Orchestrate a partnership between your church's women's ministry and a nearby congregation's. Meet regularly to fellowship and serve your community.
  • Tutor a child at a local after-school program.
  • Develop friendships at a local nursing home.
  • Volunteer with a local English as a Second Language program.

As a friend and I discussed our response to a needy world, she told me, "I've realized I don't have to do everything, just the next thing." I cling to those wise words. The world isn't ours to save. Instead, Jesus invites us to experience deeper intimacy with him by obediently serving as his hands and feet, ministering to the needy around us.

So that day I slowed my minivan to a stop beside the median man, pawed through my groceries, and pulled out some peanut butter jars. Rolling down the window, I asked the man if he liked chunky or smooth. "Chunky," he said, reaching for the small token of care.

I wish I could say I no longer feel anxious when I encounter strangers in need, but I do. I've come to recognize that feeling, though, as the Holy Spirit's invitation to see and serve God's children even in the comfort of my suburban neighborhood.

Margot Starbuck, a writer and speaker, lives in North Carolina.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Margot Starbuck

Margot Starbuck, award-winning writer and speaker, is a graduate of Westmont College and Princeton Theological Seminary. A TCW regular contributor and columnist, Margot speaks regularly on discipleship, justice, and living love in the world God loves. Connect with Margot on Facebook, Twitter, or at MargotStarbuck.com.

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