FORMER HEARTLINES PATRON REV DR MVUME DANDALA TALKS ABOUT THE KIND OF COMPASSION THAT REQUIRES SELF-SACRIFICE and a decision to move out of one’s comfort zone as South Africans engage in a public conversation on values.
During the dark days of apartheid, a colleague who was leading the Central Methodist Mission Church in Johannesburg, was approached by two women members who, saddened at the way black people were being treated, asked in what way they could help.
Having thanked them he said he would link them up with two families in Soweto and would ask only three things of them. Firstly they were to visit the families every day, secondly they were not to give them money, and thirdly they were not to use their cars to drive them around.
For the first few days everything went well. One day one of them arrived to find a seriously ill child and the mother distraught with worry. The benefactor’s first reaction was to get the child to the doctor immediately, but she remembered that she was not to use her car. Neither could she summon a taxi for she had been explicitly instructed not to use her money. Having no other option, she walked with them to the nearest hospital, went through the “humiliation” of having to rely on State charity, and waited for hours before being attended to.
Having gone through that experience, the woman was so repulsed by the degradation that she had experienced first-hand, that she was compelled to do more than merely offer the crumbs from her own laden table.
To genuinely understand the depth of the pain suffered by another one must walk in that person’s shoes. That is compassion.
An article in The Star recently graphically described the Central Methodist Church – that very same church in downtown Johannesburg – as a den of iniquity, a place were people were sleeping in the aisles and corridors and babies were being changed on the pews.
From 1991 to 1996 I had the privilege of ministering there. I have a sense of the excruciating pain that homeless people in the inner city have to face day in and day out – their only hope that the church will reach out and do something to lift the burden off their shoulders.
I also remember how the deteriorating condition of the inner city at that time drove away many of those members who had the means to do something about it. The challenge was to assist with resources where there were none and to create viable responses in the face of desperate need.
When I read that article I asked myself to what extent have we tried to understand the depth of compassion that has allowed the ministers of that church to open that house of God as a shelter to those who have been discarded by humanity. This is no excuse for the excesses that were purported to have taken place, but how sad it would be if those issues cloud our minds, blocking out any sense of compassion and invoking instead, a sense of outrage and disgust.
While Jesus would not have allowed any immoral behaviour in the house of God, He nonetheless would not have thought twice about giving a bed to those who would otherwise have to sleep in the cold.
Compassion is not nice, orderly and safe. It is never the easy option and always involves self sacrifice. The Good Samaritan exposed himself to danger, but in that moment of reaching out to the needs of another, he was in the grip of compassion rather than in the grip of fearing for his own safety. That is the depth to which compassion must plumb.
Rev Mvume H Dandala is the former General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches, former Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, and is the recipient of the Presidential Order of the Baobab (Silver) for his peace-making role in South Africa.