Exploring Empathy with Isabel Wilkerson

Prayers for Reconciliation and the Healing of Racism
February 2, 2018

The Heart is the Last Frontier
In 2010, after 15 years of research and work, Isabel Wilkerson released a book that shared an untold story that crosses the difficult lines of immigration, racism and classism. The Warmth of Other Suns describes the migration of over six million African-Americans from the South to the North. Most people don’t realize that the United States is so closely tied to the stories of migration that have happened throughout history (and continue today) by this movement that occurred within our own borders. During this month – Black History Month – we will explore a few of the profound themes that arose during an interview Ms. Wilkerson gave discussing the book, the time that has passed since the book was published and the perpetual effects of this migration.

One of the key themes that is explicitly explored is that of empathy. Ms. Wilkerson describes empathy like this: “Empathy is not pity or sympathy, in which you are…looking down on someone and feeling sorry for them. Sympathy, you may be looking across at someone and feeling bad for them. Empathy means getting inside of them and understanding their reality and looking at their situation and saying — not “What would I do if I were in their position?” – but “What are they doing? Why are they doing what they’re doing, from the perspective of what they have endured?” And that is an additional step. There are multiple steps that a person has to take to really be open to that.”

The topic of empathy first arises when discussing the multiple instances of African American men dying at the hands of law enforcement. While she recognizes that there are many factors – both justified and not – that could lead to the use of deadly force, she wonders where the empathy is to discontinue the use of force and simply sit compassionately with a person who is dying. “That is the essential missing piece, which is empathy, empathy and recognition in the common humanity of another person.”

She goes on to say, “…there’s such a focus on “other,” and “other” can mean all kinds of things. And so people will often say, “Why is it that those people do that thing?” The only answer to that question is, “Why do human beings do what they do, when they are in that situation?” And it calls for radical empathy in order to put ourselves inside the experiences of another and to allow ourselves the pain, allow ourselves the heartbreak, allow ourselves the sense of hopelessness — whatever it may be that they’re experiencing.”

In one section of her book, Ms. Wilkerson asked one of her interviewees what he hoped for when he left the South. He replied, “I was hoping I would be able to live as a man and express myself in a manly way without the fear of getting lynched at night.” For those who question why folks then (and now) might be forced to leave their homes, the gift of empathy can quickly reveal to you the traumatizing effect of living with that fear, day after day, and how it could force you to embark on an impossible journey, not only for yourself, but for your children.

Note: For online users, this helpful video from Brene Brown on empathy is a powerful teaching tool. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

Prayer for Centering
You understood the needs of those impoverished in mind, body, or spirit, and never shamed or shunned them.

May we come to recognize our own vulnerability and our longing to be healed.

As we encounter our own pain, let it deepen in us a capacity to feel for others.

Enlarge our souls, expand our minds, and soften our hearts towards all who suffer. In your precious name, we pray.

Invitation to Silence

Closing Prayer
The Coventry Litany of Reconciliation
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
Father, forgive.
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
Father, forgive.
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Father, forgive.
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Father, forgive.
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
Father, forgive.
The lust which dishonors the bodies of men, women and children,
Father, forgive.
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Father, forgive.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another,
as God in Christ forgave you.

Weekly Reflection Questions/Invitation to Growth
(from Isabel Wilkerson’s On Being interview: https://onbeing.org/programs/isabel-wilkerson-the-heart-is-the-last-frontier-jan2018/)

Consider exploring the history of our country and this great migration of African Americans from the South to the North. What ideas do you currently hold that might be challenged?

How might you work to develop the skill and gift of empathy? When you come to a difficult situation – whether you’re directly involved or not – what questions might you ask yourself to better understand both/multiple sides of the story?

What changes might we make in our day-to-day lives to improve our empathy, to help us recognize the God-given dignity in every, single person?

Marquette’s annual Mission Week is February 5-10.

February 22, 6:30pm, Progressive Baptist Church: “The Hidden Impact of Segregation” by Reggie Jackson, Head Griot, America’s Black Holocaust Museum

February 26, 5:00pm, Tippecanoe Branch (Milwaukee Public Library), 3912 S Howell Ave.: “How We Got Here” by Reggie Jackson, Head Griot, America’s Black Holocaust Museum https://www.facebook.com/events/516048475460761/

February 27, 7:00pm, Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N Prospect: “Redlining, Racism and Reflection: Where from Here?” with multiple speakers, $8 https://www.facebook.com/events/355758451565067/

March 10, 2018, 5:15 PM – A Healing Mass for the City of Milwaukee, co-presided by Fr. Tim Kitzke, Vicar General for Urban Ministry and Fr. Mike Hammer, Archdiocesan AIDS Ministry.



Join us in person at the Cathedral Fridays at 12:15 PM for this 30 minute communal contemplative prayer with the intention of reconciling and healing racism in our city.  Feel free to pray privately wherever you are in solidarity with those gathered at the Cathedral if you are not able to join in person.

Brought to you by:
Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Three Holy Women, Our Lady of Divine Providence, Old St. Mary’s, Saints Peter and Paul Human Concerns/Social Justice Commissions
Urban Ministry of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee

For more information, please contact:
Anne Haines, Respect Life Director for Urban Ministry
Andrew Musgrave, Director of Social Justice at Three Holy Women, Old St. Mary’s, Our Lady of Divine Providence and Saints Peter and Paul Parishes
Shelly Roder, Director of Outreach Ministries at
Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist

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