I felt ashamed for feeling uncomfortable when I was around those in poverty. It took courage to venture out of my familiar bubble of suburban Arvada, Colorado into the low-income areas of Houston, Texas. This was my first mission trip.
Once we said our goodbyes, it was a long 15 hours in a cramped van with ten other sleep-deprived people. When we exited the air-conditioned van into the humidity of Houston, our skin instantly felt sticky and my glasses began to fog up. As I fell asleep that night, I felt anxious because I knew I had to surrender my comfort. Confusion filled my mind the next morning when we arrived at a pristine apartment building. The lobby where we met the kids was well kept, but I sensed an unseen brokenness behind the walls. Our simple task for the day was to assist in the kid’s summer program while their parents were trying to make ends meet.
The room was chaotic: boys play fighting around the room; toy cars spread across the floor; and crayons on top of scattered coloring pages. I was overwhelmed as I searched for a piece of calmness inside the commotion. I sensed my introverted nature creeping in, but I suppressed it as I searched for a connection. I sat down next to a girl who was coloring. She had long black hair, timid brown eyes, and a contagious smile. The pink Crayola marker was gripped between her fingers as she concentrated on staying between the lines of the cartoon butterfly. “I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen my dad,” she spoke casually. My heart broke, but it was her reality. I didn’t grasp the depth of her pain, and it was unfamiliar. I began to realize through her vulnerability that our lives paralleled more than I thought. Kaila’s father abandoned her at a young age just as my birth mother abandoned me as an infant in China. Kaila was carelessly able to speak about her dad, and it’s easy for me to let the words roll off when someone asks about my adoption. Our normal realities tied us together and revealed the humanness in both of us.
Each meticulous stroke and careful thought of the colors she chose was like telling the butterfly her worries one by one. Kaila asked me to spell my name, “O-L-I-V-I-A,” I said. She looked up with a delicate voice and replied, “This is for you.” That day I began learning to be comfortable in my uncomfortableness and understand what it meant to walk with people through their adversities. I could define compassion as empathy in action. Before I had empathy with discomfort, but compassion caused me to engage in her pain. Compassion was no longer like an “on” or “off” switch, but something that is ingrained in my being and ties me to humanity.
Two months later, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. I thought of Kaila and the kids at the Rainbow Housing apartments when I saw “BREAKING NEWS: AFTERMATH OF HARVEY.” I hoped she was safe. I am still reminded of Kaila today and the parallels that join us, even though distance separates us. I still feel uncomfortable around people in poverty, but I shift my perspective to step out in courage and enjoy my discomfort. When I volunteer at my local food bank every week or see a homeless person on the side of the street, I think of Kaila and seek to connect. Instead of alienating myself from the poor and needy. Now I engage in their suffering and act with compassion rather than empathy.
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