“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me,” Matthew 25:35-36,40.
Like power, with compassion comes great responsibility. So much more than a feeling, the person with compassion is compelled to transform their compassion into intent, and most importantly, action. To be compassionate is to see, to feel and to do something.
The recent arrival of Pope Francis on our shores has rekindled our national conversation over how we will protect and care for our marginalized, provide access to our disenfranchised communities and promote justice for all.
Francis, the spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics, the world over, has placed the poor and the treatment of the poor at the center of his papacy. But his message of mercy, compassion and service as the engines of much-needed change is not solely limited to the Catholic faithful. It is a message that can transcend boundaries of faith, gender, political cultures or borders. It is a message that can transform the entire world for the benefit of the common good.
While calls for societal change precede the pope, his papacy and his status as a respected global leader, gives added voice to the voiceless and the oppressed, and encourages the men and women who have decided they would no longer observe (or suffer) injustice from the sidelines—instead they would advocate, and when necessary, agitate for a more just society for the excluded and marginalized among us.
From Moses to the man registering students to vote, or the woman fighting for environmental justice in an impoverished community today, for as long as inequality has plagued society, people have always appeared in the pages of history to carry the heavy and unavoidable banner of change. For Francis, this call to action is motivated by God’s presence, which he said in his final homily in Cuba, “never leaves us tranquil: it always pushes to do something. When God comes, He always calls us out of our house. We are visited so that we can visit others. We are encountered so as to encounter others. We receive love in order to give love.”
For more than 100 years, the National Urban League has dedicated itself to loving, visiting and encountering people and communities in their times of need. Our mission (like the mission of so many people of faith dedicated to changing lives and reforming the structures that compromise the quality of life of the most vulnerable) is to establish mechanisms and policies aimed at economic empowerment in order to elevate the standard of living in historically underserved urban communities. This cross-section of compassion and social justice has been, and continues to be, a defining element of our existence and struggle across a range of social justice movements.
The pope is visiting the United States at a pivotal time in our history, when justice and equality is facing challenges on many fronts. We face challenges in the constitutional right of citizens to vote. We are experiencing a rash of deaths of Black men at the hands of police officers who are rarely held accountable; equity in funding and resources for public school education remains a distant reality; and the economic gap that exist between the rich and the poor only continues to widen.
The National Urban League continues to tackle these ever-present issues with programs and policy recommendations that not only benefit communities of color, but our nation as a whole. Our education programs, like Project Ready, support academic achievement, civic involvement and the physical and emotional development of our young people. But it doesn’t end there, we also challenge our states and federal government to develop formulas to distribute resources to schools in a fair manner that does not discriminate based on what community you live in. Our workforce development programs deliver jobs and valuable employment services to the people who need it the most and encourage economic self-sufficiency. We have, and continue to fight on the frontline of the battles to rid our nation of pervasive criminal justice abuses.
The gospel of compassion has guided many into service beyond their own lives and self-interests. The gospel of compassion: to see, to feel and to do something, is a driver of change that pays no regard to differences in gender, color, community or faith. It is a call to minister and serve those who find themselves on the margins of any given society. We may all come from different traditions and cultures, but we should all be able to agree on our broader duty to provide access to a decent standard of living, protect the poor and promote justice. It is the message of the Francis and his church, and I hope that it is a message that will continue to reach many more ears and hearts.
(Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.)