Pema Chodron, an ordained Buddhist nun, writes of compassion and suggests that its truest measure lies not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them. In 1987 Dolores Mission Church declared itself a sanctuary church for the undocumented, after passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Soon, recently arrived undocumented men from Mexico and Central America would sleep each night in the church (Guadalupe Homeless Project), and women and children, in the convent (Casa Miguel Pro).

Attention followed and lots of it. The media swarmed the place in these earliest days. As almost always happens, attention begets opposition. I used to dread clearing the parish’s answering machine during this period.  It always had a handful of hate messages and vague (and not so vague) death threats.

Once, while I turn the corner in front of the church, heading to a CEBmeeting in the projects, I am startled by letters spray-painted crudely across the front steps:


. . . I arrive at the meeting and tell the gathered women about our hostile visitor during the night.

“I guess I’ll get one of the homies to clean it up later.”

Petra Saldana, a normally quiet member of the group, takes charge.

“You will not clean that up.”

Now, I was new at the parish and my Spanish was spotty. I understood the words she spoke but had difficulty circling in on the sense of it.

“You will not clean this up. If there are people in our community who are disparaged and hated and left out because they are mojados (wetbacks) . . . “Then she poises herself on the edge of the couch, practically ready to leap to her feet.  “Then we shall be proud to call ourselves a wetback church.”

. . . Jesus was a not a man for others. He was one with others.  There is a world of difference in that. Jesus didn’t seek the rights of lepers. He touched the leper even before he got around to curing him. He didn’t champion the cause of the outcast. He was the outcast. He didn’t fight for improved conditions for the prisoner. He simply said, “I was in prison.”

The strategy of Jesus is not centred in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place – with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.

. . . Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate,” means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.

In Scripture, Jesus is in a house so packed that no one can come through the door anymore. So the people open the roof and lower this paralytic down through it, so Jesus can heal him. The focus of the story is, understandably, the healing of the paralytic. But there is something more significant than that happening here. They’re ripping the roof off the place, and those outside are being let in.

. . . Thomas Merton has his epiphany on the corner of Sixth and Walnut in Lexington, Kentucky. “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs.”

Gregory Boyle in Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion