Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Dilemma of Compassion

Do not judge your neighbor until you walk two moons in his moccasins. ~ Native American (Cheyenne) proverb

The man came to my parsonage door in late afternoon. He hesitated when I invited him into my study, as though he was “unclean.” He didn’t appear to be unclean. He was dressed as most of the people in southern Indiana dressed: jeans and a windbreaker, athletic shoes. Yet, he hesitated to sit even when I invited him to do so. Thus we both remained standing.

“I just came back home from Denver. I live with my sister and brother-in-law up the road,” he said.

I nodded and waited for him to continue. He looked at his shoes.

After a minute or two he said, “I have AIDS. I’ve come home to die.” He looked into my eyes.

“Please…sit down,” I said.

He did and he told me his story. He said that he had been living away from the area for fifteen or so years, in Denver. When he and his partner had been informed that each had AIDS, they had decided to die together. (This was in the late 1980s, back in the days when AIDS was an inevitable death sentence, before AIDS “cocktail” therapy had been developed). After the death of his partner, he had returned to southern Indiana, where his sister still lived, so that he would not die alone.

“They are afraid of me,” he said, referring to his sister and her husband. “They don’t really want me in their house. For days now I have been looking at my brother-in-law’s shotgun, thinking that I need to end my life now.”

“I’m glad you haven’t,” I said. “What brought you to me?”

“I have no one I can talk to. This morning I walked here to Cannelton. I tried to talk with people, but I couldn’t. I was afraid they would turn away from me. The woman at the dinner up the street seemed nice. I tried to tell her about me… She said I should come to you. She said that you would understand. I have been walking around your church and house for hours, trying to find the courage to knock on your door, to say those words…You know, that I have AIDS.”

We talked for quite a while, this young man and me. He said that in Denver there was a support group that he and his partner had attended. He could find none here in Perry County, Indiana. I made a couple of telephone calls and located an AIDS support group in Owensboro, Kentucky, about twenty-seven miles away. Then we spoke about his thoughts of suicide.

“I know I am dying,” he said. “I don’t want to die alone. But my sister…she doesn’t understand. She and her husband are so afraid that I will give them AIDS. If I kill myself, it will be better for her.”

I offered to speak with his sister and brother-in-law, but he refused. I suggested he enter a hospital where his suicidal thoughts could be treated. Eventually he agreed and I contacted the social worker at the county hospital, who suggested I contact the hospital in Owensboro that had the necessary resources. I did and the young man made arrangements for voluntary admission. I offered to drive him to Owensboro, which he accepted.

When we arrived at the hospital and after admission was set up, I said good-bye to the young man and hugged him. The hug lasted a long time. When we separated, tears were running down his cheeks.

He said, “You are the only person who has ever hugged me after I have told them that I have AIDS.”

I had not walked in his shoes. I did not have AIDS. But I do have my own wounds, my own pains, my own suffering. It was through my own woundedness that I was able to show compassion for this stranger.

Yet, so often we seek to hide our wounds, even though they may be festering and obvious to others. Or, we may obsess on our woundedness, allowing our wounds to taint our view of life. To me, neither is acceptable. What is suitable is to show compassion and minister to others through and in spite of our wounds.

Henri Nouwen told an ancient Jewish parable of the return of the Messiah, who could be found sitting at the city gate. The Messiah, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor, binding his/her wounds one at a time, waiting for the moment when he/she will be needed. The Messiah is the wounded healer, the one who must look after his/her wounds and at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.

Nouwen also wrote:

We are all wounded people. Who wounds us? Often those whom we love and those who love us. When we feel rejected, abandoned, abused, manipulated, or violated, it is mostly by people very close to us: our parents, our friends, our spouses, our lovers, our children, our neighbors, our teachers, our pastors. Those who love us wound us too. That’s the tragedy of our lives. This is what makes forgiveness from the heart so difficult. It is precisely our hearts that are wounded. We cry out, “You, who I expected to be there for me, you have abandoned me. How can I ever forgive you for that?”

Forgiveness often seems impossible, but nothing is impossible for God. The God who lives within us will give us the grace to go beyond our wounded selves and say, “In the Name of God you are forgiven." Let’s pray for that grace. ~ Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer


For a Christian, Jesus is the man in whom it has indeed become manifest that revolution and conversion cannot be separated in man's search for experiential transcendence. His appearance in our midst has made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing human society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross. Jesus was a revolutionary, who did not become an extremist, since he did not offer an ideology, but Himself. He was also a mystic, who did not use his intimate relationship with God to avoid the social evils of his time, but shocked his milieu to the point of being executed as a rebel. In this sense he also remains for nuclear man the way to liberation and freedom. . ~ Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer


  1. Nice post Nick. Sad to hear that there is still a lot of ignorance about AIDS and that people shun their own family. I guess we do live in fear of so many things.

  2. I stumbled across this on website today, and it fits in with what you wrote about:

    The quality of mercy is not strained;
    it droppeth, as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice bless’d: it blesseth both him that gives and him that takes...
    And earthly power doth show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.

    -William Shakespeare, Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

  3. Exactly why your sons say you are a saint

  4. That story made me cry. I'm glad that Aids isn't quite as terrible and so taboo as it was in the 80's, but we still have a far way to go.

  5. thank you for sharing that story. It's so easy to overlook, sometimes, where another person is standing. Thanks for the reminder that kindness is always appropriate.

  6. "When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares."
    Henri Nouwen

  7. That was a beautiful post. This is the kind of thing that you should be able to do for a living. I don't know what's wrong that you're not allowed to get a job doing this full-time. There are a lot of us out here who are getting your loving, healing message for free. Thank you. :)

  8. This post touched me to my core Nick. Thank you.

  9. Great story; magnificent theology!

  10. The love of Christ doesn't change with the disease and neither should the love of those who claim to be Christians. ec

  11. Nick, do you know what happened to the guy?

  12. Socio economic status strengthen of HIV/AIDS in Bangladesh

    Ms. Ramya Raina Shruti
    TCTD Society
    Bnagalore Karnataka

    HIV (Human Immuno Deficiency Virus), the virus responsible for AIDS, is known to be transmitted through sexual intercourse with an infected partner, the use of infected blood, needles or syringes, and from an infected mother to her children. By the end of 2006, about 47 million people worldwide were living with HIV/AIDS, 90% of them in poor and developing countries. During 2000 alone, a total of 5.3 million adults and children were found to be newly infected with HIV, and in the same year, three million people died from HIV/AIDS - 80% of them Africans.

    Although at present Bangladesh is categorised as a low HIV prevalence country, from an epidemiological point of view the HIV epidemic in Bangladesh is evolving rapidly. Bangladesh has a relatively low prevalence of less thlan 1 percent among vulnerable groups except in Injecting Drug Users (IDUs) where HIV positivity has rapidly increased from 1.7 percent in 2000/2001 to 4.9 percent in 2004-05 in central Bangladesh. The environmental closeness of Bangladesh to Myanmar and consequently, the Golden Triangle drug trail has made it a major transit route for drug smuggling and its easy availability in the area.

    However, the transmission route of HIV/AIDS in Bangladesh is no longer confined to the IDUs but spreads further to the female sexual partners of IDUs and their children. This is not surprising as women are mostly vulnerable to HIV infection and other sexually transmissible diseases because of geographical and socio-cultural factors including economic, educational and legal discrimination and unequal gender relations. The most alarming news is that -- during 5th round of surveillance in 2003/2004 -- in one pocket of central Bangladesh HIV infection rate among IDUs has reached concentrated epidemic level of 8.9 percent. During the sixth round in Central-A1, out of 664 IDUs covered, 7.1 percent tested positive for HIV. On top of that for the first time HIV was detected in cities other than Central-A during the sixth round. These two new places are Southeast-D and Northeast-F1 with the HIV prevalence rate among IDUs at 0.6 percent and 2 percent respectively.

    Women are disproportionately infected with HIV/AIDS for biological, social and economic reasons. Globally, 47% of HIV-positive adults are women, but it is increasing rapidly. Certainly, adolescent girls’ prostitution is booming in Bangladesh. Adolescent girls engage or are forced into prostitution for trafficking or socio-economic reasons. But in addition to sexual exploitation, they face all sorts of violence. Rainbow Nari O Shishu Kallyan Foundation carried out a recent field investigation, the research confirmed that adolescents girls’ prostitution is widespread in Bangladesh, although hidden at first sight from foreigners, especially in Dhaka city. Adolescent girls involved in prostitution are to be found in residence homes converted into brothels or in hotels. The majority are aged 15-18.

    Higher level of female commercial sex in Bangladesh than elsewhere in Asia: female sex workers in Bangladesh brothels report among the highest turnover of partners anywhere in Asia, at an average of 18.8 clients per week. Averaging 44 clients a week, hotel based sex workers are still higher. This high turnover is very important, because it means that once a woman does contract HIV from any of her clients, she can pass the infection on to a large number of people very quickly as the condom use is still very low while someone buying sex in Bangladesh.

    Trafficking is another major problem in Bangladesh, Rainbow Nari O Shishu Kallyan Foundation found, Trafficking is strong link HIV pandemic, if we see; globally of those HIV epidemic region, trafficking & sex exploitation is regular feature of there. Mostly trafficking victim are used commercial sex industry in other geographical area, they stay in there, as like in prison, they have no rights of speak out themselves. They are forced to sexual conduct with multiple partners, but they have no ability to insist upon condom use or safe sex and are vulnerable to HIV/STIs transmission. Some time they have to face physical attack, but they don’t get health care facilities.

    1. UNAIDS
    2. NASP-GO-Bangladesh
    3. Rainbow Nari O Shishu Kallyan Foundation
    4. CDC

  13. Another excellent post, Rev. Saint Nick. Have you considered writing a book incorporating your articles and actually selling it?

    My prayers are with you and your mom.

  14. I would like to add to Ms. Shruti's post. My dissertation partly involved HIV/Aids issues and human rights in South Africa. I would agree that women are disproportionately affected not only in South Asia but in Africa and the North as well.

    But it is not only female sex workers who are at risk. It is all women.

    In South Africa, it is compounded by economic issues but also by traditional medicine that fails to see HIV as a medical issue rather than a curse which the women inflicts on her family and her tribe. More, cultural imperatives make it very difficult for a woman to say no to sex or to insist on condom use. To top that off, is a government in complete denial of the issue and failing to follow their own court's ruling to force the government to allow women to be offered single dose treatment (at what is low cost or freely provided by the drug companies) to prevent mother to child transmission of HIV/Aids.

    In most of the world, these are privilidges that most women can not rely upon - it is NOT only sex workers at risk!

    In the North, women are also disproportionately being infected and again, it is among the poorer sections of society and those cultures where machismo is still highly prevalent that women suffer most.

    That being said - it does not detract from this man's or any man's suffering who is infected.

    More, I wanted to comment that we might want to avoid thinking that HIV/Aids is no longer a death sentence because of anti-retroviral cocktails. Firstly, that is true only for a small proportion of the worldwide population that is infected, because those in the developing world cannot afford the meds. Secondly, there are developing strains of HIV that are resistent to drugs.

    I am also curious to know from Ms. Shruti what the Karnatakan government is doing - and the Indian government in general - about the under-reporting of incidence and rates of HIV infection. Has this been recognised and addressed by the governments for the problem that it is?