Saturday, January 23, 2016

Does charity = Compassion?

What does the word “compassion” mean? Since last summer a small but growing circle of Cheyenne people representing diverse faith communities have been meeting regularly to discuss that question.

The question is not only defining “compassion” but perhaps more poignantly, defining what is a “compassionate community.” There is a difference of significance.

Compassionate people demonstrate sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Compassion is a characteristic that fuels acts of kindness and mercy. But compassion should also be the way in which the community addresses the needs of all who suffer.

Cheyenne is filled with compassionate people. If only there was a way to quantify the value of the acts of compassion demonstrated here daily by the faith community, non-profit and civic organizations, businesses, and individuals. These entities selflessly feed many of the hungry, house many of the homeless, provide medical care for some of the ill, visit some of the lonely, care for some of the neglected and abused children and elderly, teach and mentor.

The sum total of all these acts of compassion would rival the budgets of government agencies. The good they do and the impact they have on the lives of our neighbors is, unfortunately, incalculable.

The next question is tougher. Does the sum total of all the acts of compassion of these folks equal a “compassionate community”?

That question stirred my thinking recently when a Laramie County District Court Judge sentenced an 86 year-old man. The elderly man, whose attorney said was nearing senility, was charged with a nonviolent offense. He allegedly forced a hotel worker to touch his genitals through his clothing and kissed her against her will, a third degree sexual assault.

For that, this 86 year-old Korean War veteran is going to prison. He is going to prison, not because he is a danger to the community, nor because the nature of his crime requires it. He is going to prison because our community has no other resource to care for such a person.

Recently a candidate in next year’s city council election visited the offices of Recover Wyoming (RW). It is a non-profit organization helping hundreds of addicts get and maintain their recovery from addiction. RW is nationally recognized for its effectiveness. Cheyenne is fortunate to have people doing this kind of compassionate work.  The city council candidate doesn’t agree.

Uninvited and with no authority but his own self-righteousness, this man walked into RW’s office and told them they didn’t belong in downtown Cheyenne.  He asked that RW move out of its downtown location because he thinks they attract “the wrong kind of people” to that part of the city. RW does the work of compassion. People like this candidate build walls that prevent Cheyenne from being a compassionate community.

It is compassionate work when the community supports a homeless shelter but only when it works to provide affordable housing for everyone does the community become compassionate.

To the extent it can Cheyenne Regional Medical Center and the Cheyenne Health and Wellness Center, among others, provide compassionate care for low-income people. But a compassionate community doesn’t elect legislators who ignore the suffering of thousands and refuse to expand Medicaid so that all these folks may have adequate health care. A compassionate community doesn’t simply donate to the food bank while ignoring employers who pay less than minimum wages.

These are examples of what Cheyenne must overcome if it is to be a compassionate community. Yes, it’s true. Others can write much longer lists of the good work being done here. Thousands of hours are being given, tens of thousands of dollars are donated to compassionate causes. The suffering would be much greater without all of that.

That kind of good work may make certain individuals, faith communities, or organizations compassionate. It doesn’t necessarily make our community compassionate. Compassion is more than charity. Compassion requires a community to examine its social, political, and economic systems to determine whether they are designed to alleviate suffering.


  1. Thanks for the column on compassion. I too know many people in Cheyenne who do good works. However, there are some, such as this unnamed City Council candidate, who undo good works by their unthinking actions. Perhaps we could get this person's name so we can vote for someone else?

  2. I will be making his name known before the primary

    1. Why wait. It was Gabriel Pina, the tea party candidate from Ward 3

    2. Thanks, Roger. I've met the man and tried to have conversations. Alas, compassion is not the only thing that he's lacking.

  3. Excellent column. It is strange how folks can divorce attitudes and actions from the religious values they profess on Sunday. Mercy and kindness -- that is compassion we can practice every day.