Don Wycliff

Empathy is the better way

Saturday, February 25, 2017

I recently attended the annual fundraising dinner for Christ the King Jesuit College Prep High School, where I have been on the board for the past five-plus years. Christ the King is part of the Cristo Rey network of schools started in Chicago by the Jesuits to offer young people in poor neighborhoods the kind of college- prep education traditionally available only in wealthier areas. It is situated on the West Side in Austin, one of Chicago’s poorest and most opportunity-deprived neighborhoods.

The student speaker at the gala, Jordan Boyson, talked about his progression at Christ the King from callow, aimless, underachieving freshman to sober, maturing senior, looking forward to college and the world of work that will follow. He described, among other activities, a trip to Washington, D.C., for the annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, a gathering of students and others from Jesuit high schools, colleges and other institutions throughout the country.

Among the people he met were students from a Jesuit school in the region of the Dakota Access Pipeline, who described the threat to their water supply that their people fear from the pipeline.

Jordan told his well-heeled audience that he came home with a fresh appreciation of how fortunate he is. The reason? All he has to do is turn on a faucet to get all the fresh, clean water he wants.

I was blown away by that remark. Here was a young man from a neighborhood that most Americans would consider anything but fortunate, but who nevertheless can empathize with others in parlous circumstances and think of himself as blessed and fortunate.

Even as I was listening in person to Jordan, my smartphone was vibrating, bringing news of the president’s executive order restricting refugee and other entries to the United States. The order — later suspended by court order — halted for 120 days all refugee entries to the country; barred indefinitely entries by refugees from Syria, where the need for relief is arguably greater than anywhere else at the moment, and barred entries for 90 days by citizens of seven nations, all with Muslim majorities. All this, we are told, in the interest of assuring the safety of the American people.

I could not help but be struck in that moment by the contrast between the actions of the high-school senior and those set in motion by the executive order. A boy who had grown up surrounded by need traveled somewhere new and returned with greater empathy — in a nation that just shut the door on migrants, many of whom are running for their lives.

Of course, the world is full of dangers, many of which we ordinary folk know nothing about. Our national security apparatus is tasked with keeping us safe from these unknown threats. But what do we become when we act out of fear, when we succumb to a culture that often trades on it? Whether it’s the ad selling you antimicrobial soap or the commercial pushing a home-security system, we seem transfixed by worry about unknown forces bent on harming us. Politically, this has translated into fear of Muslims, Mexicans and even the Chinese as threats, meriting the nation’s dread — and stern measures to combat them.

The political embrace of fear — and of shoot-first, aim-later approaches to dealing with it — began long before our current moment. The United States is no stranger to nativism, a history many Catholics of Irish and Italian descent know all too well. Nor is our nation a stranger to fear-fueled, even homicidal witch hunts. Just ask the relatives of the 120,000 Japanese men, women and children, 62 percent of whom were U.S. citizens, who were rounded up in the early 1940s and forced into internment camps here. Or the black families who suffered the unimaginable pain of seeing their loved ones lynched by racists. Fear then, fear now.

The executive order barring refugees and other migrants suggests that we should not expect to see that pattern change soon. Be afraid. Stay afraid. It may be smart politics. But it is beneath us as a nation, and we can do better.

Just as Jordan, the teenager from Chicago’s West Side, showed us, the better way is demonstrating empathy for our neighbors in need, not fear. And if we are to honor our legacy as a nation that draws strength from its diversity, we must follow his lead.