This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Book review: ‘Smart Compassion’

How radical should radical hospitality get? If you are open to having foster children in your home, is one enough, or should you have two or four or maybe eight? At what point do you set a boundary? A foster parent himself, Wesley Furlong explores this and similar challenges in Smart Compassion.

'Smart Compassion'
‘Smart Compassion’

A church leader and nonprofit founder now living in Pennsylvania, Furlong leads readers into an exploration of community-based ministries that unify the head and the heart.

One might think making compassion smart requires head knowledge. This book actually notches up the heart element. Real compassion starts with connecting with others on a deep human level.

Increased knowledge, however, does make a difference to Furlong. He gives examples of how well-intended services to low-income parents and families can sometimes lead to unintended harms, such as embarrassing a recipient who would have appreciated more empowerment and less of a handout.

Learning more about people in need on both the sociological and psychological levels is vital for anyone who is committed to long-term service work. Understanding root causes from a systems approach is also critical.

I appreciate that Furlong gives plenty of attention to the inward roots of authentic service to others. He writes about loving others and listening to them in ways that make relationship-building the foundation of compassion-based ministries. This boils down to being more thoughtful as the service worker seeks to be a healing presence.

Out of this thoughtfulness comes discerning and responding, which complete the quartet started by loving and listening. Discerning always asks the question: How can I help bring new life in this situation?

All of this takes time. One nice example in the book is how Jesus, with the two disciples from Emmaus, was in no rush. He honored their questions, spent time in conversation and shared a meal with them in their home. Being with others in full and deep ways is what compassion is all about.

Radical hospitality, therefore, becomes a natural outgrowth to this process of being with others in their state of need. Furlong mentions how one woman with a reputation for making strangers feel like family used to say, “Food pantries are good, but let’s try to move people into our kitchens.” Part of following Jesus is “finding ways to turn strangers into extended family members.”

Returning to the foster care issue: Meet the Vernons. Examples like this couple’s journey to normalize the acceptance of foster children into their home run throughout the book. But there are more than just anecdotes here. Furlong presents several continuums that can help service workers navigate tough decisions. Providers can fall on a continuum of healthy to fragile. They can wrestle with boundary issues ranging from rigid to flexible. They can find a balance between nurture and structure. No matter what the case, though, learning to embrace tension is par for the course.

“There’s no compassion without relationship, and there’s no relationship without margin,” Furlong says. To allow for margins means, for instance, holding things loosely in our planned schedule.

I like the way Furlong emphasizes the role of God’s Spirit to direct — or better, to redirect — things that are beyond our control. This openness leads to kairos moments of opportunity that demonstrate God’s role in making new life happen for others. Examples of this populate the book.

Ultimately, smart compassion should lead to the empowerment of the people and communities being served. At this point I was expecting more from the book about how church communities can play a key role in being a healing presence, providing radical hospitality and empowering local players. Furlong could have done better to show how a mission-minded church can advance its own collective formation in its outward journey. But his section on how churches can be like Old Testament cities of refuge does well to pull the discussion in this direction. This is a great model for serving immigrants or people who feel isolated in our society.

If you are in the early stages of a new outreach to people who are beset with social needs, this book is for you. Furlong sustains a balance between head and heart, keeping God’s activity at center stage. Notching up both the head and heart factors of compassion will very likely move the background of life into the foreground of what you see day to day.

Ted Lewis works as a restorative justice trainer and consultant, and also runs the Agapé Peace Center in Duluth, Minn.

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