Friendship, not judgment: Ohio couple sees ‘face of Christ’ in guests

It’s one thing to empathize with your sister, neighbor or best friend. But how do you empathize with those whose life experiences bear no resemblance to your own? How, for example, can a middle-class Catholic mother of six empathize with prostitutes, drug addicts and the homeless?

That’s a lesson Molly McGovern has spent the past two years learning. During the winter of 2014, when the arctic vortex hit Steubenville, Ohio, McGovern convinced a local organization to lend her space to run a warming center for the area’s poor. Three years later, what began as a short-term solution to a temporary problem has evolved into Friendship Room — a permanent outreach center to the Ohio Valley’s most destitute residents.

At their downtown Steubenville headquarters, McGovern, along with her husband, Bill, give temporary shelter, food, showers and other necessities to men, women and children who are in need of help. Even more fundamentally, they give love.

At Friendship Room, the people served are not called clients; they are called guests. McGovern and her husband, along with others who work with them and support them, work to understand those whom others ignore.

They find Christ in those whose lives seem, on the surface, radically different from their own. They also find themselves.

Our Sunday Visitor recently spoke with McGovern about the value of radical empathy.

Our Sunday Visitor: What does empathy have to do with serving the poor?

Molly McGovern: I think one of the things that prevents people from reaching out and helping the poor is the fear of empathy. We’re afraid of suffering, so we insulate and protect ourselves from those whose lives seem to be nothing but suffering. We pass judgment on them. We analyze how much responsibility they bear for their pain. We want to be able to tell ourselves that their pain is their fault — that what’s happening to them can’t happen to us because we’re better. The one thing most of us don’t want to do is sit down and really listen to the drug addicts and the prostitutes. We don’t want to empathize with them. We know, deep down, if we do that, we’ll find out how similar we are.

We all have the same feelings. Some of us might have more polish. We might shower more regularly. But we feel the same things: the greed, the selfishness, the loneliness, the lust, the anger. It’s all there in our nice, middle-class lives, but we don’t want to acknowledge it. The great irony, however, is that when we do that, when we build those bridges and get to know those people, that’s how we’re healed. When we’re willing to stand naked before God and admit that we’re all the same, we’re all wounded, we’re all in need of his mercy, that’s when God can start to heal those wounds.

OSV: Did you understand that when you started Friendship Room?

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Molly McGovern at the Friendship Room in Steubenville, Ohio.

McGovern: Not at all. Going in, it was us versus them. We were better. We were going to help these poor people. But the longer we stayed down there — the more drug addicts we gathered up in alleys and the more dying prostitutes we brought in — the more we saw the face of Christ in those people. And the more we saw the face of Christ, the more we saw our weakness. We recognized our need for mercy in the cry of the poor. We recognized that we weren’t any better. We’re all the same. We also came to recognize the role we played in those people’s sufferings.

OSV: How so?

McGovern: A while back, Pope Francis visited a home of former prostitutes and, on behalf of the Church, asked for forgiveness for all those Catholics who had abused them. He also asked them to forgive him for not praying enough for them. In that, he reminded us that we are our brothers’ keepers. We play a part in causing or alleviating the suffering of others. His empathy allowed him to see not just others’ brokenness, but how his failings contributed to their brokenness. Something similar happened to us. It was exceedingly challenging to stand there, holding someone who was dirty, who was vomiting, and realize how many biases, misconceptions and prejudices I’d grown up with and embraced. I had no idea that I was part of the problem. I had no idea I needed to be set free of so much. I had no idea what I needed to repent of. I thought I was doing pretty good. Entering into others’ suffering helped me see the reality of who I was.

OSV: How has that changed you?

McGovern: Empathy is a risk. All love is a risk. All love is painful. But for me, I barely recognize the person that I used to be. The face of the poor has been the face of Christ to me. I feel both more accepted and more in need of his mercy. There is so much more freedom. There is a deeper and more profound relationship with Christ. Mass, the readings, sacred Scripture — they’ve all come alive in a way they never have before. I’m also more grateful. When we have empathy our hearts, we grow in gratitude because we realize the truth of what we have. None of it is on our merit. It’s not on my merit that I don’t shoot heroin. It’s not on my merit I was born into a family that didn’t live in a rat-infested shack with no electricity. I was just born. Everything is a gift. That’s the truth of my life and yours, and when you see that, it sets you free to be grateful for every good gift you have.

OSV: How can we learn to have more empathy for the poor?

McGovern: Last Sunday morning, I went to early Mass, then went to Friendship House and changed into jeans [which is across the street from a Catholic church]. As Mass was letting out, I saw one of our guests walking down the alley by the church. I went down the alley to get this person, and saw a man and his children coming toward me. This man came out of Mass. He was in a suit and tie. His children were dressed beautifully. As they came near me, I called out “Good morning! What beautiful kids!” At that point, he took a $5 bill out of his pocket, put himself between me and his children and told the kids to get in the car. I was shocked. I’ve never been treated like that before. I’d never had someone be afraid of me or tell their children they should be afraid of me; but he was, simply because I was in old jeans and walking down an alley. And I’m grateful for that experience. To be treated as nothing, to be seen as a threat or a danger, is an opportunity to experience to some small degree what our guests experience all the time. Every time someone ignores us, every time we’re treated badly, every time we’re overwhelmed by life, we need to see it as an opportunity to see into the reality of others.

OSV: What else can we do?

McGovern: Look people in the eyes. Smile at them. Cultivate a spirit of detachment. If somebody asks you for money, don’t psychoanalyze why they need it. Christ didn’t say to do that. Just talk with them. Pray with them. Give them money if you have it. Also, ask God to reveal to you somebody in your neighborhood who is alone. If you stay for doughnuts after Mass, talk to somebody you’ve never met before. Empathy comes with time and a willingness to let go of the preconceived notions we have of people. It’s been easier for me to have empathy since I realized that Christ never asked us to fix people. He just asked us to love them and do the basics: feed, clothe, provide shelter, bury the dead, pray. When I remember I don’t have to fix anybody, a great burden of responsibility is lifted off my shoulders. Then, I can just show compassion. I sit, listen, and empathy grows. Christ will give you the empathy you need if you give him the opportunity.

Emily Stimpson Chapman is an OSV contributing editor.