Emissaries of Empathy
by Harry Reisig
As fall sets in, and the slight chill in the air reminds me winter is soon to arrive, I’m starting to set aside a few extra cans of food, a warm sweatshirt, some socks. They will be gathered with the contributions of dozens of other compassionate people who bring cases of hand warmers, scarfs, toiletries, gift cards to Mickey D’s, into study black backpacks that will save souls living on the street this winter from freezing. Inspired by the deep, fearless compassion of Detroit’s one and only Doxie, what began as a personal mission of handing warm clothes and food to the homeless has deepened into a movement of radical empathy where we share in the “mitzvah” or holy commandment of caring for the needy.
Deuteronomy 15:7-11 “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need…. for there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ “
“For there will never cease to be poor in the land…”
I remembered pondering this line years ago, while studying in a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Why would ‘the promised land’, a blessed utopia, have poor in need of clothes and food? I brought the question to my Rabbi, who explained, “The Bible isn’t coming to promise miracles, it is a guide book to creating a holy nation, and when the people emulate the attributes of The Holy One, their natural success will be a ‘light unto the nations’. Disparity is built into the world to allow for empathy. By opening our hand wide, we open our hearts, and realize that our wealth was in fact given through the same act of charity by God to the people. Without a brother in need, we would lose the opportunity to develop this character trait essential to spiritual life. So therefore God urges us to be emissaries for his kindness, by bestowing all of with gifts to give to others in need.”
When I picked up about twenty backpacks last winter, I felt incredibly fortunate. I was able to be an emissary of small miracles, starting with John , whom I met after pulling over on Grand River at the corner of the Lodge Freeway. John was standing by the off ramp, stomping his feet to keep warm while holding up a cardboard sign. I introduced myself, “I think I have something for you. What is your name?” “John.” “Are you staying outside tonight in this cold?” “Yeah.” “Well, you may find this backpack useful. It has warm clothes, underwear, socks, hand warmers, a few days worth of food and more. Hopefully it can help you make it through a few nights.” John’s eyes widened, and then blinked a few times, either in disbelief or to wipe away the water welling up. “This is exactly what I need… I’ve been out here for two nights, and you don’t even know…. Thank the Lord!”
I passed on ten of the packs to my friend and occasional mentor Blair, who was living his first winter of freedom back home in Detroit after more than twenty years in prison. An early member of the Black Panther Party, Blair had already started up a free breakfast and health program out of the Urban Network, a bookshop and cafe in one of the toughest gang neighborhoods in Detroit, Zone 8. Blair and his comrades gently approached folks in need who came into the shop looking for food, and at bus stations in the middle of the night, handing them a pack and letting them know they were happy to listen and connect at the Urban Network.
I kept a few packs in my car the next few months, handing out one or two a week outside food pantries in my neighborhood in Northwest Detroit, and along the freeway exits where people stood with cardboard signs asking for compassion. In a time and place where hands are often clenched tight, and sharing small change on the street can feel deeply uncomfortable, Doxie’s backpacks empowered me and many others to open our hands and hearts to our brothers in need. So as I get ready for winter, I’m setting aside some warm clothes and cans of food to allow others to be emissaries of empathy.