A lot of times, being the Bible teacher means you have to push past the eye rolls and arguments; you have to remember where the students are coming from and respect it. You get a lot of dozing, irritated students – the ‘shields up student’ if you will. It can be pretty defeating if you let it. But I’ve seen some amazing things happen in my classroom. I’ve watched as an obstinate ‘you can’t make me’ young man turned into an active participant. I have witnessed a girl who slept every day one school year be a leader the next. I have seen students challenge one another, heard some amazing testimonies of faith, enjoyed a lot of laughter, and wept through a lot of pain. In here, we don’t just talk about the Bible – we wrestle with it.
Recently, in talking about what it means to become a follower of Jesus we were discussing empathy. A new student raised her hand – I never know what she is going to say (she has made a habit of coming out of left field with some very postmodern philosophical ideas) – her question was simple, “What is empathy?”
I started expressing it as, ‘the deep-seated pain in my soul that aches for your pain.’ Here’s how the conversation went from there:
Mikayla: “Mr. Curry, you’re gonna make me cry again.”
Cameron: “No one thinks any less of you if you do! We aren’t all gonna start gasping, take offense, or talk about you.”
Mikayla: “No one knows what it’s like! They don’t know! No one understands the fear of living in the hood and hearing gunshots. No one gets what it is like living in a homeless shelter! They don’t know what it feels like, not sure if you are gonna wake up or not because things are so crazy in the hood! And then they tell you ‘oh, that breaks my heart.’ But they don’t know!”
I talked about the difference between empathy, sympathy and apathy.
Mr. Curry: “Sympathy says, ‘oh.. You poor baby!’ Apathy says, ‘not my problem. Maybe if that kid’s parents weren’t bums…’ but Empathy – empathy says, ‘I don’t want to fix it – I just want to hurt with you, to ache with you.’ Empathy goes beyond the physical world we live in and allows for my soul to reach out to yours and just embrace your pain.” I talked about how my best friend came over the night my dad left. He didn’t try to fix it. He didn’t say much. He just held me as we both wept uncontrollably.
Mikayla: “Dang Mr. Curry – I am gonna cry! And I never cried before living here. I didn’t even cry at my Great-Grandmother’s funeral in April. Now I feel like I am crying every day!”
Eric, a stoic and reserved young man said it this way, “Your heart is feeling love and emotions like you haven’t before. I never cried before here either. But when Sierra, my friend, left – I cried. A lot. Because it was a love I had never felt before.”
Launi: “But seriously, I don’t think a day goes by when at least one person doesn’t tell me that they love me – and they mean it!”
Andrea: “It’s because the people here at Cookson actually care. They really want you to grow. They really do hurt with you and love with you. They don’t care about your past! We all come from crazy families, all kinds of dysfunction – they don’t care! They just want to love you, regardless of your past! Some kids say they hate it here, but really, they hate the love that they don’t know how to handle! The people here, they don’t see us for our mistakes and what we have done.”
Cameron spoke up again, “And you have to want it. You have to accept the love. That is when things start to change. Trust me. I remember what it was like when I didn’t want to be loved. When I wouldn’t accept it.”
I brought it to a resolution by throwing my story back out there, “Guys, as a follower of Jesus, that is what empathy is about – I don’t have to have been there to hurt with you. And because I want to follow Jesus – I cannot sit by and do nothing, that is apathy.” I talked about the story in Mark where it says that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd, “Guys, if I am going to follow Jesus, I have to act on that, too. It is why Mrs. Curry and I made the decision to move from Virginia to Oklahoma.”
That is how the last 15 minutes of my class went, with four girls sobbing in each other’s arms; with the boys sitting there, not sure what to do. With tears of joy, sorrow, pain, and unfamiliar love flowing freely. I sat stunned, recognizing that I hadn’t said very much. That the Holy Spirit was doing something here. Healing was beginning.
Empathy: it is why our houseparents give up so much and move to the middle of nowhere to deal with the drama, the cursing, the pain. It is why our principal is willing to sit with a student for hours until they are willing to talk. Why our social workers will drop everything to calm down a dysregulated student. Why anyone on campus will open their home for a student as the need requires.
So sometimes, Bible class is hard. It is exhausting. And other times – the Holy Spirit steps in and we celebrate breakthroughs.