The Randomness of Compassion: An Interview with Romanita Hairston

The Randomness of Compassion: An Interview with Romanita Hairston

Your work focuses on the real, daily needs of children right here in our own neighborhoods. But sometimes it seems easier to think about the needs outside of our borders, like focusing on the hunger faced by children in far-off countries. Why do you think that is?

The things happening in our neighborhoods are actually connected to us—and who wants to deal with that? “I don’t want to deal with me, but I’d be more than happy to deal with you.” You know both are necessary, there’s room in the kingdom of God for both to happen, but one typically requires us thinking about our priorities in relationship to others. Issues at home require us to think about our actual life choices and the ways that we live in relationship to others.

You often partner with churches and other faith-based organizations in your work. What’s your perception of how effectively, or not, the American church is engaging the problems in our own backyard?

I’m extremely hopeful for the possibility of the church. I have to borrow a quote: When the Paris agreement happened on climate change, a key leader said, “Compared to what could have happened, it’s a miracle. Compared to what should have happened, it’s a travesty.” I think the same can be said of the church: Compared to what could happen, I see amazing examples of faithful and committed stewardship and diligence, churches literally transforming lives and impacting communities by bringing the emergence of the kingdom. Whether that’s churches that are taking on schools to help educate the kids, or to renew the landscape, or taking on issues like youth violence in Chicago, individual Christians and some churches institutionally are amazing lights that shine—in relative comparison to the church as a whole in this country. If you were to look at where the bulk of the Christian wallet goes, where our resources go, where our time and attention is spent, it’s a travesty at that massive scale. Which is basically to say that there is room to continue to walk together as Christians, to grow, to develop, to transform.

Do you have hope that we’re moving in the right direction?

My heart wants to say, “Yes, I see signs we’re moving in the right direction!” But I think what I see is we’re at a tipping point. I think we’re at a place in culture where we’re leaning toward the right direction, but we don’t have the momentum yet. We’re building and gaining the momentum, but the thing that constantly comes to me is faithful diligence. And that it’s spiritual—it’s not just about the seen, it’s invisible, some of what we’re trying to do to achieve a real tipping point, to see over the top and crest that hill toward the kind of change that we want. And the battle is strong. If this was Star Wars, the Empire’s trying to strike back!

“We’re leaning toward the right direction, but we don’t have the momentum yet.”

That image of a tipping point feels so true—like we might look back on this period in a decade or two and see it as a time in which so much changed, for better or worse. What would it take to tip the scale in a positive direction?

I think there are a few elements. One that immediately comes to me is that so many of the marginalized and the oppressed are minority people, and a part of the tipping point is moving from people fighting for them to being with them. I think we’ve got to see it in leadership and power; our leadership and power structures need to be as diverse as the people groups they represent. That will be a huge sign that we’re seeing the evidence of the kingdom.

Because I believe in the “am”-ness of God, in the “I AM” of God, then the idea of interconnectedness and diversity, without losing individuality, is important. And I think we’ve got great people pushing, warfaring, living lives in unflinching faithfulness for change, but we’ve got to start to see the leadership reflective of all the people we’re trying to see live into this idea of kingdom. It can’t just be for, it’s got to be alongside. That’s a big sign of where we’re trying to go. We’ve got diverse voices, but the connectedness of those voices in a biblical, trinitarian way, in the “am”-ness of God kind of way, is what we’re really trying to call out.

“Our leadership and power structures need to be as diverse as the people groups they represent.” 

The second thing is, we’ll know we’ve built the institution of responsiveness, the individual awakening that needs to happen, when we start to see more of the randomness of the overflow of compassion—not institutionally driven compassion, but random, almost revival type of kingdom consciousness, people literally in all walks of life doing what they can with what they have. We need a tsunami of compassionate efforts. We cannot pay our way out of the situation we’re in, so the professionals have to be working with a tidal wave of individual compassion behind them. I say to people all the time that my goal is not to grow the work of World Vision, it’s to grow the organic essence of true community and compassion where people are found. I think the church is God’s hope for that kind of tidal wave of compassion and justice-oriented action.

I think the other tipping point—and I do see signs of hope in this—is that people are starting to realize that some of these intractable issues that we face, they’re actually not about money, and they’re not about politics. They’re about ideology and worldview, and the church is the institution built to deal with issues of ideology from a place of faith. So interconnected and inclusive leadership, the tidal wave of compassion from faithful Christians on the ground, and the ever-increasing influence of the church on the deep issues of ideology—those are signs and prerequisites for us to look back and say, “Wow, something really changed.”

With all of that in mind, what are you looking forward to about Inhabit? What do you hope we all walk away with after those two days?

When I think about what Inhabit is designed for, about the people coming, we’re all molecules sort of rubbing up against each other, with ideas and passion and creative energy. And I think I’m really hoping that the Spirit animates that in such a way that generates new life in the places that we go back to, that we find ourselves changed and deepening in our transformation around what God is calling us to individually but also collectively. I’m for that spontaneous emergence of the life of the Spirit, and I think it’s beautiful that Inhabit is in spring, when life emerges. People experiencing life in full and new ways is the hope that I have, really seeing the manifestation of the creative power of God in our midst—to not just say that we were there, but God was there with us.