A conversation on compassion


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, December 6th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a conversation on compassion.

Trey Hill spent 14 years as the founder and CEO of Mercy Street. That’s a West Dallas ministry and it provides mentoring and leadership training for young people at risk.

EICHER: Today, Hill is the senior director of urban missions at Park Cities Presbyterian Church. That’s where WORLD Radio’s J.C. Derrick attends, and so he sat down to talk with Hill about effective compassion.

J.C. DERRICK, MANAGING EDITOR: Now, I’ve heard you say over the last 15 years or so you’ve learned a whole lot of lessons about poverty-fighting, and you’ve also said you’ve learned most of them the hard way. So, can you talk about some of those lessons and the ways that you’ve learned them?

TREY HILL: Yeah, absolutely. You know, when my wife and I moved into the inner city 15 years ago, I think we went in with a lot of the traditional methods and means in our minds as to how to fight poverty. And oftentimes what that meant is that there is kind of this benefactor, beneficiary mindset. And, really, unintentionally what you’re doing there is you’re setting up a dynamic where there’s a superior-inferior. Where we have something to give, and you only have something to receive.

And I think that’s the biggest lesson that we learned is that really the best model is to actually recognize the gifts and assets in the community and to build upon those and to recognize that we also come into the community with profound needs. So, really, we both have needs, and we have something to give. And I think that was probably the biggest lesson we learned: seeing the beauty and the value of the people that we were working with and recognizing our own brokenness in the process.

DERRICK: Is there a particular story that comes to mind where maybe you realized how you were being impacted yourself in this work?

HILL: Yeah, you know, one of the stories that comes to mind: there was a young man that we were working with, and this is when I first got into the work, and he was very bright, but he was always disruptive. He was just a kid that liked to act a clown. And I actually made the assumption it was because he couldn’t do the work I was asking him to do. And one time in a moment of frustration I was like, “Dude. Sit down and do your work.”

And so he kind of hastily scribbles on the piece of paper and shoves it back in my face, and I expected it to kind of give me a message that I probably deserved and, instead, he’d gotten every answer right. And I was like, “Dude, you’re really smart.” He says, “Yeah, but I don’t see why it matters.” And I was like, “Well, what are you talking about?” And he goes on to tell me his own life situation, and it had been definitely tough, and he had a brother in jail and a father who had been shot, and he said, “I figured that’s what life has in store for me.”

And I recognized in that moment that my worldview that I had grown up with, the message given to me was that “the world’s your oyster, you can be whatever you want to be” was not what was being given to him. And in that, I realized we had to go about this completely differently. That, really, we have to start understanding each other’s stories before we even begin to teach them anything. And so that was a huge lesson for me just at the beginning, just to sit down and understand someone’s story before making any judgements.

DERRICK: Well and you mentioned moving to the area you did, where you were going to be working, and I know that’s another area you’re passionate about in terms of the “power of proximity,” is the way you word that. So can you talk about that and its importance?

HILL: Yeah, it really follows the model that Christ established in the incarnation. He vacated the perfection of heaven, entered into the slum of our earth to redeem a people for himself. And so in following that pattern, we don’t think that we’re adding anything to the redemptive work of Christ, but we’re just making it more visible.

And I think what we learned in that, as you’re kind of sharing in the joys of the community and also suffering to the extent that you can the pains of the community, knowing that I always had a safety net that often didn’t exist to some of my friends and neighbors. But what we did realize is that the closer you are to a problem, the closer you are to a solution. That oftentimes as we’re viewing it from afar and kind of speculating about what the problem might be, we’re also speculating as to what the answer might be, versus, again, engaging in real conversations with real people who are really suffering and saying how can we work through this together? And that only happens as you build trust, and trust is often built within close proximity. Rather than being the person that drives in and drives out, we felt it was important for us to live there.

And even when I say proximity, that doesn’t always require a physical move. But I do think it requires a consistent presence… usually within the context of relationship. 

DERRICK: We’re now in the Christmas season where many Christians will be involved in giving and volunteering in various forms. How would you advise people approach that type of work?

HILL: Yeah, I think Spirit-led would be the way I’d say that. Again, we are really big on empowerment, which often tends to work against the more transactional models of ministry of just giving away food or just giving away Christmas gifts. If you’re going to do that, I would prefer to see it be done within the context of relationship. 

Now, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do some of the great things that are out there like Angel Tree. But my hope is that would be a catalyst to an ongoing relationship with that person rather than just a one-time event. I think the one-time event thing, it’s not ultimately very empowering or very transformational.

And with the mutually transforming relationships, I believe that you have something to benefit, I have something to benefit, if we actually take that perhaps initial transaction and then try to build upon that. My actual preference is to start on the other side, to have the relationship first and then be the blessing, as you would in any relationship as you see need. 

There’s a great book When Helping Hurts by the folks out of the Chalmer Center at Covenant College in Tennessee, and it has these amazing principles. And Bryant Myers’ Walking With the Poor is also talking a lot about this. But how really what we find in poverty is just a series of broken relationships: man’s broken relationship with God, man’s broken relationship with others, with creation, and with himself. Well, those aren’t going to be healed through stuff. It’s really healed through the context of relationship, and so I think as we’re working to see people coming to faith in Jesus, they can then reconcile relationships with one another, with themselves, and with creation itself.


(Photo/Mercy Street Dallas)

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