The Antidote to a Small Heart
by Damian Hanley
Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love. -Thich Nhat Hanh
We’re told to practice empathy because it’s understood we’re never going to be great at it. Most of us in this Parish will never experience homelessness, but during the five years I worked here, I met a few people that definitely did live through it; and not the transitional kind. They were the 30%+ “under the bridge” type of homeless. Where all ties to the social and economic engine are lost. Where prolonged exposure to the elements poses serious health risks, and where loved ones deny you.
Jennifer Brown’s story is just another long, heartbreak that we’ve all heard a version of in the past. One of the drawbacks to our media-saturated culture is that we’ve become numb to stories like her’s, but the following are some reasons why becoming such is bad for both parties. It dehumanizes Jennifer, and it stunts your spiritual growth.
She was born in 1984 to Eugene Owens and Emma Wells. She had twelve siblings; three are deceased. At three months, she was taken from her mother and placed in foster care. She doesn’t remember foster care, but her aunt Margaree – Jennifer’s father’s sister – had to become her advocate. “Margaree saved my life. I was dying of malnutrition at 10 months old, and she went to court to fight for another chance for my mother, but didn’t get it,” Jennifer shares. “She had a son though, and he became like my brother. His father became my father – Esco Davis. He provided for us. He loved us, and protected us.”
Despite a rough start, Jennifer’s life didn’t seem so out of touch while growing up. She eventually got to know her brothers and sisters. She’s nostalgic about periods of her adolescence when her friends were tight, and family life had energy and love to spare.
“I had these six friends and we were so close. A couple of them were Hispanic and they taught me how to speak Spanish. I was the only black girl in my neighborhood that had Spanish, but it wasn’t weird or anything. I knew I was loved. But then things started to change. My brother Sherrod started disappearing for long periods of time. I would go to my aunt and ask her why…”
Sherrod was Jennifer’s best friend, and around the time she became a teenager, his run-ins with the law became more frequent. To deal with her emotions, she began to smoke pot. This is when the trouble really began. She began skipping school. She got into fights. She became a nihilist – a rebel without a cause.
Many can identify with this. We go through periods of listless languishing, often in our youth, when the stakes are low. If we believe in God at all, we question the meaning of our suffering, and if the suffering is sharp enough, we’re like to deny His existence. If we never had doubts, it wouldn’t be called faith. And this is where Jennifer’s story diverts on a course where empathy might be the only tool we have to understand and accept her.
- When was the last time you felt truly unwanted?
- When was the last time your best friend went to prison?
- When was the last time you felt completely alone, and unloved?
- Empathy is the antidote to the smallness of our hearts.
Jennifer began to have her own legal problems at the age of 16. Looking back, she knows that her behavior was motivated by a deep need to reunite with her mother. The pain of that separation left a void that created an emotional vacuum in her life. And she filled that void – with cocaine.
As it typically does, her drug use initiated a downward spiral of reckless behavior and debauchery that only a young drug addict can know. “I looked for love in all the wrong places, and I ran away from home at the age of 18 to go live with my mother. I ended up getting pregnant with my oldest child, Naturi Quanayzah. This was a blessing, as I was forced to stop doing all the wrong things and take care of myself.”
Jennifer entered a program for at-risk pregnant women, which she completely successfully. After she gave birth, she moved back in with her aunt, got a job, and started to pay bills. Life was manageable for a couple years until… it wasn’t anymore. She moved out and ‘things got a little rough’ over the next year. She fell in with the wrong crowd again, and on her 21st birthday, for the first time of many, she smoked crack cocaine.
And this became the focus of her life.
Four years later, she got pregnant with her second child, Miracle Saturi. “She was a miracle from heaven. I only say that, because I chose to smoke crack all nine months of my pregnancy… and yet, she was born relatively healthy. I knew I had to get my life together, so I checked myself back into that program for at-risk women. I spent the next year between two different programs… and then…”
After leaving the women’s home, she moved to Immokalee where she lived with a friend, Ricardo. They tried their best to support each other, but money got tight and Jennifer turned back to the streets and the life she’d known before. She forfeited Miracle to her mother, and before long, was fully engaged in her addiction. Funding her habit became an issue, so she turned to petty crime… which of course turned into more serious crime. A felony burglary charge landed her two years in prison. Had enough?
“After my release, Ricardo and I got pregnant, and life was actually pretty good for a while. I had a good pregnancy and healthy baby, but…”
Just three months after the birth, Ricardo started to get violent with Jennifer. She fled. She’d recently learned that her brother, Sherrod, had been released from prison, so she decided to run away to live with him. After a month of living in a small hotel room with him and his wife, Jennifer started to use drugs again, and they kicked her out. She ended up in a crack house with her three children until DCF finally intervened. Her world had come to an end.
She spiraled even further, prostituting to stay alive, she became homeless and during a period of time when memories were murky, she hit her bottom. This is the Cliff’s Notes version of her life. Try to imagine this being your reality for an entire decade.
“That’s when I found St. Martin de Porres. They gave me food and clothing. I met my husband there. And now his family is my family. I’m in the process of getting my kids back… I guess God had a plan for me.”
That plan came in the form of Fernando and Mercedes Castillo’s ministry. Started in 2006, St. Martin de Porres has been one of those Catholic ministries that you can really be proud of. Founded by a man and his wife, out of nothing but an observation that the community around them needed help. They take anyone that asks regardless of race, religion or background, and they just meet them where they are. They do the “Catholic” thing. They address their immediate needs and become beacons of light for people that need, more than anything else, an example of what Christ might be like.
The mission has grown over the years, and moved between several locations. But now they have a permanent home on Palm Beach Blvd. They’re supported by churches, businesses and individuals who donate food, clothing and children’s gifts – because these entities believe in the mission, and in Fernando and Mercedes as good stewards of their resources. You can (and should) learn more at stmartindeporresministry.org. This is a mission that comes as close to those in need as one might possibly get.
Not only should this story encourage you to empathize about the events that happened during the first 30 years of her life, but try to imagine the nuances of the context in which she lived her life. The circumstances around the split with her mother soon after her birth… Only having a few stable years before the mayhem of her teenage years… And then as a young adult, being basically subtracted from the economy as you and I know it… Having the stigma of cocaine addiction following her around in her social life (and few addictions are as ugly)… Prison?! For one person – just admit – this is a wildly different way to live a life.
And that’s the challenge of empathy: to know that that person is, too, a child of God and has the same amount of hope and dignity as you – the same amount. Do we really believe this about people like a 19-year old Jennifer? This would be an extreme example, but understand what the practice of empathy means, in general. Yes, of course the objection is “people make horrible decisions that I would never, under any circumstance, choose for myself… Why am I supposed to feel bad for them?”
And this would be missing the point. It’s not about feeling bad, or pity. Empathy is about understanding another person’s frailty and version of the human experience, in order that we can one day accept them. We practices empathy because it’s the beginning of acceptance, and acceptance is necessary for love; and expanding our capacity for love is the only real way to become a better Christian.
If you have enough empathy, you can gain acceptance. If you have acceptance, you can have love. And if you have enough love, then every part of life, no matter how mundane can be an experience of joy. How great would that be?