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This is the short definition of compassion that we use at Compassionate San Antonio: to walk with another in his or her suffering, with authentic affection. That’s great as far as it goes, but there is one important component missing: knowledge.

When peaceCenter Animating Director Ann Helmke and I were in Louisville at the Compassionate Organizations Symposium last Spring, Joel and Michele Levy, founders of Wisdom at Work, explained that we can look at compassion as a winged heart.

In the center is the heart — the genuine affection. Call it love, if you want, or the Golden Rule: the desire and determination to treat others as you wish to be treated yourself. One wing is the accompaniment aspect: walking with another, being there, doing something, action. That second wing? It’s knowledge. Action+knowledge is what makes love take wing.

We’ve all seen — or heard of — stories of people (or organizations, or governments) who have tried to be compassionate but lacked the knowledge to make it work. One vivid example is animal hoarders, who love animals and think they are rescuing them. But they can’t properly care for the animals. They don’t know about or can’t afford to spay or neuter and are soon overwhelmed (if you start our with two cats and let them breed at will, in less than four years you’ll have more than 2,000 cats.) The hoarders can’t afford the expense of veterinary services or proper food. By the time animal services comes to the rescue, they are all — humans and animals — living in filth amid a pile of starving, ill or dead kittens. That’s not compassion. It lacks knowledge.

This brings me to the point of this post.

Bee Moorehead, Director of the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy/Texas Impact recently had an excellent Blog post on the value of knowing about our communities before we rush to action. Texas Impact has devised a creative Treasure Hunt. She explains: “We’ve identified twelve areas that individuals and communities of faith should understand about their local environments, ranging from homelessness to healthcare to local political leadership. For each area, we’ve provided two exercises that we think would help any average person gain some familiarity with the issues and current state of affairs.”

Here’s and example of an activity in the category Public Transportation:

Select an address or intersection from a low-income neighborhood in your community, and plan out how you would get from there to the nearest grocery store or doctor’s office and back. How long would it take you? Are there different schedules for different days of the week? Report back on any perceived shortcomings (access for low-income families, relation to grocery stores, schools, benefits offices, etc). Bonus points for sending us a picture of you using the public transportation in your community.

I went to Google Maps and typed in the address for Inner City Development on the West Side (1600 Chihuahua) to figure out how long it would take for someone who lives in one of the San Antonio’s lowest income zip codes to get to the Medical Center. I was delighted to find that there was a direct bus route (the 502) that leaves about every hour and takes about 52 minutes. I didn’t know that.

Here’s another scenario: I once met a pastor of an inner city Lutheran Church — in Camden, NJ — who found, in talking to the people in his community, that one of the biggest hassles was doing laundry. Often a young mother had to schlep a weeks worth of dirty clothes and two pre-school kids across town with two bus transfers to get to a laundromat. It was an all-day job. So he put a couple of washers and dryers in the church basement. That’s compassion coupled with knowledge.

What a fantastic way to develop informed and committed citizens! I especially like that the Treasure Hunt sends folks out into the wild to see first-hand the needs of their communities and has them report back to Texas Impact with their findings and reflections, helping them build a more comprehensive state-wide picture of our needs. Twelve areas — perfect for a small group to tackle once a month.

I’m going to do it — how about you?

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