by Sister Martha Ann Kirk

“Total Death List Eight” — so read the October 1912 San Antonio Express headline.

I was doing research in the Archives of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, when our archivist showed me newspaper clippings describing the fire that burned down St. John’s Orphanage on Oct. 30, 1912.

Five of our community, the Incarnate Word Sisters who cared for the orphan boys, burned to death as they tried to get all the boys out of the blaze. They managed to get about 90 boys out, and three were lost.

The Express published the story, inviting people to help. In the following days, the newspaper listed generous people who responded. Among those the Express noted: “Collections from the children of Temple Beth-El religious school, for the benefit of the little orphans of St. John’s Orphanage, by Rabbi Samuel Marks, $25” — the equivalent of over $600 today.

The children must have been led by adults to reflect, “How would I feel if I didn’t have my home?” The children were given an opportunity to act, and, as a result, were developing compassion.

Compassion is like a muscle that can get stronger.

This past May, 14 of us, including graduate and undergraduate students from the University of the Incarnate Word, were on a Women’s Global Connection trip, “Peru: Service and Solidarity.” We were in areas where many homes did not have running water, and many people did not have clean water.

The students reflected, “Do I recognize my social situation in the world or just assume that my circumstances are ‘normal,’ that having clean water is the reality for all?” One in nine people in the world lacks access to safe water.

The students were given an opportunity to act, helping teach workshops on clean water, sharing water filters and how to use them.

The students were developing compassion.

Opportunities are growing in our city. The Interfaith San Antonio Alliance is inviting us as local faith communities and as individuals to see the homelessness, lack of affordable housing, and gentrification. The city’s Faith-Based Initiative also is calling for cooperation to address the root causes of those and related ills, including generational poverty and economic segregation. empowers us to connect our struggling neighbors to abundant resources and transformative relationships.

As the little children at Temple Beth-El reflected on the children at the Catholic orphanage who were homeless after the fire, will we reflect and act in ways that we can?

Will we ask ourselves: Do I recognize my social situation in relation to that of others? Do I see how many benefits I have? Will I reflect on the humanity I share with those in other circumstances? Will I act for the common good?

The hearts of the children of Temple Beth-El connected with the orphaned children, and today I listen to young people who are serving others. I hear them starting to realize that what we give in life can bring more joy than what we get.

Sister Martha Ann Kirk and the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word are the 2013 San Antonio Peace Laureates. Sister Martha Ann works with the Ettling Center for Civic Leadership and Sustainability at the University of the Incarnate Word.

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