Experience Making a Difference

Experience Making a Difference

Invisible Words – An Exercise in Empathy

by | Jul 26, 2022

Sometimes we see something often enough, even a sight that carries immense pain and suffering, that we begin to become numb to it. We let our minds wander; we tune it out. It’s not our proudest moment, but it’s not intentionally cruel. It’s a symptom of the overwhelming nature of modern life. Invisible Words is a project that calls us to revisit and engage in those moments where we might have found ourselves tuning out. Curated by Wendy Abrams, Invisible Words is comprised of signs carried by people who are currently without a home; their words sometimes articulately asking for help, sometimes imploring any assistance one can spare, some simply have one word, “Smile” or “Please.” Reading these words, we are called to acknowledge that those suffering are a part of the same community that we are, and that our similarities to people experiencing homelessness probably outnumber our differences.

Throughout 2022, IVC presented Invisible Words as an interactive exhibit hung in the Martin Luther King Jr Central Library of Washington DC. Along with the display, IVC hosted a series of companion events and discussions focusing on empathy and how we communicate it. The exhibit opened on March 14 with a Day of Reflection and mass celebrated by Wilton Cardinal Gregory, Archbishop of Washington DC, who personally toured the exhibit. In May IVC hosted a reception for members of Congress as well as many of IVC’s members, friends, sponsors, and donors. The emotional impact of seeing all these signs in one place, knowing that behind each sign is a person with a story, a person who is asking for humanity and kindness in their toughest time made this event truly an exercise in empathy.

The month of June saw two events that got to the heart of Invisible Words’ message. The first was a webinar entitled “Reading the Signs of the Times: Causes and Challenges of Homelessness,” which featured people actively working to combat the homelessness crisis in this country. With frank dialogue, unsparing honesty, and empathy, the panelists could allow attendees to understand the nuances of the unhoused experience.

The second event, entitled “The Intersection of Healthcare & the Homeless: Opportunities to put Empathy into

WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 09: attends as the Invisible Words Exhibit expresses exercise in empathy toward homelessness nationally on May 09, 2022 at The Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Invisible Words)

Action,” was a luncheon held at the Martin Luther King Jr Library that featured a keynote address from Dr. Helen Reiss, a practicing psychiatrist and a professor at Harvard Medical School, who specializes in the use of empathy in the treatment of mental illnesses. The day also included a panel discussion with healthcare professionals who shared their experiences caring for those experiencing homelessness.

As is clear from just those two examples, Invisible Words created a space that united a diverse group of experts in their field in sharing how their work embodied the Ignatian principle of cura personalis, or care for the whole person. The discussions offered our members and the larger IVC community a chance to be part of something larger, recognizing the shared values that connect us all despite geographic or economic differences. In much the same way, our members, through their work with our partners, are exposed to this idea of connection, empathy, and community every time they visit their workspaces or gather with one another in spiritual reflection.

During the Invisible Words webinar mentioned above, a question was posed to Cortez McDaniel, Director of Services at the Father McKenna Center, who himself was formally homeless: When you were homeless and in need of help, what gave you hope as you encountered the many obstacles? He responded, “I really appreciated someone seeing me not as a homeless guy, but as a guy. I’m just like you. I’ve fallen on hard times here; I’m not inhuman… [W]hat I really appreciated is when someone treated me with dignity and respect…I think that’s the one thing that meant the most to me – when I could really see the sincerity and the real charity from someone, and they would talk to me as a person”. One of the greatest accomplishments of IVC is that its members have the opportunity to be a source of that dignity and respect for so many through their work.