Grounding Ourselves in the Soil of Compassion (Compassion Lesson 1)

Woman sitting on a rooftop looking at "Jesus Saves" sign

This is the first of four lessons on discussing race with youth.

Quest for Life

Duration: 60 minutes

Enhancer of Joy



60 minutes

Lesson Developed by

Seth Schoen and Christopher Carter


Seeing Our Emotions as Sources of Wisdom

Tips to Prepare

Thorough reading of introduction to curriculum; practice guided meditation personally before leading youth through it.

Materials Checklist

  • Large white board or flip chart to record comments
  • Markers

Setting the Atmosphere

Chairs should be set up in a half-circle facing the part of the room where the facilitator will be recording their comments.

Scripture Focus

Colossians 2:6-7 – So live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught.


The goal of this session is to help the participants experience what it feels like to be in a grounded emotional state. While we are grounded we can begin to notice and name our racialized identities without being enmeshed in their reactivities.


Youth will name the emotions that are present within them when they discuss race

Further Study

See Frank Rogers Practicing Compassion

Introduction for Leaders

Embodied Racial Awareness Youth Group & Young Adult Curriculum

Yale Joy and Flourishing project


The following four sessions are an abbreviated and age appropriate version of the Embodied Racial Awareness program designed by Drs. Seth Schoen and Christopher Carter. The goal of these sessions is to create a space for young people to explore their racial identities and celebrate their embodiment as bearers of the imago Dei and children of God. In this way, the goals of these sessions are to address emotional and structural difficulties that young people face when they are trying to make sense of what it means to be racialized. Given that we understand joy to be an affective affirmation of the concrete reality of ourselves and others as beloved with regard to the wholeness of our identities.[1] It is imperative that the church become a place where our racial differences are seen as diverse and complimentary parts of the body of Christ. To be sure, the history of racism, segregation, and nationalism within American Christianity has inhibited our ability to accomplish this goal. And yet we have faith that all things are possible through Christ our Lord. We have seen glimpses of interracial beloved communities within American Christianity, perhaps most notably in the Church of All Peoples in San Francisco founded by Christian theologian and contemplative Howard Thurman. Following Thurman’s lead and using our own work in race and contemplative theory, this curriculum is designed to help groups develop an embodied understanding of our racial identities in order to inform and strengthen our ability to fashion together a beloved community.

Cultivating joy around issues of race and racism involves compassionately understanding ourselves and others as racialized people. As a way to introduce the sessions we believe it would be helpful for youth leaders to develop a working knowledge of the theories that help us understand ourselves as racialized and compassionate human beings; essential aspects of living into the imago Dei. As such, the remainder of the introduction elaborates on the components of critical race and racial formation theories and the Compassion Practice most relevant to the curriculum and demonstrate the practical importance of these theories through the lived experience of two adolescents. Our goal is to provide you with a taste of the theories we use and demonstrate their explanatory and transformative potential in real world settings. In this way, you will be able to understand how they would work in your own ministry setting.

Racial formation (i.e. seeing the reality of race)

The theory of racial formation is a theoretical framework that provides an illuminating view of the sociohistorical process of racial identity, both structurally and personally.[2] Structurally, racial formation provides a way to begin thinking about how the broader patterning of race (i.e. racialized social structures) shapes the institutions, communities, and social worlds in which we live and act. Personally, racial formation offers insight into how we manifest these larger racialized social structures in our everyday lives, and within our bodies. Racial formation is defined as “the sociohistorical process by which racial identities are created, lived out, transformed, and destroyed.”[3] Racial formation involves the core processes of racialization, and racial projects. Racialization is “the extension of racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group.”[4] The core of the racialization process involves imparting social and symbolic meaning to perceived physical differences. These physical differences are then understood as the manifestations of more profound differences within racially identified persons.[5] There is an irreducible visual dimension to racialization. Stereotypes such as African Americans are more athletic than whites, or that Asians are good at science and math are examples of racialization. Every aspect of our social and physical world is subject to the process of racialization. The fact that we can interpret racial meanings is evidence of a preexisting racialized social structure. We understand the stereotypes above, for example, precisely because we exist within a racialized social structure.

Critical Race Theory

Critical race theorists seek to understand how race and racism function in order to “uncover the ongoing dynamics of racialized power, and its embeddedness in practices and values which seemingly do not have racial manifestations.”[6] There are four key concepts of critical race theory (CRT) that are important for the curriculum: race as a social fact, racism is normal, intersectionality, and centering the stories of people of color. To be sure, these four claims are extremely strong. An honest assessment of American Christianity and its history of theologically justifying events all Christians should believe were immoral and inconsistent with the Gospel of Christ (e.g. coloniality, indigenous genocide, slavery, to name but a few) reveal a racist history that we must confront if we desire to heal a fractured Church.

Race is a social fact

CRT scholars view race as a social fact. Once race acquired the level of social meaning and influence to define groups of people “race [became] a real category of group association and identity.”[7] Like gender and class, race is a classification system and is now a permanent part of our social world. It is part of the way meaning is made in the world, and an element of social structure rather than an irregularity within it.

Discourses that deny racial consciousness and focus on being post-racial, such as colorblind views of race, legitimate current practices of racial subordination, and white supremacy. Importantly, these practices are largely invisible to most whites. One major concern with colorblind theories of race is their conception of race as a problem.[8] This problematic conception arises from conflating race with racism. Obviously, racism is a major problem, but we cannot end it by unthinking or ignoring race. This is akin to treating pancreatic cancer by ignoring the pancreas. We cannot step outside of race and racism because our society and identities are constituted by them. A more effective starting point is to recognize that even with the uncertainties and contradictions, race plays a fundamental role in structuring and representing the social world.[9] Therefore, race is a social fact of life.

Racism is normal

Racial meaning making is not inherently racist. It becomes racist, however, in the context of a racially stratified society, such as the United States, that limits the life chances of those on the bottom of the racial hierarchy. In this racial hierarchy the status differences of groups of people occur along racial lines and material, psychological, social, physiological, and economic opportunities are unevenly distributed according to one’s racialization within the system. In this context, acts of racism, such as those committed in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlottesville or anywhere in the United States should be understood as a normal outcome of the racialized social structure in which we live, rather than the result of an individual with an idiosyncratic, pathological view of race. It is crucial to point out that viewing racist phenomena as “normal” in no way speaks to the justness of those phenomena. The “normalcy” of racist phenomena does not make them just. “The strategy becomes unmasking and exposing racism in its various permutations.”[10] The question becomes not what is wrong with those racists out there, but what is wrong with us? What systemic, structural problem do these acts of racism point to that needs tending? How do I contribute to that problem, and how does it manifest within me? How might I practice becoming compassionately anti-racist?


The concept of intersectionality is central to CRT and intimately involves issues of identity, categorizing, and othering. We all have complex identities that intersect in a myriad of ways and the nexus of two or more of our identities and their associated power dynamics are the focus of intersectionality. Kimberle Williams Crenshaw developed this concept reflecting on her identity as a woman and African American. From her own lived experience, and the insights of others who share this identity, Crenshaw has shed light on deep-seated and problematic assumptions of feminist and antiracist practices:

Women of color are marginalized within both feminist and antiracist discourses because of their intersectional identity as women and of color…Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. Thus, when the practices expound identity as “woman” or “person of color” as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling.[11]

Consequently, women of color cannot feel at home in either setting. Crenshaw offers the concept of intersectionality to emphasize the importance of accounting for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed.[12]

Stephanie Wildman brings an intersectional approach to her critique of privilege and power systems. She explains that “privilege can intersect with subordination or other systems of privilege as well…there is no purely privileged or unprivileged persons.” [13] Her critique is particularly useful for unmasking privilege and how it intersects with forms of identity. In particular, Wildman points out that privilege is not perceived as something bestowed on us, rather it is experienced as the way things are and the way things are supposed to be. This makes privilege invisible to its holder and difficult to notice. For whites who cannot see their white privilege, this allows them to unwittingly perpetuate and reinforce racist social structures. In this sense all whites are racist because we benefit from systemic white privilege.[14]

Narrative and Centering People of Color’s Experiences

Narrative and centering the experiences of people of color are core recurring themes throughout CRT literature. This emphasis on experience as an epistemological source is crucial. “The imagination of the academic philosopher cannot recreate the experience of life on the bottom. We must look to grassroots philosophers…who are uniquely able to relate theory to the concrete experience of oppression.”[15] Storytelling contextualizes racism and experientially names its effects. Through the stories of people of color these theories are revealed not as abstract explanations of the world “out there” but explanations of the way our everyday lives are shaped by race and racism. “When notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, are examined not from an abstract position but from the position of groups who have suffered through history, moral relativism recedes, and identifiable normative priorities emerge.”[16]

A unique contribution of the embodied racial awareness curriculum is that while the stories of people of color are centered, the stories of those from the dominant culture are seen as critical too. The foundation for practicing anti-racism involves learning to see race in the world around us and how it operates within us. As such, it is crucial for whites to be able to develop an embodied understanding of their own racialization. This is an important practice we must engage as part of cultivating joy in racialized contexts.

To authentically be one in Christ and enhance joy, youth groups must be places where our racialized experiences can be held with compassion, where we can find strength and support to explore our racial identities and experience healing around the trauma caused by the fact of racism in our country and in our Churches. The reality of race unearthed by these theories does not stop at the church door. Our racial identities and the racialized social structures in which we exist are ever present. In this way youth groups can be sites for resistance to and liberation from the sin of racism. In this unique Christian context, empowering adolescents with a liberatory racial project of joy involves cultivating the radical compassion of Jesus. For Christians, Jesus is the key to sustaining an anti-racist way of life.

Practicing Christ-like Compassion

Our capacity for joy is inhibited by emotions that become activated around race, reactions you likely experienced while reading the preceding section. We are all familiar with these emotions; a desire to lash out in anger at a racist comment, a dull feeling in the pit of our stomach when the topic of race is broached, fear that we might be labeled racist or confirm a stereotype, anxiety during an interracial encounter, or helplessness and numbing when facing the sheer magnitude of racism in America. These familiar emotions often stop us in our tracks. We feel as if they are hurdles preventing us from connecting with others or doing the ‘real’ work of anti-racism. However, there is a profound but obscured secret in these emotions. Strange as it may seem these emotions are trying to help us and guide us to a flourishing life.

What most of us lack are the skills for understanding how our emotional reactions around race are trying to guide us. The radical compassion of Jesus offers those skills. Understanding the yearning at the core of these internal movements (feelings, emotions, reactivities, sensations, impulses, etc.) is actually the key to sustaining deep, meaningful, and transformative engagement with issues race and racism. Our strong reactions and emotions are guides for what is most important to us. It is our habitual responses to them that prevents us from understanding and harnessing their wisdom.

Cultivating compassion hones the capacities necessary for understanding how our emotions are trying to help us and enables deep relational connection with ourselves and others. It empowers us to see the world unfiltered by our own desires and agendas and to radically humanize how we view and engage people. With this empowered compassion we can then chart a course of action that is grounded in the authenticity and needs of everyone involved. Cultivating compassion involves four basic steps:

  1. Catch your breath (Get grounded)
  2. Take your PULSE (Cultivate compassion for yourself)
  3. Take the other’s PULSE (Cultivate compassion for another)
  4. Decide what to do (Discern compassionate action)[17]

Catching your breath is crucial for engaging our inner worlds, difficult conversations, and other triggering activities. When we are feeling triggered or reactive it is important to find some space emotionally and/or physically for our reactivities to settle. Space between the emotion we feel and our reaction to that emotion is crucial. What if the white student at Yale had paused to ground herself before calling the police on another black student who fell asleep while studying for finals?[18]

The time we need to ground ourselves and find this space may be a quick momentary breath, or it may require years before we feel grounded enough to engage the situation more clearly.[19] Either way, the foundation for ‘Taking Your Pulse’ requires the clarity and stability that come through continually soaking in the Presence of Compassion.”[20] Once we have caught our breath and feel grounded we can move deeper into the practice and begin taking our PULSE. Throughout this process we can return to grounding ourselves in compassion whenever we feel the space between our emotions and reactions growing smaller.

Taking our PULSE involves six essential components. Every experience of compassion however large or small involves the following six dimensions. These six dimensions, therefore, provide our definition of compassion:[21]

P – Paying attention (Contemplative awareness). Perceiving another’s experience with a nonjudgmental, nonreactive clarity.

U – Understanding empathically (Empathic care). Being moved by the sometimes hidden suffering within that person.

L – Loving with connection (All-accepting presence). Being filled with and extending an all-embracing care.

S – Sensing the sacredness (Spiritual expansiveness). Recognizing and savoring the cosmic expanse of compassion that holds and heals all wounds.

E – Embodying new life (Desire for flourishing). Yearning for the restorative flourishing to be birthed within another.

ACT – Then from the PULSE of this compassionate connection, we respond with tangible acts of healing, kindness, and care.

Paying attention; Usually, our awareness of others and how we relate to them is filtered through our own feelings, needs, wants, and desires. We see them through the lens of our own agenda. We usually do not see others on their own terms. In this movement of the practice our intention is to pay attention to the experience of another person or an interior movement within us without filtering it through the reactive lens of our own agenda. Through maintaining this kind of open awareness toward ourselves and others we become grounded in the “Self-presence that is genuinely open to the movement and curious about why this movement is within us at all.”[22]

Understanding empathically involves feeling ‘got.’ It is a visceral feeling of being understood at our core. In its simplest form compassion involves being moved by the suffering or joy of another’s experience. When this happens a compassionate person allows another’s pain or joy to reverberate within his or her deepest core such that he or she is moved to pathos before the other’s suffering or stirred to delight before the other’s flourishing. A compassionate person understands, in his or her depths, the wounds, heartaches, and longings at the core of another person’s behavior and experience.[23]

Loving with connection involves an all accepting presence. At the heart of compassion is a non-judgmental, all embracing, loving quality. Loving with connection involves experiential awareness of this quality, and there is no easy way to conceptually explain it. Frank Rogers uses the metaphor of a mother cradling her child to illustrate the intimacy of this connection.[24] For example, Rogers imagines loving with connection as “well[ing] up with a connective care that extends toward others like the soothing wash of the sunlight’s warmth.”[25] We experience it in our own lives during the moments when we feel held, loved, safe, and cared for. It is the moments when we feel worthy of love simply because we exist. Theologically loving with connection is the gift of grace given by God. We are worthy of God’s love simply because we exist. Held in this loving connection we sense the sacredness within ourselves and others.

Sensing the Sacredness is, perhaps, a unique contribution to compassion offered by the Compassion Practice. Sensing the Sacredness is feeling the cosmic expanse of compassion that is capable of healing and holding all wounds. As Christians, we understand and experience this sacredness through the power of the Holy Spirit. “When our hearts open to others’ suffering and a sustaining love flows through us, the veil of the everyday world we live in is pierced and relativized…In those moments, our spirits expand – our capacity to care deepens, our understanding for the plight of another extends, and our patience can seem infinite.”[26] In these moments we often feel a deep connection to humanity, nature, the universe, or God—we feel connected to something larger than ourselves. We become aware of a deeper reality. Grace abounds.

Embodying new life reminds us that compassion, in addition to grieving with those who suffer, also desires the transformation of their suffering into joy.[27] ‘Genuine compassion takes as much delight in others’ flourishing as it feels pathos for their pain.’[28] Compassionate care gives rise to the yearning that wounded persons flourish. “Embodying new life [also] recognizes the gifts and qualities budding within [ourselves], and it longs to see them flourish.”[29]

Finally, compassion is incomplete and becomes sentimentality if it does not involve restorative action. The last movement, Act, takes some step to ease suffering or promote flourishing. Compassion is restorative. Compassion is not the same as ‘niceness.’ Nor is it weak. Compassion is wisely-shaped, informed, ‘feeling-with’ behavior that will take the form of tough love or gentleness depending on the situation. Genuine compassion requires courage, accountability, clarity, and truth. Compassion does not try to answer some version of ‘What will help everyone feel good?’ Nor does it demonize or denigrate those who cause harm. Compassion does not seek retribution. Rather, it aims for what will help bring true healing, vitality, and freedom to all involved, victims and perpetrators alike.[30]

[1] The foundation of our definition of joy emerges from Margaret Farley’s Just Love. We understand joy, flourishing, and love to overlap in ways that are discussed in the theology section of this chapter. See Margaret Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (London: Continuum, 2008).

[2] Omi and Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, 103-159.

[3] Omi and Winant, 109.

[4] Omi and Winant, 111.

[5] Omi and Winant, 111.

[6] Crenshaw, xxix.

[7] Bonilla-Silva, “Rethinking Racism,” 472.

[8] Omi and Winant, 112.

[9] Omi and Winant, 112.

[10] Ladson-Billings, “What Is Critical Race Theory,” 11.

[11] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” in Crenshaw et al., Critical Race Theory, 357.

[12] Crenshaw, “Intersectionality,” 358.

[13] Stephanie M. Wildman, Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 21.

[14] Wildman, 21.

[15] Matsuda, “Looking,” 63-64.

[16] Matsuda, “Looking,” 63.

[17] Frank Rogers, Practicing Compassion (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2015), 19.


[19] Rogers, Practicing Compassion, 28.

[20] Dreitcer, Living Compassion, 130.

[21] My purpose for using the first person plural possessive determiner ‘our’ is not to claim credit for this definition of compassion, for which I cannot take credit, but to place myself within this approach and tradition of cultivating compassion.

[22] Rogers, 70.

[23] Rogers, 24.

[24] Rogers, 25.

[25] Rogers, 25.

[26] Rogers, Practicing Compassion, 25.

[27] Rogers, 26.

[28] Rogers, 26.

[29] Rogers, 73.

[30] Dreitcer, Living Compassion, 30.


Gather (5 minutes)

Opening Prayer by the youth pastor or group leader:

The prayer should lift up the importance of inner stillness so that we are better able to hear our conscious and the Holy Spirit.

Greeting One Another:

For this first session allow the participants to greet one another in whatever way they commonly do.

Introducing the Session:

As a youth leader you must model the type of vulnerable sharing that will take place in this session. As such, your introduction should center on why racial reconciliation and healing are important to you. Moreover, the introduction should be conveyed as a story, perhaps a story about how excited/nervous you were to be in a conversation about race. The goal is to allow the participants to connect with you so that they are better able to process their own experiences of race and conversations about race.


Engage (35 minutes)

Activity 1: Whiteboard Practice

  • After introducing the session you should transition to introducing the activity, the whiteboard practice (n.b. you do not need to use a whiteboard, however the student feedback needs to be recorded and visible to participants). The core of this practice involves noticing, naming, and externalizing our difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
  • A crucial learning goal of this practice is the importance of emotions as sources of wisdom.
  • To do this practice, ask participants to name the emotions that arise for them in conversations about race. As emotions are named, write them on a whiteboard until participants had named all they wished to share.
  • This may take a few minutes before everyone feels comfortable sharing. As such the facilitator should begin by writing what comes up for them in these conversations.
  • After the comments seem to be finished, ask participants how often theses emotions have explicitly been part of conversations about race in their experience. The likely answer is that they never have!
  • Ask the participants to get into groups of two or three and reflect on the practice. How did they experience it? Have they ever had a conversation like that before? What did it mean to have that conversation in church?
  • Invite the students to share their answers with the entire group.
  • Point out that all of these emotions are present in conversations about race whether we choose to acknowledge them or not, indeed they are literally in the room and the board just enables us to “see” them. Then acknowledge the fact that they are having a conversation about race and these emotions have been named. How amazing is that! Then welcome the emotions they shared and emphasize the wisdom within them is actually the key to sustainably engaging conversations and action on issues of our racial identities and racism. This practice begins honing the compassion capacities of feelings, intimacy, attention, awareness, and intention.

Activity 2: Sacred Moment Guided Prayer

  • The Sacred Moment practice is a guided prayer practice. It finds its Christian roots in the prayer practices of St. Ignatius of the Roman Catholic Church.
  • This specific practice builds upon the awareness develop during the whiteboard practice. Whereas the whiteboard practice allowed the students to develop an intellectual understanding of our racialized emotions, the sacred moment practice allows participants to experience an embodied understanding of what it feels like to be grounded. Lead the participants through the guided prayer as directed below.

Activity 3: Sacred Moment Meditation

Spend 1-2 minutes on each of the five moves. Initially 5-10 minutes may feel like a long time!

  • Take several deep breaths and then settle into an interior silence.
  • Like thumbing through a photo album of your life, become aware of various moments in your life or week that felt sacred or expansive to you. These may be intense and unforgettable moments or simple and mundane whispers of presence and connection. Of the various moments that come to you, allow one to emerge as the focus for this prayer.
  • Remember this moment by returning it to your imagination.
    1. Recall what was going on in your life at the time, where you were, and who accompanied you
    2. Re-experience the sensory details of the moment, the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and bodily sensations
    3. Remember what seemed sacred or expansive about this transformation and how that expansive presence felt.
  • Allow the presence of this sacred expansiveness to swell once more within you. For as long as it feels right, rest in and savor this presence. Think of a symbol that embodies the essence of this presence – a healing light perhaps, a divine figure, or a warm embrace.
  • As we prepare to conclude the practice, discern if there is an invitation from the sacred for how you might allow the grace of this prayer to extend into your daily life.



Reflect (15 minutes)

  • Ask the participants to get into groups of two or three and reflect on the practice. How did they experience it?
  • Invite students to share their experience with the entire group
  • The purpose of this practice is to reconnect us with the importance of relationships of care. Remembering the moments in our lives that felt sacred to us reminds and reconnects us to the heart of what we do and who we are. This is our grounding! This is the place we need to return to when we feel as though we have “lost” ourselves in a reactive emotion.

Send Forth

Send Forth (5 minutes)

  • The purpose of today’s activities were to give the students an intellectual and experiential knowledge about the ways we embody race and racialization. For the closing, the group leader should highlight some of the key “aha” moments that were experienced today and reinforce the primary learning outcomes. Lastly, you should invite the students to notice when they are feeling reactive throughout the week and invite them to try the grounding practice on their own.
  • Close in Prayer.

Related Video Clips


This Resource includes the following downloadable content:

Yale Youth Ministry Institute