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There is a famous theory proposed by social psychologists called the “bystander effect.” The theory states that the chances a bystander will intervene to help a person in distress is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders that witness the event. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less chance that the victim will be helped.
At first blush, this seems completely unintuitive. Shouldn’t more people mean there are more people willing to step in and help? Indeed, it is precisely this belief that makes the bystander effect a self-fulling prophecy.
It turns out that everyone in the group assumes that someone else will step up and do something.
Consider: if a woman suddenly went into labor in a movie theater, would you be the first to step up and help her? Or, would your first reaction be, “I’m not trained in child delivery. Let me wait to see if there is a doctor, or a nurse available. Also, the theater probably has protocols for this. I’m not sure what they are, but I’m sure someone else is better prepared and equipped. I would help if I could, but I don’t want to get in the way of someone who really knows what they are doing.”
The bystander effect was first proposed in 1964 after a woman was brutally attacked, reportedly with dozens of her neighbors standing by and not coming to her aid. But the quintessential example of the bystander effect may be found about 2000 years earlier, in another story about a victim and neighbors who do nothing to help.
A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight.
In the parable, it seems that the man who was beaten was easily able to be seen, and was on a well-traveled road. I wonder, did the priest and Levite pray for the man that they saw? Did they ask God to send someone to help, but then continue on their way, and then completely forget about the man?
“Please, God, send someone to help them.”
I’ve prayed some variation of this countless times in my life.
What if God did send someone? What if, often, we are meant to be the answer to our prayer for the suffering soul?
It is easy to pray for someone else to comfort the sorrowing, to bind the wounds of the injured, to weep with those that weep. It is uncomfortable and inconvenient when God tells us, “You are someone. I’m sending you.”
I was reminded of this lesson, recently, when a good friend told me a remarkable encounter he had several years ago while participating in “Crossroads,” a pro-life walking pilgrimage across the United States. The pilgrims wear distinctive shirts with the words “PRO LIFE” in a large bold font.
One Saturday afternoon, as the group took a break at a large local street festival in Billings, Montana, a woman approached him and said, “I think your shirt is really offensive.”
“Really? Why? We’re just saying we believe in life,” he replied.
“Because, about 20 years ago, I had an abortion. That shirt makes me feel awful.”
Then, she walked away.
My friend stood there. Not uttering a word. Unsure what to say. By the time he collected himself, the woman had disappeared into the crowd of thousands.
“I can’t believe I couldn’t think of something to say. Maybe I could have told her about Project Rachel, and the other ministries that help women who suffer after abortions.”
All he could do was pray for this woman, who he knew was wounded.
So, the following day, at Mass, he prayed. “Please God. Send someone to this woman that would know what to tell her. Someone that would be able to help her to begin to find healing.”
After Mass, my friend rented a car to take a short trip to Yellowstone National Park. The distance from Billings to Yellowstone is about 150 miles. It’s a 2.5 hour trip. About 2 hours into the trip, my friend stopped at a grocery store to buy some provisions for camping in Yellowstone.
The store was extremely busy and all ten cashiers were busy with customers. At the far lane, a cashier finally called out, “I can take someone over here.”
Twenty-four hours had passed. Hundreds of miles had been traversed. And one prayer had been answered. “Send someone to this woman.”
“But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight.”
My friend recognized the cashier right away.
Thousands of people may have “passed by on the opposite side” of her over the months and years.
“Hi. Do you remember me? From yesterday? I’m the one that had the shirt.”
“I’m so sorry that you were upset yesterday, but do you have a couple minutes for me to talk to you about healing?”
“…Let me ask my manager.”
Sometimes, healing begins in a church. Sometimes, on the side of a well traveled road. But healing can be brought anywhere. And everywhere. Everywhere that we are willing to be sent as an answer to a prayer—even our own prayer. Each time that we refuse to simply be a bystander, healing can begin.
One Sunday afternoon, in the middle of a dairy aisle, one woman began to be healed.
Healing can be brought anywhere.
For about ten minutes, my friend explained that there was hope and healing that could be found. The woman gratefully accepted the contact information for Project Rachel. Then, she simply said, “Thank you.”
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”
“Here I am,” I said; “send me!” —Isaiah 6:8
May this be our rallying cry.
That we may not pass by on the opposite side. That, after praying for those in need, we do not glance around to see if others will act, but will instead answer the Lord, “Here I am. Send me!
“To the churches? Send me.
To the hospitals? Send me.
Yes, even to the grocery stores.