Commentary: Turning Sympathy Into Empathy

By Linda Hart Green

I had a different topic chosen for this commentary. I couldn’t write about it. The racially motivated murders in Jacksonville on August 26, 2023 weighed too heavily on my heart. I wasn’t used to hearing about events in Jacksonville in the national news. Everyone was talking about it until they weren’t. A hurricane headed to Florida washed that topic further down the list. Storm preparations, watchfulness and clean up are part of the routines of living here. There is no getting around that.

A tsunami of grief struck three families in Jacksonville when their loved ones were murdered just going about their business on a summer Saturday. Those murdered were Angela Michelle Carr, Anolt Joseph “ AJ” Laguerre, Jr. and Jerald De’Shaun Gallion. A sudden loss like that defies clean up. I walked alongside many in their grief journey as a pastor. I can only begin to imagine their feelings.

A front page article in the Florida Times Union on September 3,2023 entitled “ Taken From Us Forever,” by Matt Soergel detailed a few of the far-reaching consequences of the murders on the victims’ families and on their community, especially the neighborhood of New Town where the Dollar General is located.The devastation is emotional, psychological and economic. All three have GoFundMe accounts set up to help meet unexpected funeral expenses. Our lives are sustained by a network of relationships. A death, especially a sudden and brutal one, rips a gaping hole in that network. An outpouring of support over an extended period of time helps to sustain the bereaved as they weave this wound into their lives.

We may feel a pang of sympathy for the bereaved.  We may feel a shudder down our spines and a sense of relief that the violence wasn’t perpetrated here. I ask you to take a step further and empathize with these families and their community. Feeling empathy involves taking the time to gain understanding, to have compassion for others and to show that compassion in acts of kindness. Given the general “me first” climate in our society and the isolation of the pandemic, our empathy muscles have atrophied. It’s beyond time to exercise them again. Sometimes it takes a shocking event for us to know how important this is.

I witnessed the overwhelming effects of this level of grief in the aftermath of 9/11 in the community where I last served. We were located a short distance from New York City. Many residents worked in the financial district. Ten members of our community died, symbolized most graphically in unclaimed cars left at the train station. Ash fell on the streets. At the moment the planes hit the towers, our clergy group was meeting. We sprung into action. Church doors around town flew open as the community gathered to weep and to pray. Many workers walked back to New Jersey over bridges, covered in ash. Loved ones could not be located for many hours. It was harrowing. One of my associate pastors who also served as a police chaplain in Jersey City was picked up by helicopter and flown into the immediate area to assist with family notifications. Life as we knew it stopped.

I experienced sympathy turning to empathy as our whole community surrounded the families of those who lost loved ones and those whose work was impacted by the tragedy. Outpouring of funds, food, flowers and funerals marked our days.

The clergy group that was already interfaith with Christian and Jewish members, reached out and welcomed our Muslim, Hindu and Sikh neighbors. We spoke out against the discrimination suffered by locally owned Muslim businesses and made an effort to patronize them. In the following months and years, we hosted interfaith services, visited each other’s worship services and hosted opportunities for interfaith learning and dialogue. I learned so much during this time. The experience shaped my understanding of how we experience God in the present. A lasting holy moment for me was preaching for the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day service held in the Catholic Church where the scriptures were read in English and Aramaic and sung in Hebrew.

When I cited the upcoming lectures in the “Together Against Hate” initiative in Jacksonville in my last commentary, I had no idea how importantly and timely this effort would become. I hope you will join me in learning more about how we can transform  our sympathy to empathy through this effort. Here is the link again: or

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Noble Member
9 months ago

good god, what about all of the other people who have been shot and murdered in Jax? Why only the concern about these three? I suspect we already know the answer.

Betsie Huben
Famed Member
Betsie Huben(@betsie-huben)
9 months ago

The man killed the 3 innocents and then killed himself. When are we going to get to the real root of these problem? The real issue is mental health or rather, the lack thereof.

Noble Member
9 months ago
Reply to  Betsie Huben

Friend, the killer drove very sanely from a majority white county ( Clay) to an overwhelmingly Black neighborhood, which was known to him to be so and left racist manifestos online. I don’t think we can legitimately deny his racist intent.

Noble Member
9 months ago
Reply to  lehartgreen

Yes, a racist intent obviously but the person was also clearly mentally ill. I’m often puzzled when there is a mass shooting … often (but not always) with the shooter committing suicide … and the authorities and news crews declare they have yet to determine a motive. It’s pretty obvious … they are mentally ill. Sane people … racist or not … don’t commit acts like that. But truly it is a great tragedy.

Trusted Member
9 months ago

Faith in a God of all creation, mental health, alcohol and chemical substance abuse are the real priorities for our society over gun control, etc. We have good laws on these things. So many ignore the elephant in the room. We are a nation in decline until reality is addressed. So sad.

Mark Tomes
Trusted Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
9 months ago

There is no doubt that people who commit murders, whether racist or otherwise, have mental health problems. There will always be those people. No amount of prayers or desires for more religion or mental health programs will stop them from murdering as long as guns are available. Make guns much less easy to acquire, and there will be fewer shootings and more safety in our communities.