Where dignity begins

Here are three things I’ve been thinking about lately:

1. I recently read a news story about a state’s lawmakers who want to legislate the kinds of foods people can buy with food stamps.

2. And I’ve been wondering about the lives of the men who pick up our trash each week.

3. Then, I read this tweet from Eugene Cho:

And as I’ve been thinking about these things and what to write this month for The Exodus Road, one word kept coming to mind.

Dignity.

Taken at the Thrive Rescue aftercare program in SE Asia. Photo by Jamie Wright, theveryworstmissionary.com

Taken at the Thrive Rescue aftercare program in SE Asia.
Photo by Jamie Wright, theveryworstmissionary.com

Each of these situations is tied to dignity.

1. This had me hopping mad, not because I don’t think food stamp recipients should use their monthly allotment to buy seafood or cookies but because it’s the first step in stripping a group of people of their humanity. When you receive welfare benefits of any kind (and we have been there), you’re already feeling low. Then when people tell you what you can and can’t buy, your value as a person dips even lower. Essentially, it’s a move that says, you’re poor so you don’t deserve to eat the same kinds of things other people eat, especially not expensive foods like steak and shrimp. We’ve been on a food stamp budget and believe me, buying steak and shrimp all the time wouldn’t last long on the monthly benefit. But there’s a budgeting issue, an education issue, there, and passing a law that says “no shrimp for you” isn’t the answer.

I like what a local food bank does here in our area: they set up their food area like a grocery store and they let the clients choose their own food. If they get 5 cans of vegetables, they get to pick out what they want instead of being handed a bag of food they might not like. That’s dignity.

2. Picking up trash might be one of the most unappreciated-but-necessary jobs. I don’t give much thought to the guys who faithfully arrive in front of my house every week to take away my garbage. I don’t know their names or where they live or if they have families and I certainly don’t think about whether they’re paid well or appreciated. A lot of times, I’m in a car behind the garbage truck and all I can think about is how inconvenienced I am by the garbage truck stopping in the middle of the road. Yet, how fortunate are we to have people who pick up our trash and take it away. There are areas of the world where trash just accumulates in the streets and makes for unsanitary living conditions.

I like what my friend Carol does at Christmas: she buys restaurant gift cards to hand out to her trash collectors and mail carrier, just to say “thanks.” What a simple gesture that speaks loudly of dignity.

3. The attack in Kenya last week would not have gotten my attention in a world that is full of bad news. Except that my husband and I are on a team of people headed to Kenya this summer. So, anything about the country has my attention these days. What bothers me is that I don’t deem something worthy of my care unless it affects my world. I’ve spent years thinking “oh, that’s too bad” about cancer and now more and more people I know are doing battle with this wretched disease. It’s overwhelming, all the hurt and pain in the world (I have another blog post to write about this) but why don’t I care about what’s happening in the world until it crashes into my world? Eugene Cho’s tweet reminds me that it’s not just that 147 people died. It’s that they were sons and daughters; they had stories and lives; they had names.

Dignity turns numbers into names, statistics into stories. {Tweet that.}

This is one of the reasons I’m connected to The Exodus Road. They take an overwhelming issue like human trafficking and give us glimpses of the real-life people involved. We might not know the names of the millions of people enslaved around the world, but through one rescue, one experience, one story, we can infuse ourselves with compassion. It’s difficult to put a face on trafficking because anonymity preserves dignity, but real stories and real people, even if names are changed and pictures blurred, remind us of the humanity behind the atrocity.

I was reminded of this again when the Associated Press published this story about how slavery is involved in the fishing industry. One of the slaves said he hoped we thought of their poor working conditions while eating fish. #shameonus. The good news is the story led to rescue for hundreds of slaves. There is hope, always hope.

Why does dignity matter so much? Without it, we’re reduced to the level of objects or animals. We have to believe we are worth something and that other people are worth something, too.

So, where does dignity begin? It starts with me, believing that I am a valuable part of the human whole. Not more important than others. Not less important. One of many equals. It starts with me believing that I don’t deserve any of the good things I have any more than someone else deserves the bad things they have. It’s acknowledging that I have been given much and so much is required of me to help others.

They are hard words to digest, even as I write them.

Because deep down, I don’t want to be responsible for my actions or inactions. I don’t want to think about people who don’t have drinking water or who spend the night with strangers against their will. I don’t want to think about people being persecuted for their beliefs or who work in unsafe conditions so that corporations can make bigger profits.

But if I am called to life, to heal and restore and bring good news (and I believe that I am) then I can’t not think about those things. When I ignore them, I take away the dignity of those who suffer because then I am saying they are not worth my time or thoughts because their life makes me uncomfortable.

But if I acknowledge these things, even if I can’t fix the problem, then I’m saying, “I see you. You are loved. You are not forgotten. You are worth my time and thoughts, even if it makes me uncomfortable.”

My challenge to you (and to myself) is to look at the world through the lens of dignity. When faced with an uncomfortable situation or person or news event, ask yourself what would make those involved feel more human? How can you show them that they are not forgotten?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Feel free to share your ideas!

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