It started with Social Insurance Numbers and Account Numbers. It seemed so much better to use numbers to identify us instead of our names. Instead of dozens of John Smiths in the country, now there is only one 123 456 789. So much more efficient. So much more impersonal. So de-humanizing. (I'm not sure where the whole identity theft issue enters in, since it requires both names and numbers.)
People have been decrying the loss of individuality for years, to no avail. I was watching a brief promotional video for a certain street ministry, and they touched on dignity. Now there is something that is missing in the whole number ID style of dealing with each other. But it's also missing in many other interactions we have have with people. It's so easy to just stick to business, to take care of the matter at hand, and not take the extra time to see how the other guy is doing. We are all so busy—lineups, busy signals, call waiting, voice mail, etc. If you stopped to ask the bank teller how his day was going, the guy behind you would be put out. If you stop to discuss the present political situation with the cashier as you buy groceries, the nice lady in line behind you will be looking daggers at your back. We hardly even talk about the weather any more!
But the realization that started hitting me was regarding the Friday night street ministry I am part of (CARTS). “But”, you will say, “That is all about people, it must be personal, it has to be touching people.”
True, but it is easier than you think to start treating individuals as just part of the whole crowd. Forgetting that they are unique. That they deserve you undivided attention, even if it is for a short time. Taking the time to listen, to encourage, to affirm.
Affirmation. That's another part of the story. If we only knew how many of the people we see each day think they are inferior, deficient, secondary, lacking in some way. Not as good looking, or smart, or coordinated than everyone else. Not as rich, or famous, or important. Not loved, not valued, not appreciated.
I expect this situation is bad enough in the 'general population', let alone among those who find themselves on the fringes of society. The more I hear the stories of people on the street, the more I recognize the broad scope of reasons for them being on the street. You certainly can't generalize, but for many of them, they come from a difficult homelife, job history, or health situation. Too many of us have been told we are hopeless, stupid, unteachable. Shouldn't have been born. Useless to society. Good for nothing. How many kids didn't fit into their parents hopes and expectations, and so moved or were kicked out?
When we pause to think about it, we can see value in all of God's children. Weren't we all made in His image? Even people who are mentally ill, criminals or queer (in any definition) deserve respect as human beings. They may not see life the same way we do, but is that wrong? It may be a challenge to be with them, but does that give us the right to snub them? Even if they smell, flail or cuss, they are still loved by God. (Remember the story of the 99 sheep? The shepherd left them to find the lost one. In other words, he acted more loving to the wayward one than the 99 well-behaved “normal” ones.)
So, how do we truly affirm people, show them the dignity that God does?
Well, what makes you feel wanted, respected, acknowledged? “Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them.” Matt. 7:12 The Message
Take the time to talk. More importantly, take the time to listen. Probably shut-up lots and talk little.
Look the guy in the eye when you are talking to him. Give him your undivided attention.
Recognize his right to his opinion, even if it is diametrically opposed to yours. Honestly seek to learn from what he has to say.
Love without conditions.
Look beyond the cothes, hairstyle, persona. Accept them as they are, without an agenda of planning on changing them into a duplicate of yourself.
Have compassion, and let it show. Not some fake crocodile tears, but honest emotions. Most people can see right through your counterfeit smile. Be real.
Each person you meet is different. Don't categorize and stereo-type.
I wish I found it easier to live up to this ideal. I wish I wasn't so prone to ignore the druggies, the drunks, the forsaken. I wish I was a brighter light. I wish I would stop wishing and start doing.
I think I will.