In Guatemala, chemical fires cloud the skies of the Ravine and the elderly do battle with vultures for scraps of food that might earn a few cents as slop for pigs. In Nairobi, children play by the cistern that carries raw sewage through the center of the Kayole Matopeni slum, and corrugated metal sheds turned dwelling places offer little space to even breathe. In India, the claustrophobic crush of the market is a sullen reminder of the best and worst of our condition. And down the road from my pristine neighborhood, forgotten souls wonder if God truly does redeem time.
There is a common thread that weaves through people, rich or poor or in the vast in-between, regardless of place or space or language.
That thread is not lack. That thread is not oppression. That thread is not injustice.
Rather, it is this. Deep within each of us is a desire for dignity. No matter the condition, we long to rise. The hands of those who dig through mountains of waste at the Ravine are hands that aren’t afraid to hold the suffering. The legs of those who walk along the streets of the slums in Nairobi are legs that believe there is a way to stand taller. The voices of those in the marketplace call out, “I believe there is something more.”
The tears of the forgotten are reminders that we all long to hear the words, “You are valuable. And you are honored.”
I think we lay waste that dignity when we react in pity rather than respond with compassion, when we shrink back because the pain is too great and the comparison to our own lives is too difficult. After spending time with single moms in a remote town in Honduras – all hard-working women who taught their children to be honorable and never ashamed of their condition, I wrote in a letter, “Compassion gets on the floor, pity stays at the door.” Pity gives a token and then walks away shaking its head and wiping its eyes. Compassion gives itself and stays. It isn’t afraid to get dirty and hold hands and ask, “What is it you dream?” Pity observes with a questioning eye. Compassion reaches out and holds a face and says, “Let’s find that dignity again.” It cradles but doesn’t coddle.
Pity shames. Compassion spurs.
Pity reveals itself in its lack of invitation. Compassion reveals itself with a place at the table.
Pity conforms. Compassion transforms.
Today, I write this reminder to myself because I need to remember. Today, I will walk the streets of the slum. Today, I will see the faces of 400 children who all believe there is a future and a hope in a world that tells them there is neither. Today, I will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with weary souls who labor long for something better. Today, I have the choice to stay at the door or to get on the floor, and while it would be so much easier to simply look away and wipe the tears, I don’t want pity to be the rule. Today, I pray my hands don’t shrink back. Today, I pray my voice is strong with the best news. Today, I pray for compassion to find its home in me, for the table to always have a place for one more. Today, I pray to speak the language of dignity to those who are woven together with me, rich or poor or in the vast in-between, regardless of space or place or language.
Today, I pray the same for you, my friend. Let’s get on the floor.