Know Before Who You Stand

Man desperate and alone in the dark
Man desperate and alone in the dark

This summer I spoke at a local synagogue. Inscribed above the ark were the words, "Know before who you stand." Traditionally, the "who" refers to God. Many of us have very diverse ideas of who may or may not exist out there, but when I read those words, I was struck by how profound the phrase is, and how it is at the core of our social services work.

We should always strive to know before who we stand. Who are they as individuals? What is their personal history, their specific story? We need to believe in the unique dignity of each person who turns to us. We must strive to always see the Divine spark of their humanity, not just the specific challenge they are facing at a particular moment in their lives. Knowing before whom we stand means respecting the complexity of people's lives. It means refraining from assigning labels. It means letting each person tell his or her story in his or her own way and own time.

I have never met a person who says, "I am a homeless person." "I am an unemployed person." "I am a refugee." Those aren't the identities they claim for themselves. The woman who came as a refugee may identify herself as a civil engineer. The person turning to our employment specialist or utilizing our food bank may introduce himself as a teacher, or a father, or war vet. Among the many things I admire about our staff is their ability to hold the fullness of people's lives and to help people see a path into the future.

In truth, this work is not limited to a few people who dedicate their lives to serving others. We all have the ability to pause and reflect on who is standing before us at any given moment. And at that moment we are given a choice. We can choose to turn toward them rather than away. This is true for all the people we encounter in our lives -- from the person selling the newspaper on the street to our parents and our children. When we know before who we stand, we offer them dignity and respect. And in those moments, the divine spark of our common humanity glows brighter.