I had an absolutely wonderful day yesterday at the Seattle University Search for Meaning Book Festival. The two keynotes – one by journalist Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, and the second by Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, were tremendously powerful; my own talk on Growing in Love and Wisdom played to a full room, went very well and, as usual, provoked some great questions; the other sessions I attended were great; and I got to spend time (and have a great Thai dinner) with my friend and former colleague Chato, who drove up from Vancouver, Washington to spend the day with me here at the festival. I also got to see my friend Joshua, who lives here in Seattle, as well as to meet a number of other authors with whom I share interests.
There is much I could write about the day, but there is one line that haunted and that continues to haunt me, and it came early in the day, during the morning keynote by Katherine Boo. Boo’s book tells the stories of people living in Annawadi, a poor, makeshift settlement in the shadows of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport. At one point, the brother of a Muslim teenager who is falsely accused of a crime describes himself and the other residents of the settlement in this way: “Everything around is roses and we are the shit in between.”
“We are the shit in between.” He wasn’t being sarcastic. He wasn’t trying to shock. He was simply expressing the truth as he saw it. This is how he viewed himself. This is how a beloved child of God thinks of himself!
The entirety of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church begins with the recognition of the inviolable dignity of the human person, a dignity that stems from our creation in the image of God. That all humans are created in the image and likeness of God makes them equally sacred and precious and invests them with a dignity which they cannot lose. In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote that “no one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by [God’s] boundless and unfailing love.”
No one can strip another of the dignity bestowed upon him or her, but what does it mean for some people to believe they have no dignity?
What does it do to someone’s ability to flourish to believe that they are the shit between the roses?
And what does it say about how seriously we take our obligation to our brothers and sisters that we allow to exist the conditions that cause a young man view himself as so lacking in human dignity?
Update: My Facebook friend John Donaghy, who works among the poor in Honduras, wrote this comment in response to my post, which I re-post here for those who may not look at the comments:
Thanks for a post that touches the reality of the poor.
In places like Mumbai and Honduras, the poor do see themselves as “the shit between the roses.” This has been engrained in them by the society around them.
In many ways I see that the role of the missionary and the church in general is to help the people see that they are not the shit in between the roses but that they are the rich fertile soil that makes possible roses and much more.
Upholding the dignity of people is part of our mission, our way of accompanying the poor.