March 11, 2022

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Lent reminds us we have equal value in God’s eyes

David Bethuram

When James walked into our emergency assistance center, we were his last choice.

Unemployed, with only a meager amount of money, James had run out of food. He had nowhere else to turn. The emotional and difficult decision he made to ask for help was only outweighed by his physical need for food and shelter.

His eyes were down-turned, his voice lowered and his shoulders slumped—all physical symptoms of a person whose circumstances seem to have robbed him of his self-esteem.

Pope Francis once addressed a crowd, stating: “It is certainly necessary to give bread to the hungry—this is an act of justice. But there is also a deeper hunger … the hunger for dignity.”

Human dignity is the innate right to be valued and respected. It’s not something that’s earned or acquired. It’s the right of everyone—regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, IQ or socioeconomic status. Everyone.

At Catholic Charities in the archdiocese, we understand the importance of acknowledging the dignity of those we serve. Recognizing a person’s intrinsic worth doesn’t have to be a grandiose gesture.

We gave James food that day to nourish his body. But we didn’t just hand him a bag of food and escort him to the door—although that in itself would still be considered a corporal work of mercy.

Instead, James shopped. By pushing a grocery cart and selecting his own items from the shelves, James was able to maintain his personal autonomy. Acknowledging his ability to make his own choices is a small way of bringing dignity to an experience most of us can’t imagine.

James’ case manager listened closely to his narrative, looking him in the eye as he spoke. James’ despair stemmed from unemployment. He was homeless and had been living in his car, but his car was towed while he was away, and he was not able to afford the towing fee. We provided him with hygiene items and clothing, as all his belongings were in his impounded vehicle. We also learned during the interview that James was an honorably discharged veteran, and we were able to refer him to the Veteran’s Affairs office which would likely be able to assist James in obtaining health and prescription help as well as help in finding housing.

His difficulty finding consistent work caused him to lose sight of his own inherent value. Catholic social teaching holds that work is dignified and an intrinsic good. Work is more than simply making a living. It’s fundamental to the dignity of the person.

The social teaching of St. John Paul II affirms that dignified work not only makes adequate housing, food and medical care possible, but also fosters positive participation in society.

Utilizing our employment support resources, James’ case manager helped him obtain meaningful work. More than earning a wage, James’ sense of self-worth was restored. He has taken the next step toward self-sufficiency.

The following month, James returned to let us know that the Veteran’s Affairs office was helping him both with housing and with his medical needs and that his situation was improving thanks in part because of the time we took to get to know him and find the right people to help him.

At Catholic Charities, we believe that one’s circumstance does not define their God-given dignity. We all know someone like James. Perhaps, at some point, we have even been him.

Lent is a perfect time to remind ourselves that Jesus died for us all. Therefore, we all have equal value in God’s eyes, regardless of our situation.
 

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. E-mail him at dbethuram@archindy.org.)

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