“But I say to you who hear. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” - Luke 6:27-31
This passage is one that can sometimes be confusing to youth in our bible studies. At first, I read it as telling people to simply love others and treat them well. Then, after a bit more consideration, I thought it was preaching to let other people treat you poorly, to be a pushover, to not stand up for yourself.
However, one of my favorite parts of leading this Bible study is giving youth some historical context on what this verse says to do. For example, it reads, “To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” At first, this seems like a direction to take the pain that the world throws at you without pushing back. However, in the historical context, people in power would typically slap people below their social status with the back of their hand. To turn and offer the other cheek would be to demand that they treat you as an equal and assert your dignity.
Dignity is something that the group with us this week has discussed a lot. We’ve been to organizations that serve the community through distributing food in many different ways. At Lowcountry Food Bank, we packed boxes with a standardized list of healthy products for people who needed healthy food. East Cooper Community Outreach lets people order their groceries online and pick up throughout the week, providing food from grocery store partners as well as from churches that do food drives. An organization called Neighbors Together offers both a hot meal most days of the week as well as a grocery distribution on Wednesdays that allows people to go through a line and shop from what is available.
In all of these organizations, the group discussed how they enable people to assert their dignity as human beings. Even getting to have a choice in what they get for groceries helps return some measure of dignity to people who have been put in situations with zero choices for what food they eat. Each organization treats everyone with the same respect regardless of gender, race, social class, religion, or anything else. Every person who comes in has such a unique background and story, unique wants and preferences, and these organizations help them cater to their needs. One interaction in particular drove home to me just how important that is.
At Neighbors Together last week, my group was serving meals and distributing groceries to community members. I was stationed at the door as a door helper, helping people carry their goods up the stairs and to their cars if necessary. A mother with a stroller was making her way down the grocery line. I could hear her at every stop, “Oh, Louise* won’t eat that.” “Well, Louise loves bananas!” “Sure, she’ll eat some of that.”
As the mother got a bit closer, I could see her child’s face. The baby was just as happy as could be, giggling and waving and babbling to herself. I was having a great time making faces and waving at little Louise, not even noticing until her mom was standing right in front of me that it was time to load up her groceries. I looked up to the mother to ask what she wanted me to carry, and was startled to see her crying quietly.
She said, “I’m just so grateful for y’all. I don’t know how we would eat if it wasn’t for you.”
Shock flooded my system. Sometimes, it’s easier to separate the work we do from the people it affects. It can be easier to work away, lugging heavy bags of groceries up the stairs and coming back for the next one, and not consider that every person who comes through has their own story and their own reasons for being there. Sure, it’s easier to not think too hard about the work we’re doing, but putting effort in to make connections with the community members and learn their stories is so much more important than the easy route.
It takes more than a bit of vulnerability to build relationships within a community, but treating everyone with human dignity and putting in effort to connect with people results in glimpsing the kindom of God.
*Name changed for privacy.
Ellie Stewart is from Memphis, TN. She is a rising Junior at Davidson College majoring in Communication Studies with a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies.