When I first moved to Georgia, I was offered a position as an administrative assistant to a department chair at a local university. I didn’t always feel qualified for the job because I, myself, do not have a degree. Perhaps that is why this memory stands out to me.
On the first day in my newly acquired position, my boss took me on a “tour” of the campus. It was small and relatively unimpressive, but we were really more focused on the people anyway. She introduced me to the provost, and the academic deans, and the various department heads. But I was most interested in how she knew the names of every janitor and secretary and tech guy.
About halfway through the “tour” she said “you will need to know all of these people to get things done, but pay special attention to the ones most people overlook. If you keep them happy and cared for, your job will be so much easier.”
And that is how we operated. Every day, every person was important but Christmas was a time that allowed us to bless the ones no one cared about until they needed them. Every year, for eleven years, we would scrounge our pennies and dimes and quarters where we could, and at the beginning of December I would go shopping. We took great joy in making our rounds to Plant Operations, the campus police, and OIT to give them popcorn and candy and holiday greetings.
We never seemed to have a problem getting things fixed or resolved during the year. We would hear complaints from others about how slow the maintenance guys were at taking care of things. But our friends seemed to always be available to help us when we needed it. Perhaps it was because they knew our names and we knew theirs.
A few months ago I was at the airport waiting for a friends whose plane was delayed. I saw one of those workers and called her name. She came running over to give me a hug and catch me up on her life since she was “let go” from her position at the university during the recent merger with another institution. In their eyes, she was expendable.
A few weeks later I was standing in line at a local restaurant and saw another of these old friends. He too had been “let go.” For him, it was more of a struggle because he is 74 years old now. But his friend, who owned the restaurant, had asked to come on part-time. You see, he saw the man’s value and allowed him to hold on to his dignity. I asked him if he was still doing magic for the kids and he proceeded to pull a quarter out of my ear! I have tears as I share this because that boss taught me to see this man, not just as another worker but, as a man with a story.
I think Jesus teaches a lot of lessons about giving folks dignity. Last night as we were looking at the story of the birth of Jesus we reflected on how God send a whole multitude of angels to some outcasts, some outsiders, the shepherds in the field. Why did he choose them? I think it was so that we would see them, if we were truly looking. He saw them. And he gave them a sign – just for them. The babe would be wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. These shepherds knew mangers well. They were common in their line of work. A manger – what an uncommon place for a baby to be cradled. But that baby was no common baby. And those stinky, smelly shepherds might not have been welcome in a fine hotel. But they were welcome at the stable.
My friend that worked at the airport used to work with troubled youth on the weekends. That man at the restaurant used to be a clown at birthday parties in his spare time. I wouldn’t have known these things if I hadn’t taken the time to learn their names and their stories. As we step into this holiday season, let us take a lesson from my former boss and from what God showed us through the shepherds. Let us offer uncommon dignity to each human that crosses our path. We don’t know their whole story and until we do, dignity may be all we can give.