Putting People First

Posted on February 21, 2010 by Ryan P. Cumming

The hungry.  Hungry people. 

If you examine the structure of either of these references, you’ll notice that the primary emphasis is on the condition of being hungry.  In the case of the hungry, the word “people” isn’t even in the realm of consciousness.  “The hungry” serves as a defense mechanism, a way to categorize something that is undesirable and put it on a shelf at a safe distance so that we don’t have to feel a personal connection.  “The hungry” are simply out there…somewhere.  Nameless, faceless, and seemingly not even human or at least not deserving enough of a human reference. 

Photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT International

Hungry people.  On the scale of objectification, this is better.  At least we are talking about people here, though again the emphasis is not on people but rather the condition of being hungry.  People comes last, and so psychologically our emphasis is still on fixing a condition rather than serving someone just like us—same age, same gender, same station in life relatively speaking—who happened to be born in a community or country where there are extremely limited resources. 

Let’s see if we can do better.  Okay, here’s one more attempt: 

People who are hungry.  Simply put, people come first.  We’re not trying to help feed a nameless breed of beings known as “the hungry” (akin to “the infected”).  We’re not trying to serve our neighbors, the “hungry people”—still defined by their condition rather than their self-identity as human beings.  Rather, we are ministering to people—people who happen to be hungry but are people first nonetheless.  They are Kennedy Symphorian, a skinny 15-year-old boy I met years ago in Tanzania who had HIV and whose non-traditional family eeked out a meager living and survived on assistance from an organization that received support from ELCA World Hunger dollars.  They are the children begging for handouts on the streets of Nicaragua, some of whom work the streets alone during the day while their parent(s) crowd into a tightly packed school bus and ride off to work in a sweatshop.  They are nameless strangers we meet on our streets who browse trash cans for food scraps, approach our rolled-up windows at a stoplight (maybe we look at them, maybe not), sleep on a doorstep in 15-degree weather.  They are us only with fewer resources and a harder way, trying to survive. 

We cannot afford to talk about people in any way less than the dignified manner all souls should be afforded.  We are all people first and foremost.  We are Christians, Muslims, writers, janitors, men, women, fast-food workers, nurses, crossing guards, students, tailors…we are who we are, defined by our humanity and our relationship to God. 

Let’s put people first instead of resorting to comfortable, overused phrases that define people by their condition.  Maybe next time you encounter “the other”—that perfect stranger who asks you for money because she probably really needs it—you’ll ask her name and be able to talk about the time you met Rhonda rather than “some homeless woman.”

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