Holding Dignity



I have to tell you this story about “Ray,” who thought he didn’t deserve help.

I used to work at a nonprofit charity for the homeless and I met Ray when he finally got housing and landed a new job. But he needed a new tool belt.

My friend heard about his situation and bought a tool belt for Ray. A fifteen-pocket leather carpenter pouch, one of the nicest ones you could buy. Ray was beside himself.

A few weeks later, somebody asked Ray how he liked the tool belt.
“I haven’t used it,” he said. “I’m not sure that I can. I don’t deserve a thing like that.”

He thought he would ruin it with himself. “The things I’ve done,” he said, “pretty much disqualify me. I feel guilty.”

Ray had told us his story before: addictions, abuse, abandonment. He never had a chance, a lap behind from the start, stuck in systemic structures beyond him. He felt he deserved his fate. But Ray learned to believe a better story about himself. He didn’t need to be good enough for the gift; the gift was good enough for him. The things he had done and the things that happened to him didn’t disqualify him from what was good. Maybe Ray really was the kind of guy who didn’t deserve it. But that was the point. It was a gift. We need that sort of grace, a grace that invites us into a better story than the one we were given.

It’s true one act of kindness doesn’t dismantle a whole system. It doesn’t automatically mean we succeed. But a reminder of our dignity is the very least we need. Even as systems around us shrink us down, it never means we are small: only that we were always too big for all we were given.

I think of all the ways
our past selves
were never shown a chance
still hold us back
our bodies brutalized in headlines
our minds made hatred internalized
we believed tall tales about us
that told the whole story without us.

But all that does not see you
says nothing about you
only that they lack vision
and you are already made in an irrevocable Image.

To become someone new
often means returning to ourselves—
souls dignified, made divine,
forged in inherent worth.

And even souls inside bodies that are broke
hold a dignity that no one can revoke.
In you, I see the face of God.

— J.S.


– Partially adapted from my book The Voices We Carry

What I Used to Believe


What do you no longer believe?
What are old beliefs you grieve?

I used to believe
all anger was wrong, so I was the captain of the tone police—
until I discovered politeness is not rightness, that anger is not always hate, but hurt, and to be loving is to be fiercely angry at injustice.

I used to believe
forgiveness meant friendship and even a flicker of pain meant I hadn’t forgiven my abusers—
but I found I can forgive from afar, over a lifetime, and that the pain was not my lack of forgiveness but how deep the wound was carved.

I used to believe
that death could bring people together—
until I saw covid take hundreds of thousands of lives and not even their deaths could evoke compassion,
until I saw refugees ceaselessly die in the headlines and too many justified their demise.

I used to believe
that god was American, homophobic, emotionless, and secretly disappointed in me—
until I found God had a vision of grace far greater than our sight, an imagination that far outweighed mine.

I used to believe
my value was found in my usefulness and contribution,
instead of inherently being human,
in an irrevocable Image.

I used to believe
every pain had a purpose, a connect-the-dots lesson, a fire to refine us, a reason to teach us—
until I saw pain is pain, it is not mine to explain, and maybe the only reason it happened was evil and abuse and systems that need to be unmade.

I used to believe
my depression was from a lack of prayer or faith or moral grit or fortitude—
but my mental health only lacked the help I needed and I found that therapy and medicine were not giving up, but giving life.

I used to believe
those who looked like me chose to be silent and passive—
except we were not silent, but silenced, and we had always spoken up despite this.

I used to believe
we could never unravel lopsided power dynamics and racist systems—
until I saw heels in the dirt making moves insistent, for years they had woven new stitches by inches.

I used to believe
everything I believed
was so certain.
I grieve my certainty
but I trust the mystery, to know
there is always more unknown.
Being “right” is to be alone,
but in discovery
we walk each other home.

— J.S.

Quote: Myself

God, you loved me right out of my addictions. You loved me out of my despair. You loved me out of my darkness, conceitedness, misery. You loved me right out of myself.

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
— Galatians 2:20