“Wait,” my neighbor appealed, “how do you know my name?”
“We met during the housing protest, remember?” I say, doing my best to maintain eye contact while also ensuring one of my kids doesn’t ride their bike into oncoming traffic. We are walking/biking/scootering home from the neighborhood park when I spot Duke, a formerly falsely incarcerated neighbor of mine in his usual uniform: button-up shirt, ironed slacks, and beret. The sun has begun its decent behind the palm trees and corner store as a smile creeps across Duke’s face and he nods. “Yes, yes I do remember.”
We stand on the corner a few minutes more. Duke asks where we have moved. I point up the street a ways then ask how he is doing. It’s a vague question by all accounts, but gives him the power to share as much or as little as he’d like. Duke isn’t in the mood for deep conversation and my kids are lined up along the sidewalk ready for home so I tell him how glad I am to run into him and turn the corner for home.
“You know my name?” is a common refrain in my neighborhood. Typically described as “low-income,” “at-risk,” or “marginalized,” my neighbors have grown used to being told from outsiders who they are and where they fall on society’s ladder. Their names—who they are at the core of their being—have long been buried beneath stereotypes and statistics.
The Old Testament character Hagar is referred to by her masters Abram and Sarai as “slave,” used as breeding stock, and essentially sent away to die. Hagar is the epitome of unnamed, unseen, and unwanted, but when the angel of the Lord appears to her, he makes three things clear: he knows her name, he cares about where she came from, and he cares about where she is going.
The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert… And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” (Genesis 16: 7-8, NIV)
What does it mean to know a person’s name?
Knowing someone’s name is an easy and obvious first step in any relationship, but it’s particularly meaningful for those society has discarded or sequestered. People like Hagar and Duke.
Minister and civil rights activist Dr. John Perkins says we cannot give someone dignity, we can only affirm it. At its very basic level, affirming people’s dignity means looking them in the eye and calling them by their name. This is the first step in our disconnected, polarized world: to not reduce image bearers to statistics or stereotypes but to call them who they really are.
We cannot give someone dignity, we can only affirm it.
Where have you come from?
The recorded conversation between the angel-messenger and Hagar is fairly brief. He has found her in the wilderness and notices her. God sees her and is attuned to her oppression and grief. The God of the universe cares about and is concerned for those whom society has outcast; the people of God must take the same posture.
In a world of instant gratification, instant coffee, and Instagram, what if we flipped the script and invested in the slow work of building deep, meaningful relationships with those around us? What if we learned where people were born, what their parents did for a living, how old they were when they immigrated to this country, where they went to high school, and what foolish things they did as a teenager?
Knowing a person’s name is the gateway to this kind of intimacy, but the slow work of building relationships cannot be rushed. We must be willing to sit at the feet of those who have been othered long enough to hear their story, to truly know where they came from.
Knowing a person’s name is the gateway to this kind of intimacy, but the slow work of building relationships cannot be rushed.
Many in our world today feel unseen and unheard, these feelings validated by government leaders and even our churches. But scripture is full of God both as Father and Son taking notice of and listening to those society has cast off.
Where are you going?
I imagine the angel looking deep into Hagar’s eyes and asking, What are your hopes? What are your dreams? What are your fears for the future?
Entering a community with our own ideas for improvement is when helping becomes hurtful. We cannot walk alongside people on their journeys in life if we are out in front, leading them to a place they never intended to go. As reformers committed to human dignity, the goal then is to learn where people are going so we may, if given the honor, accompany them as fellow travelers on the journey.
In Hagar we witness the hearing and seeing nature of God and His love and affection for one labeled “slave.” As citizens of the kingdom of heaven, noticing those who often go unnoticed and listening to those who often go unheard, we bring the kingdom come one encounter at a time. Resist the temptation to move on to something or someone perceived to have a higher return on investment, or something sexier for a supporter newsletter than “conversation with an elderly man on the corner.”
As citizens of the kingdom of heaven, noticing those who often go unnoticed and listening to those who often go unheard, we bring the kingdom come one encounter at a time.
Taking the time to truly listen affirms the God-given dignity in each human being we sit across from. To be seen and loved is the longing of every heart. It is a gift we give one another when we take the time to sit down and see each other.
“You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”