Comforting Words: Tsunami Dignitaries

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Tsunami Dignitaries

The news since December 26, 2004 is filled with stories of survival from Asia where a tsunami devastated the lives of millions. People and governments around the world have come forward with assistance in cash and kind, helping to restore a sense of normality for the survivors.

Recent reports have told us that schools are slowly reopening as part of the effort to create a sense that "everything will be alright," among the children. The love and generosity expressed by the world to the survivors of the tsunami is said to be unmatched and unprecedented. Differences in culture and race have been put aside for the most part, and the focus has been on how can we help our brothers and sisters recover their lives and secure a hope-filled and respectable future for the children.

There are those who are acting selfishly, seeking to profit from the disaster. They are stealing the aid that have poured in, withholding aid from the so-called "untouchables" in India and reports are that security measures have had to be implemented to ensure against the trafficking of children. Unfortunate as this is, it is a sad fact of our humanity that there are those among us who cannot see beyond their personal agenda and greed. Those that can, and thankfully they are in the majority, have the additional task of making sure that the most vulnerable irrespective of caste, age, creed or gender is assisted.

I invite you to open your hearts and help the survivors of the tsunami, in cash, kind and/or a simple prayer. Join me through this Blog in this effort. Each week through I post, Words from Scripture, Words of Comfort and Words from the Heart that guide me (and you if wish). This week's is entitled "Tsunami Dignitaries."


From the Judeo-Christian Tradition:

Proverbs 31: 25 – 26

"Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to

She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on
her tongue."

From Jainism:
Tattvarthasutra 7.11
Have benevolence toward all living beings, joy at the sight of the virtuous,
compassion and sympathy for the afflicted, and tolerance towards the indolent
and ill-behaved.
From Islam:

Nahjul Balagha, Saying 9
Treat people in such a way and live amongst them in such a manner that if
you die they will weep over you; alive they will crave for your
(Jainist and Islamic traditional text and saying taken from World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology (St. Paul: Paragon House, 1995) 684


The tsunami in Asia has quite correctly captured the attention of all over the past three weeks. Looking at the harrowing pictures of utter despair and confusion, particularly on the faces of the adult survivors, I questioned my ability to recover a sense of dignity if I had this terrifying experience and my life washed away.

I have used the word dignity on many occasions and in many conversations, particularly in those where comments are being made about someone’s behavior or attitude in a given situation. Have we not all said, "Oh, such and such a person was dignified when he or she did so and so"? Then there is the case of calling people dignitaries, persons who have attained some high office of authority and ‘power’ – we bestow the title of dignitary on such persons, regardless of their character, particularly politicians.

Being a student of theology and a believer, I looked to my faith beliefs for guidance on this word and how a person in a time of great despair retrieve and maintain their dignity. I attend a Catholic theological college so my first point of reference was the social teaching documents of the Catholic Church, which is rich with arguments for the ‘dignity of the human person’. The most apropos is this comment by Pope John Paul II, in his 1991 encyclical entitled Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year) which reads somewhat like this: "Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God's image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are."

Feeling that I was onto something as God had entered the scene, I did what is normal for me when I am consciously in that awesome presence – I closed my eyes and thought about persons in my life who personified dignity in this way. Three faces of dignity slowly passed across the screen of my mind.

Luda. My daughter’s former nanny. I am not being pretentious here – that was actually what we called babysitters in Kiev. Full-time students like me who decided to have children in the middle of working on their degrees either had to take their children to government –run nurseries in ‘communist Russia’ or find the funds to hire a nanka. I chose the latter. Most nankas at the time were older ladies, seeking to supplement their very meager state pension, women who themselves were in need of care.

Someone told me about this excellent nanka but warned that she could be a bit much and therefore was never employed for very long. I was desperate as my papers were piling and exam dates looming, after all we were in the former U.S.S.R. to learn and get degrees not have babies. The call was made and the rest of my time in Kiev was never the same after Luda entered my little apartment.

This blue-eyed, well coifed, no-nonsense blonde immediately took charge of not only my two-month old daughter, but also my then husband and I. Luda was all I could have prayed for and some days I felt that my daughter and I were her dream come through. She was one of those many Ukrainians who dreamt of a different life than the one promulgated by the regime of the time. Her stories, the few those she would tell, were reminiscent of the good-times when her family was together and happy. Luda had been estranged from her family members for various reasons, not least of which was the pressure brought to bear by a restricted society – but she was a proud woman, one who refused to be brought down. Therefore, she worked for the ‘foreigners’ as we were called, but never reducing her old Eastern European ideas of standards by which a child and a home, no matter if it was one room, was to be raised and maintained.

Luda would not accept gifts without having one in return – she was filled with a pride that was not puffed up with self-importance, but the pride of a people who had endured tremendous hardships and changes. She gave service but was never in servitude and as such was never diminished regardless of the role she was playing. Those years that my daughter and I were nurtured by Luda are ones for which I will be eternally grateful.

Grace was the next face on my kaleidoscope. News of murder sadly was not news in the Kingston, Jamaica that I left a few years ago – killing was and is still commonplace and more so as the country spirals down the slope of poverty. So the initial reports about the murder of a young man on the streets of inner city Kingston, on his way home from school, sad though it was, really did not elicit more than a sigh from me. It was not until about three days later when I heard the voice of Grace, Sister Grace as she was called by her community, that I started to pay attention. Maybe it was because she sounded like a gentle breeze in the otherwise hot and agitated Kingston why I listened.

She was being interviewed on a popular morning radio program, known for its harsh, yet objective criticism of the state of affairs on the island. Grace was being prodded to tell the story of her son’s senseless murder, a child caught in the middle of a clash between warring gangs. Grace, like any mother in that position, had every reason to be angry and screaming for swift justice. In fact, this was the norm in Kingston – much like the Romans in their arena urging on sparring gladiators. However, Grace was not taking the bait – she lived up to her name.

Tears were flowing down my face as I dressed and got into my car to find her. I simply had to meet this woman, who just called for peace, who just said she would like to meet the killers of her son and let them know she forgave them. Hours later, when I found her house and reverently entered her room she embraced me and we wept together. Grace and I have been friends ever since.

Images were now rushing across my mind and but conscious not to bore readers I selected only one more. I do not know his name but have seen him several times before coming out of the supermarket here in Edmonton where I purchase our weekly grocery. Frankly, the first few times that I saw him, I looked through him. Let us blame that on the cold and rushing to get home before my butt froze. Despite the below freezing temperature, at least once per month, he would be standing out in the cold, silently offering his ‘street paper’ – The Voice. As it got warmer, the rush to get home was not as great, I guess, so I actually looked at him and contributed to the paper. The first thing I noticed were his hands - nails broken and almost black, and his hair ruffled could use a shampoo and cut.

On the next occasion, I noticed more – his clothes were well worn and he seemed in need of some new ones. Lastly, I noticed that he was a Canadian Native. I made a greater contribution to the paper and this time, before I went to sleep I really read the paper. The last time I saw him, we actually had a ‘conversation’. It was the day before Mother’s Day and I was again waiting for my ride with a cart filled with grocery.

We spoke about the weather, he asked me the time, told me about his new place, and then something stirred me to contribute yet again. As my ride pulled up he said to me in the gentlest voice, "Are you a Mother?" Surprised, I responded with a question, "Yes?" He reached behind him to the side of the receptacle against which he was leaning and picked up something. "Someone gave this to me for my Mother, but she passed," he said, "And I would like you to have it." He handed me what was for me the most beautiful flower.

Did I make my Native newspaper vendor dignified? I doubt that. Like, Grace and Luda he epitomized "the quality of being worthy of esteem." Dignity is not in titles bestowed on us for jobs we paid to perform. Dignity is not in wearing just the right clothes or having the right house, career or stuff. Neither is dignity having a roof over one’s head or being certain where tonight’s meal is coming from. Honestly, dignity cannot be earned, bought or bestowed. Dignity is a state of mind, it is courage and it is strength. In my experience, the Pope’s right on this one – dignity is who we are.

There is a beautiful poem or essay, whatever you may wish to call it, written by the Mountain Dreamer, The Invitation. One of the most powerful passages from that piece perfectly describes these three people – my friends and dignitaries – and the thousands of dignitaries across Asia who will sleep in a refugee camp tonight. These are people who, in the words of the Mountain Dreamer, "can see beauty even when it is not pretty everyday, and . . . source [their lives] from its presence." That my dear reader, is how you recover and maintain your dignity.


Spirit of God, Breath of Life, Healer of Pain, Giver of grace and love
Teach me this day how to express the essence of you that I have been blessed to embody.
Use every part of this body in your service this day.

Open my eyes so that I may see the beauty of your creation in each person I meet.
Touch my heart and from it will ooze thoughts that honour your name.
Caress my lips, dear Spirit, and out will flow songs of praise.

Whisper in my ear throughout this day that I may only hear ideas of upliftment and love.
Move my feet in time with celestial drums in celebration of your love.
Use all of me dear God so that all whose life I touch in this day may come see not I but your glory.

Blessings until next week.


Anonymous Cynthia E. Crooks said...

Hi Claudette!
I thoroughly enjoy "Comforting Words'
The question 'Am I a Question' is now haunting me; even when I ask Am I the answer to a question? I have to follow with another question -The answer to what question? Every question leads to another and another. This no doubt is the QUEST.I will continue the dialogue with my self. Thanks for sharing.
Love you. Miss you. Love to Abby Cynthia C.

Sun. Feb. 20, 12:29:00 p.m. MST  

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