“They’re shaming him,” the woman passing me in the parking lot said to the man beside her. “That’s wrong,” she said.
I assumed she was speaking of a personal family matter. I marveled at the intersection with things I’d been processing, so connected to human trafficking’s root issues, to how—often inadvertently--we create vulnerabilities to trafficking and continue cycles, both in our own families and in communities we call family.
It was dark. Our moods on some level matched the surrounding darkness. We were on our way to buy funeral clothes. Our tears had poured like the raindrops falling from the clouds, until they’d momentarily run out. The pause in both gave us time to run into a store.
As I’d been thinking about the problem of how we shame one another, I couldn’t help but think of Elizabeth, whom we loved so deeply and who loved everyone around her intentionally, without judgement, no matter what. Elizabeth, who said my name in a way no one else ever has or ever will. Elizabeth, whom I’ve never seen shame anyone. She chose a different tactic: Love.
“Okay, Suzanne,” she’d say, her simple words tinged with the accent of her native Afrikaans but in a way so unique to her and packed with meaning. With acceptance. With support. With commitment to walk alongside me. Whether she understood what I was doing or not, even where she’d have chosen a different route. Elizabeth would not only go with it. She’d fill the gaps I left, as I chased after things that were less than traditional. She was an essential part that made it possible to do what I did. Liz was always there to host, hug, feed, play, offer Wisdom and Love. Until, seemingly suddenly, she was not.
The night before, one of my no-longer-so-little girls had burst into my room and collapsed on top of me sobbing, “I just want Aunt Liz back.”
“Me too,” I told her.
Earlier, this no-longer-so-little girl had shown her strength, as she told me how thankful she was that Aunt Liz’s prayers to be with Jesus had been answered, that Aunt Liz was where she longed to be. It helped her feel better, she said.
In that context, we approached the store, where, as we neared, we saw three figures illuminated in the entryway. Two looked official. One looked caught.
We walked through the first set of automatic doors. An official-looking woman greeted my two youngest daughters. Looking directly at them, she said, “This is why you don’t steal $300 from your employer.”
She was shaming the caught-looking one in front of us, demeaning him. And she’d made my children part of it. We could either condone it or confront it. I couldn’t see another route.
“I used to work in law enforcement,” I told the woman. “I believe in accountability, but this is not how you treat people.”
“Yes, it is,” the official-looking woman, whom I took to be a store employee, argued with me, adding some words that continued to devalue the young man in front of me.
“No,” I said. “It’s not.”
In that moment so many kids I’d encountered, in both professional and personal contexts, flashed through my mind. Kids who’d made mistakes few knew about and become world-changers because of merciful words of life spoken into them, telling them those acts didn’t define them. And those who’d succumbed to trafficking, to addiction, even to death, after internalizing words of shame and accusations spoken into them.
Words carry the power of life and death.
I thought of Liz.
I thought of how she spoke life.
That settled it. We didn’t need funeral clothes.
Elizabeth, as one of my sisters described her, always appeared “effortlessly fashionable.” More important, Elizabeth clothed herself in dignity and strength. So would we. And we’d do our best to help this young man dress the same way.
“We will never shop here again,” I said, addressing the official-looking woman.
“I’m sorry they’re shaming you,” I said to the young man. “You shouldn’t be treated this way.”
“Come on girls,” I said to my daughters. “Let’s go.” We walked out.
I don’t boycott places or people. I don’t typically make choices hastily. I’m known for being painfully slow, asking questions and processing all of the available information to avoid the logical leaps that can trap us into making harmful decisions. I was a little surprised by my own abrupt behavior. And yet, I wished I’d done more.
“You’d have shamed her,” my husband told me when I called him afterward.
I was a little bit startled.
“What were you going to do?” he asked.
I told him how I’d have deescalated what was escalating, how I’d have sought to understand both of them, how I’d have affirmed the store lady’s attempt to serve as a wake-up call—albeit the wrong way. I told him how I’d have spoken into this young man’s potential. But I was concerned for our kids and needed to get them out of there.
“It would have shamed her,” my husband said again. “You’d have done to her, what she was doing to him.”
Hmmm. Indeed. Now I could see how the words I wished I'd spoken could have come off as a public lecture, which wasn't my intent. How easily we fall into this trap, this cycle!
“You said enough to impact her and to leave an impression on him.”
Maybe. I hope so.
As I reflect, I realize that perhaps I wanted to control the outcome to ensure delivery of Justice and Mercy. Control is a trafficker tactic. The goal was noble, but the path I nearly took was not.
If we’re going to end trafficking, we need to learn to let go of control. We need to follow the right Way. We need to learn to do enough to create opportunity for others to make good decisions, and we need to let go of the rest.
We need to invite the sort of accountability my husband provided to me, lest our good intentions turn into something ugly. Lest we attempt to control and inadvertently do harm.
We need the Wisdom to know when to do something and when to walk away.
We need to use our influence and our words the right Way. We need to live more like Liz.
My sister-in-law Elizabeth Johnson, impacted so many by how she lived every moment intentionally Loving the one in front of her. May we do the same.