When You Look at Me, See a Person First

This blog post comes from Cristosal advocate Gary Russell. If you're interested in becoming a Cristosal advocate, click here. If you'd like to learn more about the Global School, click here.

  Gary Russell (right) and Koshi Mathews at Cristosal's October 2017 Global School seminar on Human Rights, Reconciliation, and Faith / Photo Cristosal

Gary Russell (right) and Koshi Mathews at Cristosal's October 2017 Global School seminar on Human Rights, Reconciliation, and Faith / Photo Cristosal

The belief that every human being is equal in rights and dignity drives the learning at Cristosal's Global School in El Salvador. [Last October,] I attended a week long human rights seminar in the capital city of San Salvador.

As part of our fieldwork, we visited a juvenile reinsertion center (read: prison) where we interviewed young male offenders aged 15-21, incarcerated for gang-related crimes. Upon release, they can expect to be rejected by their families and society at large. They must also face the “Iron Fist” policy of policing that results in many of these men being profiled by authorities. Having tattoos displaying their gang’s name or simply “dressing like they’re in a gang” could mark them as targets, and many will likely suffer the fatal consequences of this policy. We also visited a church which employs former gang members who cannot get jobs and are rejected by family and society.

Through these experiences and the seminars given that week by Cristosal staff, a central concept of human interaction was embedded in my mind. That is, “WHEN YOU LOOK AT ME, SEE A PERSON FIRST.” The essential teaching is to recognize that every person we meet is just like us in so many ways, and we are stronger together, accompanying each other on our common journey through life’s challenges. When we are truly equal, it allows us to see each other as children of God, supporting each other with love and respect. 

Much of what I saw and learned in Central America informs my work and life here in my home community. In the daily work of lunch and pantry programs at St. Peter’s [Episcopal Church in Phoenixville, PA,] and a local homeless shelter, we come into contact with many different types of people who might be disabled, unemployed, underemployed, or suffering from mental illness, addiction, loneliness, or marginalization. Many of these people suffer from our preconceived notions of how “they” are different from or even inferior to those of us with careers, secure homes, and the blessings of privilege. When we get to know each other as equals, we are presented with an opportunity to share our common humanity and care for each other. My experience at Cristosal has been essential to forming this perspective and encouraging me to “SEE OTHERS AS PEOPLE FIRST.” 

At a time in our history when 65 million people worldwide are refugees due to violence of war and crime, I am proud to be a supporter of Cristosal. Their victim protection and advocacy, community development, and research programs are the next generation of work addressing the root causes of injustice. I pray this model can be replicated in many places and continue to advance the cause of human rights everywhere.

Written by Gary Russell, from St. Peters Episcopal Church in Phoenixville, PA. Gary is a longtime Cristosal supporter and advocate. He wrote this reflection after attending Cristosal's October 2017 Global School seminar on Human Rights, Reconciliation, and Faith. If you're interested in becoming a Cristosal advocate, click here. If you'd like to learn more about the Global School, click here.

Hannah Rose Nelson