He wouldn’t look me in the eye. Kept looking around the room to get his bearings. It was like approaching a hurt animal at first…it’s okay buddy. I’m not going to hurt you. I moved closer and stuck out my hand, gently, leading to an awkward handshake. One glance revealed so much. His eyes began to speak before his mouth opened. Every few minutes his face contorted in pain and then faded. The story his eyes told was difficult and painful but did not reveal an angry man. He had been beaten up by life so much; cowering was his way to survive. To shrink away and be unnoticed. Discarded.

The thing on his foot helped start our conversation. Diabetes, untreated and neglected, had cost him his big toe. Reluctantly, he finally listened to his doctor, wrapped up his foot and strapped it in the orthotic boot so he could at least walk. But then there was the smell. A mixture of bad hygiene, sweat, and a poor diet was not a good fragrance. Sensitivity to smells helped me kick my synthetic fragrance habit, but this dude could have used a bath filled with Chanel. His odor filled the entire area where we were standing. Corny, loud laughter began flowing from his radio style voice, showing off a mouth full of rotting teeth; but that didn’t stop him. The longer we talked, the more comfortable he became. I calmly welcomed him to the Victory Ministries’ Center of Hope. He was safe here. The discarded.

What is acceptable today? Our culture has some pretty specific words which act as identifiers. Fat or skinny. Tall or short. Ugly or beautiful. Plain or exotic. Big boobs or small chested. A nice smile or crooked rims. Thunder thighs or tone legs. Slender feet or cankles. Thin hair or voluptuous volume. That felt a little like Cat in the Hat right there, but you get the point. Growing up as a female, in the context of the 21st century, consumed with defining beautiful from the outside-in can get exhausting. My two best girlfriends are my family. I have two of the most talented, funny, intellectual and faith-grounded sisters. I know the stories behind their gazes. We know each other’s joys, pain, and adventures. We have carried one another through the darkest of times…we get each other. Growing up, we were often compared…everything from our height, down to the shape of our feet. Most were kind intentions but plenty of comments created comparison wars. Who is the fairest of them all? Sorry. We just left three days in Disney Orlando. In all seriousness, those little thoughts planted in young minds grow quickly in an American culture obsessed with defining beauty. These two women have taught me there is more to beauty than surface traits. My sisters are both more than nice to look at, don’t get me wrong…blondies…but what resonates is a deeper, sometimes hidden depth of strength; the kind that carries you through those broken times. This is beautiful.

As we finished the tour, he began to stop every couple minutes to tell me bits and pieces of his story. I wanted to make sure he felt me looking him in the eye. I could feel the burden of avoidance his whole life carried. He hated trying to fit in…to explain why he belonged. He was used to being ignored, laughed at, bullied, and hated. After all, he wasn’t beautiful. My mind was racing. That moment when you realize you often judge more than you love. Those times I have shrunk away from a person’s glance who wasn’t “beautiful” by our cultural standards. Whether it be obesity, a smell or a certain “look”. Why, for a single moment in time, have I ever accepted that my own self-worth or value was higher because people told me I was pretty growing up? How humbling to come face to face with my own lack of grace, when I personally need so much. When appearance is taken away, what is left? This is when we discover the true summation of one’s beauty.

He sat down to rest his diabetic boot and take a load off. He spoke of the woman in his life who had bullied him over and over again. Stealing whatever money he had, always hounding him for more. He was trying to get away from her for good. He continued…nervously shared about his bipolar disorder. Kept saying it was mild. I told him he was in a safe place and it was okay to share. Victory has a clinical counseling center; licensed counselors treat and minister to countless trauma victims; people in despair. My own journey with anxiety and depression have left an impression on my soul; I don’t see people with mental health issues as discarded members of society…they are like anybody else. These precious people need a support system and intentional tools to face each day, one step at a time. He talked about his ambitions, a short-lived radio career and how he loved to interact with people. Beneath his outward appearance was a beautiful, charming personality. The longer we chatted, the more he laughed. He even started trying out his humor on me. I was humbled by this gentle human; a product of his upbringing, environment, economical disadvantages, abuse, and illiteracy. Deep down, his heart longed to be endeared and accepted, but all so he could love and be loved. So he would matter. It was beautiful to me. After all, he had been through and struggled with, he still sought hope. Beautiful.

Three words I wish I could have said to him. You are beautiful. Go ahead and look in the mirror. No matter what you’ve been programmed to believe your whole life…you are beautiful. I know this because a loving Creator intended for you to “be”. He loves your imperfections, flaws and “less thens”. All of your grooves, bumps, and bruises are what make-up you. He can make all things beautiful again. Hang on. Your story’s not over. I see you now. You are not discarded.

**I have had the privilege of growing up with an amazing mom and dad, who work tirelessly to find beautiful solutions for families dealing with the devastating consequences of poverty. My siblings and I grew up running around the aisles of a food pantry; watching people gratefully receive food and clothing for their families. At a young age, this perspective taught me to look outward and to care about the people in need around us. To not ignore or look away, but to love. Thank you to my beautiful parents for selflessly doing what only God asked you to do with your lives. I am big on integrity AND give a huge shout out to Victory Ministries’ Center of Hope; a hope-filled organization led by character-driven leaders. If you are looking for a way to volunteer or get involved in helping people find next steps, please reach out. You can be a part of something beautiful. www.victorycenterofhope.org.