04/24/2014 01:51 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2014

The Moment Lost in a Smile Withheld

-Rekha Garton- via Getty Images

You know that horrible, awkward feeling...when you go somewhere, public or private, and feel like you are underdressed, overdressed or just stand out like a sore thumb? Maybe you've escaped that particular misery, but I've felt it and can assure you it is uncomfortable. The outsider's perception as to whether you actually are inappropriately dressed doesn't matter; it's just how you feel, and it's very hard to shake.

I was thinking about that feeling, the other day, when I was half-listening to an exchange at Bethesda Cares' Drop-In Center. A slim, African-American woman I've seen once or twice before was standing at our coffee station, looking into a small container. She then approached our front-desk volunteer, and asked her if there was any sugar left; she wanted some for her coffee. Flustered, the volunteer jumped up.

"Oh! I'm so sorry, I didn't realize we'd run out, let me get you some!" The volunteer went to the closet, refilled the container from a 10-pound bag, put a serving spoon back in the container and set it on the table in front of the woman. "Here you go!" she smiled.

But the woman didn't reach for the sugar right away. She just stood there, staring at the little container. Then she looked up at the volunteer, and said, "Thank you. Thank you for treating me with dignity."

The volunteer's smile got even brighter. "Why, heavens! Of course! You deserve to be treated with dignity, we all do!"

I watched the woman out of the corner of my eye; she said something, but I couldn't make out her reply.

The thing is, reader, that this woman was dressed in clean, matching clothing, totally appropriate for both the season and for walking around downtown Bethesda. She carried a large tote bag, but nothing of the sort that I haven't lugged around myself on occasion.

I don't know this woman's name, much less her current situation. But if she was at our Drop-In Center, especially if she came in more than once, odds are high that she is at least temporarily without a home.

To me, nothing about her appearance, neither her clothing, nor her posture nor her general comportment gave any external clue as to her predicament. Yet there she stood, bearing the invisible weight of humiliations so deep that she felt grateful for a kind word and a few grains of sugar. I wondered what has happened to her, what people have said (or not said) to or near her, words or glances that have torn at her soul so deeply that she expects nothing but scorn.

As I sat trying to draw a lesson from this moment, the Bible flashed through my mind, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." True, although in this case I'd probably say, "Judge not, because don't think for a minute that you know what burdens anyone else is carrying."

But that wasn't all that I was I was feeling. I was thinking more about the people I've walked by whose burdens were visible, people around whom I have stepped knowing full well they needed some help, and I did not offer them even the dignity of a smile. I finally found the Biblical quotation that hit the mark: 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'