When I was in 11th grade I took some type of history class. Honestly there is not much I remember about that class but I do remember these two things. First, I was 3 years at that school and for the first time since the beginning of my 9th grade year I walked into a class and knew no one. Second, a large majority of the class was free-work or partner work time. The teacher was pretty laid back and he allowed a lot of individual work time where we were encouraged to socialize. As you can imagine, knowing no one in a class where you are encouraged to interact with your peers a large portion of the 85 minute class period equaled a life lesson being learned.
What an awkward thing, to sit in the middle of a classroom and have all the people around you turn around and talk to everyone but you. It was like I was invisible. It is the first time in my life where I remember really feeling the sting of not being included, even the teacher looked over me in favor of the more “popular” students. I felt like I didn’t belong. I remember coming out of that semester vowing that if I ever saw someone walk into a space where everyone had people and they obviously didn’t, that I would do what I could to reach out to them. Because feeling unseen and ignored was a terrible feeling that I didn’t want anyone to experience.
Seeing people and being seen has been a theme of my life and I think it maybe started with that history class in 11th grade. Each and every one of us has the power to include and value – to see – the people around us. If we are in a position of belonging and community we have the ability to either bring others along in that, or leave them out.
As I sit here and write this I can think of many times when I have been on the outside. Times when people, intentionally or not, excluded me or didn’t use their influence and position to welcome me into the space where I was new and uncomfortable. If you are human and have ventured outside of your comfort zone at all then you know exactly what I am talking about. The feeling of being new, reaching out, and being rejected – intentionally or not – is not one I care to repeat.
That first time I felt the sting of exclusion I was at school but almost every time after that, I have been in a church setting. In my experience no one knows how to ignore others like those who populate the halls of a church on Sunday morning. There is no church I have been to that is an exception to this experience. The halls are all different but the activity of avoiding eye contact with strangers and seeking out the eyes of those they know, that is eerily the same. I too have sought comfort in familiar faces over the risk of reaching out to someone new, I think it is our humanness that causes us to safely stay with what is known instead of making spaces for those who are unknown.
There was another time in the past few years where I was new and alone again. I was putting on my confident facade but inside my insecurities were screaming. It was a space where most of the women knew each other and knew each other well. I definitely felt like an outsider. Then, one of the women looked at me and complemented how I looked. It wasn’t flattery, it was genuine and more than anything, I felt seen. We didn’t become best friends, she probably wouldn’t even remember that she did it, but I remember. In that moment I felt a little more like I belonged, a little more accepted.
In the gospels we get to meet Jesus, we see him interact with the crowds as they are drawn to follow him. I love how over and over we see this phrase or one similar to it: “He saw the crowds and had compassion on them.” Oh, I love it! I can see his eyes looking over the people who he knew and loved so well. He saw them, each of them, and had compassion. I think his look was tender. Loving. Inclusive. Filled with grace.
For those of us who claim the name of Jesus Christ, we are to be imitators of him as dearly loved children. One of the simplest and most challenging things we are called to do is see the people we are surrounded by. Really see them. With the eyes of Christ, with compassion and grace.
That experience in 11th grade imprinted on me and changed me but I still fail. Don’t we all? I have missed opportunities, I know it. Times when I have been in a place of comfort in community and then gotten in the car with a sickening feeling, knowing I chose my own comfort over inviting someone into my circle. It is a risk to reach out to someone you don’t know and invite them in. It takes intentionality to see new people, and bravery. We like our comfort zones, at least I know I do. Our groups where everyone clicks just right. We tell ourselves there isn’t room for anyone else, that those people have their own people. But what if they don’t? And is room the problem, or is our comfort being challenged really the barrier?
We underestimate our own power. Our power to see and value the people that we encounter everyday. We can’t know the story beneath the surface of a person and maybe our shaky attempt at including will be exactly the thing they need.
Can you think of a time, or times, when you have walked through a crowded space and felt completely invisible? If you have then I ask you, remember that next time you are in a space where community is easy for you, remember and then – look around. Take a deep breath, ask Jesus for his eyes to see, be brave and say “Hi.”