I can feel it already. You’re going to roll your eyes when I say it. You’re going to think I got it from that movie about tall blue people who live in the rainforest. But it’s true–I think one of the most powerful things we can do for people is to SEE them, to render them visible when the rest of the world ignores, or as the expression goes, “turns a blind eye” to their story, their experience, their troubles.
I spent this weekend talking about the power of telling our stories and listening to one another’s stories without judgment. I have a little experience with people assuming they know who I am before meeting me and then being shocked when we come face to face. And I have a little experience with my community being rendered invisible (or sometimes seeking to make ourselves invisible so we don’t draw undue attention.) It can be rough stuff.
One of my favorite stories of my father’s is about a time when he was flying from Germany back home to India after living and working in Germany for two years (and loving the country deeply). He was sitting in the airport, and the German young adults sitting opposite him probably just saw another Indian and assumed he wouldn’t know what they were saying. One of them started to expound on how dirty India was, and loud, and how unhygenic the people were. My father turned to him, and in impeccable German, said, “Excuse me; I’ve lived in your land for two years and I was never disrespectful. It would make me very happy if you likewise weren’t disrespectful towards my country.”
A really remarkable man who had served in the military for over 20 years shared with me yesterday how hurtful it had been not to be able to talk about his relationship, and even the basic fact that he was gay. He said, “It’s not just inconvenient…it does something to you INSIDE.” Not being able to tell our whole story, or not having someone willing to really hear our story actually misshapes us.
Today in my closing sermon at the retreat, I talked about people our society renders invisible because we profit due to their suffering–undocumented workers, sexually exploited minors, and child slaves. (I also mentioned the people at the Apple manufacturing plant in China whose lives are so bad that they try to commit suicide only to be stopped by the nets that have been installed because jumping is so common.)
We don’t know we’ve silenced an 8-year-old boy in Ivory Coast who was kidnapped and forced to work on a cacao plantation and live on a couple of bananas per day. All we know is we don’t want to pay much more than 50 cents for a hershey bar. And so we participate in silencing him, because his story wouldn’t sell candy bars, and it might eventually make candy bars more expensive.
I don’t know how we create space for the silent stories when we don’t even know those stories are out there…but I think we could start listening a little harder to whispers and a little less carefully to the roar of advertising and banter and objects. If we did, maybe we’d hear more from people like Mary Moreno Richardson, a clergy colleague of mine in San Diego who works with the Guadalupe Art Program, where victims of human trafficking reconnect with their dignity through creating images of themselves as the Virgin of Guadalupe. (For another piece on this, read http://spmcrector.blogspot.com/2010/08/our-lady-of-guadalupe-and-healing.html)
I wrote a few days ago about the Castlewood Workers who the management sought to render invisible but who claim their existence and their power on the picket line every day.
I also think of my friends at the Green Youth Arts and Media Center, who create multiple venues for public expression by gifted youth in our community who are often rendered invisible but whose visual and audio arts as well as dance are inspiring.
Those of us who are a little more visible, how can we make sure that the stories of the invisible (and the disappeared, and those rendered invisible) are heard, and that the people themselves tell the stories? I’m eager for input on both the individual level (listening to people whose stories we assume we already know) and the systemic level, too. And what might be the impact if we really did see one another?