Spirit Alive: Who is Invisible to You?


Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and beyond.

April 23 , 2019

With Heart, Soul, and Mind:

How Can You Relate to Those You Do Not Know?

"I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center."

Kurt Vonnegut

"Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. I assure you that many prophets and righteous people wanted to see what you see and hear what you hear, but they didn't."

Matthew 13: 16-17

I've been thinking a lot these days about the people we just don't seem to see. And when you think about it, there are actually a lot of them. Let me show you what I mean.

Consider these simple questions and realities:

1. When you think about the fruit and vegetables that you eat every day, how often do you think about the farm workers who picked them? There are over 750,000 farm workers in the United States, who, according to the US Department of Labor, earned on average $9.12 per hour or $18,970 per year.

2. When you think about the clothes you are wearing, how often do the countries of Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, or Bangladesh come to mind? Did you know that 98% of the clothes we wear in the US were made in other countries?

3. When you think about who made your house, how often do names like Jorge, Francisco or Manuel come to mind? According to US Labor Statistics, 27.3% of the workers in the construction trades are Latino or Hispanic.

4. When you use your computer, did you consider the fact that immigrants played a significant role in making this possible? In terms of information technology and high-tech manufacturing, immigrants make up 23 percent of all workers, according to the Brookings Institute.

5. And...when you eat out, how often do you remember to thank the service staff that works in the kitchen or buses your table? Or... when you check out of your hotel, how often do you remember the faces of the housekeeping staff that made your stay comfortable?  According to the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, 31% of hotel workers, 22% of food service workers, 43% of owners of small hotels/motels, 37% of small restaurant owners are immigrants....and 20% of the nation's cooks and 28% of the dishwashers in the country are here illegally.

When I was in the 8th grade, my brother, Gordon, used to drive with me from time-to-time along Washington County's country roads. I remember one particularly memorable drive in which I saw what at the time we would have been called migrant labor camps. I was stunned by what I saw...the people there were living in horrible conditions in small, row dwellings. And...up until that time, these families had been invisible to me.

After this first encounter, we went back to these sites again, so that I could take pictures for a Social Studies project that I ended up calling "Invisible in Washington County." I still have the slides from that 8th grade project, and I still vividly remember that consciousness-raising experience.

It was my first insight into the fact that people who live among us are often invisible to us, even when they live nearby!

But this early childhood memory applies to our life today as well.

Let me illustrate what I'm talking about in another way: A couple of summers ago, I had the privilege of taking a class called "Changing Times, Shifting Places," which was part of the 40th Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication offered in the Portland area. It was an amazing experience in a number of ways. But here is how this experience impacted my thoughts about being more aware of how eyesight (or the lack of it) is a critical part of our lives...and how it can impact our sense of mission and ministry in the world.

One day our class went to visit Powell's Bookstore in Portland in order to conduct a brief ethnography experiment. I was paired up with another student, and the two of us ended up watching the "shelvers" do their work in the bookstore for a couple hours. We even did interviews with several of them as a part of our project.

And here's what we learned: Did you know that twice every day, there are teams of people who shelve new and used books there? Well, before this experience, I assumed that people had to do this job. But until then, I never paid attention to nor really noticed them before....And I certainly never talked to them or asked them about their jobs. It was a fascinating experience.

And now when I go into Powell's I not only look for books...I also notice the people who serve as "shelvers," because without them, there would be no books to look at in that wonderful place!

But this all raises a good question for us all to consider: Who is invisible to you? And...are they invisible due to omission or exclusion? The truth is that we can miss people by simply overlooking them, not noticing their existence....or we can miss them intentionally, by not wanting to accept that they are there. Both things, however, lead to the same condition: Some people around us simply get excluded from our worldview...but in the end, this diminishes our understanding life and those who contribute to it being a blessing.

In fact, the reality is that this invisible world is filled with real life people and with suffering, injustice, and difficult burdens...but this reality also includes faith, hope, love, epiphanies, unforeseen miracles...and the opportunity to make human connection.

When Kurt Vonnegut says "I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things (and I would add people) you can't see from the center," it begs us to consider several questions: Am I really standing close enough to the edge to see those around me or do they simply not exist? Am I standing close enough to the edge to understand how the world is changing around me? Do I understand my world and those in the larger community who contribute to my life?

If not, then what do I need to do in order to see better...live more fully...and connect with those around me?

You may have heard me share this story before, but it bears repeating in this context. It is about the African Zulu greeting Sawubona...or "I see you." The response to this greeting is the word Ngikhona, which means "I am here"...but it also implies when you say it that you feel your dignity as a person has been recognized as well. To learn more about this African greeting, click here....and here.

It seems like such a simple exchange in just two words, but if I don't see you...and you don't feel like your dignity has been recognized by me, then it is difficult for us to make any true connection with each other. And...we will remain strangers...and be invisible to each other...even when we pass each other in the street.

Being invisible in the world is a terrible thing. And this is why it is important to always ask ourselves: Do we really see those around us? Is everyone at the table who needs to be present in our deliberations? Does what we do as a church truly touch the lives of those in our communities...even those who may be invisible to others?

Friends, the truth is, if we are going to serve the communities in which our congregations are located, then we are going to need to make sure that we see each other first and find ways so that those being seen feel like their dignity as human beings has been recognized...otherwise we're going to miss a lot of people who are our neighbors...people who may be responsible for building our homes, contributing to our food and health needs, making our clothes, or adding in other ways to the blessings in our lives.

This is a big task...and we have our work...and eyesight...cut out for us!

Blessings on your journey,


Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. It seeks out where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities.


Lowell Greathouse
Lowell Greathouse is the Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church. He looks for places to find where the spirit is alive and help them grow in vitality and fruitfulness. Share with him at lowell@umoi.org