I will always remember what it’s like to be invisible.
In 1985 we began serving a year as volunteers at The Campbell Farm, a 40-acre apple farm and retreat center in Central Washington. The property had been left to the Presbyterian Church with the intent that it be used for educational purposes. It became a self-sustaining, working farm and a place where people could learn about agriculture and land stewardship. Early guest speakers included the poet and writer Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson (a soil scientist focusing on the recovery of the prairie ecosystem), and theologians who were laying the foundation of the eco-spirituality movement.
A clergy couple who had become friends of ours in seminary were Directors and invited us to join them. Our duties included working in the small kitchen during mealtimes, helping with housekeeping, assisting in the fall harvest and winter pruning, irrigating the alfalfa field, and tending the livestock. In exchange, we lived rent-free in a mobile home and had a $200/month stipend.
I was just four years out of seminary. We were young, idealistic, and excited about this new adventure.
One weekend, we had a group of 15 retreatants and my job was to help serve the meals and do the dishes on Saturday. Naturally a friendly and inquisitive person, I delight in starting conversations and getting to know people. But I decided I would not speak to any guests about anything other than the meal unless they initiated it.
I set the table, brought the food, cleared the table, and did the dishes — all the time overhearing their conversations. It was a church group, so I was familiar with many of the issues they were discussing. Several times I wanted to break into the conversation, introduce myself, and begin interacting. But I resisted the temptation. In this situation, my “place” was to simply serve them. Eventually, they finished their conversations and went on to their next activity. I dried the dishes and pans and put everything away.
At some point during the meal, I had a vivid experience of being invisible. I was physically present, of course, but it was the sense of not being “seen” socially. I wasn’t offended – I was doing my job and they were the guests – but it was a curious feeling.
Maybe the experience was new to me because I was a young, white male. In our culture, I unconsciously had always assumed I was a “somebody” worthy of other people’s attention. I’m guessing many people in service jobs, particularly people of color, are accustomed to not being seen. Any of you who have worked in food service and hospitality probably know the feeling well.
This experience often comes back to me at restaurants, hotels, and other public places. Amid all the guests and customers, there are invisible people taking care of everything. Sometimes they may be thanked as they perform a task, but often they are not.
The major spiritual traditions affirm that no human being is invisible.
The Jewish Torah reminds the people of Israel that they were once slaves in Egypt with no worth beyond their physical labor –an experience of being invisible. But having been liberated, they should not make the same mistake: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)
Jesus taught “… the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22: 26-27)
In the early 1960s, Malcolm X made his first pilgrimage as a Muslim to Mecca. He described how all the pilgrims arrived at the airport dressed according to their culture, but as they headed for the holy site, everyone put on the same two-piece white garment. “You could be a king or a peasant and no one would know,” he wrote.[i] What was true for social status was also true for race. For the first time in his life, he felt like an equal member of the human family.
When I was at Hospice of Santa Barbara, twice a year we’d welcome a group of City College students completing their Certified Nursing Assistant program. In my welcome, I’d say that in my years visiting people in nursing homes and health care facilities, it was the CNAs who were doing most of the care of the patients, and many times I had seen how their compassion was affirming each patient’s dignity.
And I remember going to the dedication of the new wing of Cottage Hospital here in Santa Barbara. There were four ribbons cut that day. The first was to be expected – Lady Ridley-Tree, the biggest donor. Another ribbon was cut by a staff doctor who had been born there, and another by the longest-serving volunteer. But the moment that meant the most to me was when they introduced their longest-serving employee. She was a woman who had worked in the basement laundry for more than 50 years. All that time she would have been invisible. But at this moment, as she stepped forward to cut the ribbon, she was being seen.
[i] “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley,” 1965
Photo: The Pho Hung Restaraunt, Toronto