Friday, February 11, 2011

The Unseen

Last week a man in his late forties came to see me for assistance with a traffic ticket.  He had already retained a lawyer so we could not consult with him.  But, I wanted to make sure he knew that if he had any kind of immigration issue, he would make his lawyer aware of that.  This man was broad-shouldered, had a dark, lined face.  His hands looked calloused from labor.  He had been in a car accident – someone hit him from behind.  When the police came, they gave him a ticket for not wearing a seat belt.  And, they gave him a ticket for driving without a license.  He explained to me that he had come to the United States unlawfully nearly twenty years ago.  As he explained the situation, he wanted to be sure I knew a few things: he had not caused the accident and this was the first time he’d ever gotten a ticket; he had paid taxes for the entire time he had been in the U.S.; he wanted to be here legally.  As he defended his presence to me (unnecessarily, in my mind), he asked some questions.  “If I get the ticket cleared up, can I get a license?”  I looked in his eyes.  “No.”  “I’ve paid taxes for years, does that benefit me in anyway?”  I looked in his eyes.  “No.”  “I’ve been here for a long time, never been in any trouble.  Can I become legal here?”  I looked in his eyes.  “No.”

As I gave him these blunt, honest answers, I watched his eyes fill with tears.  I saw right before my eyes everything that he is – a man, a father, a husband, a worker, a son – evaporate, disappear.  It was as if all of what made him who he is slowly faded, like the closing shot in a movie.  By the time he left, he was a shadow of himself, a shadow of what God had made him to be.

This disappearance reminded me of a passage from a book I have read four or five times, Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.  The passage is this: “I am an invisible man . . . I am a man of substance of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids and I might even be said to possess a mind.  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

So many of us, in our homes and neighborhoods surrounded by others who look just like us, refuse to see the undocumented immigrant.  They are underground.  We turn our heads.  As a result, there is an entire group of people at risk -- at risk of dissolving, disappearing, becoming invisible men and women.  This dissolution should hurt the deepest part of any soul who follows Christ because it is those at risk, those who others refuse to see, who Christ reaches for, and says “I see you and blessed are you.”

It is not just the immigrant for whom Christ reaches and invites.  It is not just the immigrant that Christ instructs us to care for; it is also the oppressed, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the unclothed.  But, as we look around us and ask, who do we refuse to see?  Who do we lump into a category and see not as individuals who God knitted together as masterpieces?  Who do we judge?  To whom do we refuse to extend grace?  Who is it that we refuse to see?  And who is on the verge of invisibility, dissolution?  It is the man who stood before me last week and disappeared before my very eyes.

The poet Emily Dickinson said “hope begins in darkness.”  We are in a dark period for the undocumented immigrant.  What an opportunity, then, for hope to arise.  What an opportunity for the church to reach into this darkness, open our eyes and hearts, and pull out the unseen, the disappearing, and say, “I see you; Christ sees you.  Blessed are you.”

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