In my book ‘A Bigger Table,’ I tell the story of the day I met a teenage girl named Tracy and her older brother Caleb while serving as a youth pastor in Charlotte. It was the kickoff youth ministry event of the school season, and the first of my eventual eight-year tenure there at the church—my family and I having just arrived a couple of weeks earlier.
That September Sunday afternoon, our massive converted-storefront student center was packed with middle and high schoolers, parents, and volunteers; playing games, bouncing around the room, and generally creating the kind of frenetic chaos that only teenagers can.
I remember ping-ponging around the space; introducing myself to people, stopping to answer questions, and deftly working the room like a seasoned maître d’ during the dinner rush. In the middle of the dizzying bombast of the moment, I happened to catch a glimpse of Tracy and Caleb out of the corner of my eye. They were standing at the edge of the room, physically distanced from the crowd and both looking rather uncomfortable.
I made my way over, introduced myself, and tried to engage them in some small talk but got little response beyond a couple of forced smiles.
I attempted a few of my go-to cheesy Youth Pastor jokes to disarm them. Nothing.
I talked about some fun stuff we had planned and let them know that I looked forward to getting to know them over the coming year. Barely a smile.
Sensing failure, I thanked them for coming and walked away—feeling a bit defeated and believing I’d made them feel more awkward than they appeared when I arrived.
A few days later though, I received an e-mail. It was from Tracy. She began by saying that I probably wouldn’t remember her (though I had), and she recounted her version of the conversation we’d had that Sunday. She talked about the difficulties she’d had in the past, some mistakes she’d made—and the coldness and judgment she’d received from pastors and students in their last church. These things had all left her feeling completely uncomfortable around religious people, and in fact that Sunday she and her brother been forced by their parents to be there as a sort of punishment.
Tracy said she wanted to thank me for the time I took to speak with her and her brother, and to let me know the difference it made:
“I wanted to thank you.” she said. “People usually don’t notice me, don’t care, or they just pretend not to see me. You made me feel visible.”
I’ve never forgotten those words: “You made me feel visible.”
It’s amazing how easy it is to be a difference maker in the lives of people we cross paths with every day—and yet how regularly we blow it.
When we encounter people in this world, we come armed with our theology and our politics, with our preferences, prejudices, and plans—and we believe our most pressing need is to convert or convince or fix or save or change them—but it isn’t.
This isn’t what people most need.
More than anything, they need to feel visible; to know that they are important and valuable and beautiful, that their presence here is noticed, that their stories matter, and that someone gives a damn.
Knowing this, our most urgent task, our most sacred calling, our most life-giving contribution—is to see people, really see them. It is to endeavor to step into their space and try to be a source of simple compassion and kindness without any other agenda.
Seeing people is transformative.
It allows them to exhale in our presence.
They can lay aside the need to prove themselves or justify their pasts or defend their positions—or be anything other than exactly who they are at a given moment.
And since we’re all fairly exhausted from pretending, this is a priceless gift we all could use.
Tracy taught me a lesson that September Sunday that I hope I’ll never forget:
Stop trying to fix or change or convince or renovate people—but never stop trying to see them.
Make them feel visible.