The Transformative Act of Really Seeing People

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.





14 thoughts on “The Transformative Act of Really Seeing People

  1. Thank you. Most of us come with a backstory, emotional baggage, our issues. Nothing makes us more self-conscious. We think that stuff sticks out like a sore thumb and yet all that stuff is invisible to a stranger.

    Please let us know that you see us. Please let us know that you hear us. Please choose to be a person of compassion, empathy, sympathy.

    Thank you.

  2. John, in the last year or so this may well be one of the most impactful messages you have written.
    More of these positive, good outcome messages please!

  3. More to grieve:
    Commercial Appeal:

    Savage said that while he took ownership of the situation, he remembered it differently than characterized by Woodson.

    “It was a flirtatious environment which led to making out,” Savage said. “Hormones were very much in the moment.”

    Savage said he does not believe he broke the law because Woodson was of legal age under Texas law. The current age of consent in Texas is 17; it’s unclear what it was in 1998, but authorities said in announcing there would be no charges that 1998 law left them fewer legal options than they would have had under the current statute.

    Savage said the day after the incident, he made a “partial confession” to Woodlands Park Baptist Church Associate Pastor Larry Cotton, saying only that he had kissed Woodson. He said Cotton quickly arranged a meeting that day with Woodson’s mother, where he apologized to her.

    Earlier this week, Cotton was placed on a leave of absence by his current church in Austin, Texas, while it evaluates his role in the case through a third party, similar to what Savage described.

    Savage said he didn’t respond to an email from Woodson in December, before she went public, because he was “shocked” and advised by a “trusted friend” not to respond. In retrospect, he said he wished he had responded.

    Other comments from the interview:

    When Savage lost his job at Woodlands Park and returned to Memphis, he felt like he was “starting over.” He did intern work at Germantown Baptist, where he was not asked about what happened in Texas and did not volunteer the information. “I was embarrassed,” Savage said.
    Even though he doesn’t believe he broke the law, he did feel he was out of bounds in terms of his personal standards of sexual purity because of a “spontaneous physical moment.”
    He feels he was “honest and transparent” with Highpoint leadership, which has stood behind Savage. He said he offered his resignation to Conlee last Sunday before addressing the Highpoint congregation, which gave him a standing ovation afterwards.

    He will be supported by Highpoint Church during his leave.

  4. as we read , we see at a different perspective
    some see emotion, some see feeling, some see at whole different perspective.
    But looking at his in light of Jesus Christ we see from a different perspective.
    Gods Love was shed for a purpose.
    Not me , Not you , Not just my circle
    but for ALL who would receive it an believe, trust, and act on it.
    In a Crowd you feel overwhelmed, out of place, out of control and some times on cloud nine.
    But every one is alone , in the midst of the crowd as we can only relate to a few who really understand and emphasize our true depth of inner being.
    This the case with each person.
    But In Christ Jesus The savior of the World and My Eyes Wide Open , Alert , Awake and focused on Him, His purpose, His way, His cause
    I am at peace
    I am not alone and I see all with a clear vision
    People who Jesus Christ Died for and wants to Reunite back to the Holy Cross and a Relationship
    Jesus Wants YOU back
    Jesus Want s you to only server one God, One Father, One purpose , His purpose
    To spread the Good News of Salvation thru Jesus Christ who is and will always be with the father and the Intercessor for the sin of mankind.
    Jesus Alone is the only one who can take away that sin.
    Jesus alone is the only truth who can set you FREE
    And Free you will be .

  5. Thanks. That has become my mission. Kind of like, leave them smiling. Just noticing and commenting to the person who is checking you out or helping you locate something, etc. It is amazing what can happen when you put down your phone , look someone in the eye and ask them how their day is going and then listen to their answer. It is a powerful thing. Peace and Love,

    • This has been my policy for more than twenty years. When my children were small, I ran a daycare. When you are running a daycare, you don’t have time to clean your house as your focus must be on the children. I hired a service and a young woman arrived to make things tickety-boo. Part-way through the morning, the children were settled at an activity and I made a pot of tea. I asked the cleaner if she would like a cup and she started to cry. It was the first time a client had recognised that she was a human. That changed everything in how I interacted with people who were being paid to help me out. Not that I had been nasty before, but now I am more intentionally present and seeing the person in the helper.

      There is an Algonquin greeting that roughly translates as “my spirit sees your spirit”. How would we behave differently if we took this greeting to heart?

      • I love the saying. Have posted it over my desk to remind me every day. I was taught by my grandmother 7 decades ago that the most loving thing you can do is look someone in the eye and be present. I have tried to do that for her and in the process found that it was a blessing to me. I have met some truly amazing people who might have slipped through the cracks had I not been present. I have tried to pass this on to my sons and my grandsons. They leave the phones at the door.

  6. Thank you, John, this is so beautifully written. I found the entire post moving, but this paragraph,
    “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.” resonates with me. In the end, it’s what we all need.

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