Can you see us? Can you hear us? Can you find Christ in us? Will you claim us as part of yourself and your community?
Rev. Anita Phillips, in her presentation at annual conference session, offered these as four essential steps towards repentance. As a denomination, we have been called to a time of reflection in regard to our relationship with our Native American brothers and sisters. We invited Anita, executive director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan, to come and open us to the story and experience of native peoples. It was powerful, and her four questions linger with me.
“Can you see us?” On one level, that is a simple question. Of course, we have eyes. We look and we see. But on another level, we have all experienced the difference between looking and really seeing. Just this morning, I am driving to work and looking to change lanes, and as I do, I see it—the car just at the edge of my vision, and I quickly pull back into my lane. I looked, but I didn't really see what was there. We have all had the experience of looking for something...searching high and low...and then finding it right in front of us. We just couldn't see it.
However, I am pretty sure that Anita was calling us to something even more profound. It happens every day in our world. I remember long ago a time when I was taking my confirmation class on an Urban Plunge experience. We were assigned to a day shelter for homeless families. All these years later, I recall the words of one of the students: “I never thought homeless people were children.” His eyes were opened that day, and he saw someone and something he had never seen before. And once he saw it, he could not un-see it.
I grew up in Minnesota. I know our history. But there have been times when my eyes have been opened in new ways. One of those times was when I was at the Pipestone National Monument. There was a simple map on the wall, and dots on it showed native tribes and their populations and locations in the United States in the late-1700s and early 1800s. The dots covered the map. The map also showed the same information about native tribes in the late-1980s. Those dots only appeared here and there. It was dramatic to see it in that way, what had happened to a whole people.
And then there was the time I was at an exhibit about the Indian boarding schools. I remember the pictures of children being taken from their parents, and all of their culture forcibly erased…language, clothing, food, customs. I saw something that broke my heart.
It starts with seeing. Really seeing. To see someone as a person with a heart, a story, hopes and dreams, a life that matters. I certainly understand why this is so challenging. We have all had the experience where we don't want to see because we don't want to know, because then we will feel responsible. And we often don't know what to do, so we choose not to see so our heart won't break and we won't need to bear the burden of guilt for the privileges and blessings we have, often at the expense of others who we choose not to see.
Spiritual guides often speak of a key spiritual practice known as "waking up”—being fully awake to each moment, to each person, to what we are feeling and thinking, to God. This is a learned practice, and it is what it means to be spiritually alive.
So I am wondering: What would it be like to intentionally go through the day seeking to keep my eyes and heart open—to commit myself to seeing each person, without having to do anything about it or their situation in that moment—and as a first step, to just see them?
Great movements all had their roots in someone seeing something, and more importantly, seeing someone in ways they never had before. And in seeing, they could not go back to life as it was just a few moments before.
It is a simple but important question: Can you see us? Will you see us?
Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church