Saturday, May 16, 2009

Why Can't We See Isidro?

I tutor some students on the weekends. They attend the church where I work and are in various stages of acculturation and English proficiency. Today tutoring took place outside on the playground beside the church because the weather was downright fantastic. This afforded us some unique opportunities for hands-on illustrations and experiential learning.

I asked one of my students (she’s quite bright) to look around her and describe what she saw. She proceeded to list off picnic tables, bushes, trees, and nameless shrub-like plants that surround the playground. She saw a few park benches, some trash cans, playground equipment, and a water fountain.

What intrigues me is what missed her eye. I had to physically point out to her that there was a man laying down on one of the park benches. His name is Isidro. He didn’t make the list of descriptions from the playground, not because she didn’t see him, but because she didn’t notice him. He blended in even though he looked nothing like his surroundings. Trash cans and water fountains made a more lasting impression on her psyche than this man did.

This interesting social experiment was compounded by the fact that there was a sizable contingent of Korean-speaking individuals at my church today. They were using the sanctuary to host the graduation ceremony of a nearby Korean seminary. None of them were from my church, so none of them knew that I work with the Korean congregation there. I greeted these individuals in the halls, and they responded by staring blankly forward; like well-pressed, religious sleepwalkers. Group after group of them came bumbling out of the church doors and onto the playground, looking in vain for the parking lot and their lost vehicles. My spot at the picnic table never got more than a passing glance. I was as immaterial as a ghost, and possibly as frightening, just like Isidro. It wasn’t until I went up and told them in Korean how to get to the main parking lot that they acknowledged my existence.

Now, I am not picking on Koreans, I love them dearly. I am just thinking about my appalling ability to turn fellow humans into part of the scenery, just a backdrop that is nondescript, worthless, and uninteresting. Of course I cannot carry on a conversation with the thousands of people I pass on the freeway, but maybe I ought to think less about a stranger’s usefulness to me, and more about their value to Someone else. Maybe that would dramatically alter the way I view those thousands of moments I have next to them every day.

Isidro is a unique guy. He has a physical handicap that forces him to use a walker even though he is probably only in his late thirties. He also speaks very slowly, but is quite acute mentally. He arrived from Mexico seventeen years ago and periodically lives with his cousin. His cousin is married to “an African American who is Canadian.” From all descriptions they seem like a great family, but Isidro prefers the freedom of life on the streets. He is well kept, and comes to the church on the weekends for showers, and an occasional service. He carries a Bible in his walker.

It was a genuine pleasure to speak with him. He was congenial and unassuming, just as interested to learn about me as I was him. Sometimes the pauses between our lines of conversation stretched for minutes at a time. Maybe it was the beautiful weather that mollified my soul. Or maybe this is how it always feels when two invisible kindred spirits converse with one another.


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great point you make, about seeing people. It's so true that we have this seemingly built-in mentality that strangers are useless to us, but you're right, the truth is, they are worth something to someone. Good grief. Thanks for reminding me not to be so self-absorbed.


eerig said...

Great story. I can't decide which is worse being stared at, or being ignored by those around me. Living as a minority in another culture I am constantly frustrated by the fact that I still cannot distinguish people that I should know out of the crowd around me. "They all look the same." It is such a lame excuse but I am still struggling.