The Invisible


Detail from Salvation Army ad campaign posterShe dutifully drags her mop across the tile floor of the Taco Bell, head down, absorbed in her work. Once finished, she locates a clean towelette and wipes down each table, taking care to avoid spilling anything on the pristine floor.

While my son and I eat, I study her. She’s working every time we stop in, infrequent though our visits may be. I think she’s about thirty, but I may be wrong. Folks with Down Syndrome don’t always look their age.

In the county seat near us, at a McDonalds, she has a counterpart in a young man, also with Down, who also mops the floors of that restaurant and tends the tables. Both the Taco Bell and McDonalds maintain a level of cleanliness unmatched in other fast food restaurants thanks to two hard workers who will never be like the people they serve.

Each time I have the opportunity, I make certain I thank them for keeping the restaurants so neat and clean. I hope next time to remember to ask them their names. Something in me always forgets to ask. Something ingrained. Something that hates to be exposed.

In my observations, the one thing that grips me each time I encounter these two isn’t so much about them, but the people around them. The restaurant patrons don’t look their way, don’t greet them, don’t interact with them in any way. I don’t see the other restaurant employees talking with them, either. For all intents, the two Down Syndrome cleaners don’t exist.

But someone cares for them, I know. The woman carries a cell phone, to my surprise, and she once talked with someone while taking her break. Parents? Guardian? I know the fear of every parent of a Down child, that one day death will come too soon (as many parents of Down children gave birth to them in their older years), then who will look after their special child?

I don’t know the spiritual state of people born without all the faculties we possess. I confess I don’t know how to witness to someone who might not grasp the finer points of sin and redemption. I worked with Down kids in my years in camping ministry, but always felt helpless when it came to knowing how to address their spiritual needs. In the end, I decided that love might be the best I can give them. So in the case of the cleaners, that’s what I try to offer—a smile and a word of thanks.

People don’t have to be afflicted with a genetic disorder to become invisible to us. American society is such that when someone yells, “Hey! Look at me!” we look. In many cases, we can’t tear our eyes off the attention junkies. In our staring at those enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame, we miss those who blend into the background, living, breathing people Christ died to save.

Ann sold high-tech electronics. Her bright smile and smart attention to fashion gave her a twinkle I didn’t find in the other reps who came into our store. When she talked with customers and other sales staff, you could tell she genuinely cared. Her job wasn’t just to sell gizmoes, but meet the needs of others. Her “ministry” consisted of helping other people take charge of their lives.

Little things set Ann apart. On Halloween, she came into the store in an elaborate costume I could tell she’d made herself. Perfect makeup, including prosthetics, and a wig that blended seamlessly completed the look. Dressing up like that meant something to her, the attention to detail telling others how much she enjoyed her work.

In her thirties and divorced, Ann hung around some days longer than her job entailed. I suspect she didn’t have much to go home to, just an apartment or small house filled with echoes. That never sat well with me. She had a lot to offer, but she was still invisible.

When the cuts came at her company, I knew I wouldn’t be seeing her again, and I never did. People like her don’t get noticed. They work hard. They care more than most. But the world doesn’t exalt people like her. And it never will.

We live in an era of the invisible. Despite all the boasting of empowerment, despite laws forged to ensure equality, I can’t help but feel we’re minting more invisible people than ever before.

The illegal immigrant. The single dad. The shy kid in class. The homeless. The old lady in the nursing home whose only crime is she got too slow for the rest of the world. The guy who put in ten good years in the office only to one day clean out his desk against his will and vanish into the ether.

We take people made in the Imago Dei and stick them in front of a computer in a vast array of cubicles and this becomes their life for half a day. And when The Big Cheese phones in from his yacht the day after the stock tanks, someone like Ann finds herself looking for another job at yet another company that could care less that she sewed her own costume for Halloween just to give a thrill to the kids who came in with dad to some podunk electronics store.

In the not-so-distant past, companies used to have Personnel departments. Now they have Human Resource departments. From Person to Resource. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to be a person rather than a resource. When I hear a term like “human resource,” I can’t help but think Soylent Green.

Former GE honcho Jack Welch, who seemed to make a career out of being as visible as possible, did a great Darwinian disservice to employees everywhere by reducing even the impersonal human resource into human capital, like so many $20 bills (used to light his cigars after a fine day of downsizing what used to be known as people, I guess). Folks like Jack render people invisible with a snap of their fingers and a drag on their Cuban.

But corporate bigwigs aren’t the only ones who can’t see. Ordinary Joes like us do it, too. You won’t confuse Taco Bell or McDonalds with Le Bernardin or The French Laundry, but even in a fast food joint, we all too easily look right through someone with an 80 IQ and no means.

Jesus said this:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
—Matthew 22:2-10

We’re surrounded by invisible people, but God calls us to go out into the highways and byways, to look hard for them, to find them wherever they might be found.

You see, as Christians, you and I are invisible, too. We’re invisible because we died at the cross, so we no longer live, but the very visible Christ lives in us (if we’re living for Him). So we’re uniquely geared to understand the invisible of the world. And the Lord would have us perpetually seek them out.

The invisible might be the Down Syndrome mop-wielder or she might be the salesperson who caught a couple bad breaks. The Holy Spirit will let us know just who’s invisible if we depend on Him to show us. He wants to show us. We just need to be listening to Him.

Because in His eyes, no one is invisible.

{Image: Detail from an ad campaign poster for the Salvation Army. Other posters can be seen here.}

9 thoughts on “The Invisible

  1. Brother, I fully agree and I understand. I had an experience that opened my eyes only a couple months ago. Check the archives on my blog and read “Jepp and I” – I still see this man from time to time, I smile, wave, say hello and I can tell he remembers me, even in spite of his lack of mental capacities. Meeting this person, getting to know his name and all has made an impact on me.


  2. When my wife and I were pondering the move from LA to Tennessee, we flew out here for a long weekend to check the place out. One of the clinchers was a stop at a McDonalds for breakfast. A man with Down Syndrome was cleaning up the place when a group of teenagers came in. They said Hi to him, calling him by name, asked him how he was doing, then went on order their breakfast.

    My first two years in elementary school were spent in a school with special ed people. Some of my best friends were 30 to 40 year old children. Seeing those teenagers treat a disabled person like one of their best buds was so incredibly heartening. Later, listening to them talk about the bible study lesson they had the Wednesday before told me where that behavior sprang from.

    We’re not designed by God to turn away from need. We have to consciously do it. And when we do, we turn away from God.

    ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

    • I came to tell Dan what a wonderful and convicting post this is, and I still want to (head nod to Dan), but David, what a beautiful testimony those teenagers gave.

  3. David, I like your story about the teenagers treating the Man with Down Syndrome with love and as an equal. As we grow older, we sometimes think teenager = bad kid, but we need to remember that their are many good and godly ones out their. It gives me hope for the future!
    I used to work with a man who was mentally retarded – he was a dishwasher in a small restaurant. But we loved him – he was definitely one of our family. I sometimes volunteer with a ministry that cares for Down Syndrome and other special needs of children. I tell you, watching some of those nuns who have devoted their lives to care for and love these children is really amazing, and even convicting.

  4. Diane Roberts

    What is sad to me is businesses are giving Down Syndromers a chance (and by the way, most are very proud of their “low” jobs), but churches seem to not even know there are any in their midst. The higher functioning ones make wonderful prayer warriors if they get a hold of let’s say a healing Scripture. I was priveleged to attend a church for 8 years in Pasadena, CA where a lady pioneered the Developmentall Disabled Sunday School class for adults (most had Downs Syndrome). Then some years later, the church started one for chidlren. It was common at that church to see the Dev. Disabled as ushers and doing other helping tasks. Each year the Developmentally Disabled class holds a car wash (they wash the cars themselves) and with the money raised go to their own camp. Of course this church has about 3500 members, but even a small church could give some of these people a chance to do something.

  5. I’ve been thinking about this post all day, Dan. It just so happens that Saturday morning I kept an 8 yo boy with Downs and autism for a few hours while his mother went to a baby shower for a niece. It would be a huge understatement to say that he is a very difficult child. His mother’s sister told me that it is almost impossible for them to find people to watch him and she kept telling me I was a saint for doing so. (They actually live in another community a few miles north of us and I have watched him on several other occasions.) I don’t feel like a saint. My goodness…I can do just about anything for a few hours. I was told that the family had been forced to leave their church because the church didn’t know what to do with the boy during worship. He was too much for the nursery. That I would agree with, but to think that no one in that church would watch him long enough for his parents to spend an hour in worship is disheartening, to say the least. This boy and his entire family became invisible. David Riggins commented: “We’re not designed by God to turn away from need. We have to consciously do it. And when we do, we turn away from God.” Corporately that church turned away from the needs in this family, but individuals could have turned back.

    As I said, I don’t feel like a saint because I’m not one. I learned a lot from the season that I was invisible while I cared for my bedridden mother at home. It was a 24/7 task. Going to church was impossible for me unless someone was willing to stay with my mother. After several months, a women’s class at church decided they could take turns and someone would stay with mother during one of the services so I could go to church every other week with my family. (They decided that every other week would be enough! I found that sad and humorous at the same time!) That added up to about 3.5-4 hours a month that I could be in worship and have Christian fellowship. It wasn’t much, but it was better than none at all. The ladies in that class learned that they could do anything for a short period of time and I experienced what it was like to be in need. How dare I say “no” to someone who 24/7 copes with a very difficult child and needs help for just a few hours 2-3 times a year!

    My husband was invisible two years ago, when after 23 years of working 50-60 hour weeks for the same company, he was suddenly replaced by a younger (and cheaper) man. Men friends must not have known how to minister to him because they rarely called him after that – and he became invisible. He admits that thoughts of suicide entered his mind more than once. It isn’t easy to be 55 years old and suddenly unemployed.

    And yes, we Christians are all invisible. Or at least we should be. I wrote about that a few months ago when I asked the question, “What does love look like?” It looks like Christ, of course, which means we must be invisible for others to see Christ when they look at us.

    One final comment. I don’t think it is enough to offer jobs and responsibilities to those who are developmentally challenged, I believe that Christ would ask us to offer them fellowship and relationships, as well.

    Forgive me for being so long-winded. For obvious reasons, this is a topic that resonates with me.

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