The Oklahoman

Notice the ‘invisible’ man in the sanctuary

- Highland Views Chris Highland Guest columnist Chris Highland was a minister and interfaith chaplain for nearly 30 years. He is a teacher, writer and humanist celebrant. His books and blogs are presented on

I slipped into the back of the church sanctuary. Since I was visiting, I didn’t want to call attention to myself. After the service, I stood in the fellowship hall with a cup of tea. Several people nodded toward me but no one spoke to me.

As I walked out the door I wondered how many wander into “The House of God” without being noticed or acknowledg­ed. In my case, I felt a bit disturbed to be so invisible. It felt strange to be a stranger in that sacred space. Did anyone give a thought to the possibilit­y I needed something? The fact I was a minister myself ? Hearing of times I felt excluded from a sanctuary, a rabbi friend once told me I should tell people I’m the Messiah, or in a church, Christ himself.

In my chaplain work I often encountere­d women, men, families, who walked through busy parts of town feeling like ghosts. Few people even noticed them or said anything to them. When they were noticed, sitting on a street corner, in a cafe or park, the police might be called to “handle the situation.” Often the police are called in to see what and who we don’t want to see. One of the strangest pieces of advice I gave as a chaplain was: “Don’t let anyone see you.” I knew many of the faces, and places, the names and campsites or parking spots where people tried to hide away from view so they wouldn’t be cited or arrested. For some invisible people, it can be dangerous to be exposed.

About 10 years ago, one North Carolina school district banned Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Though it was restored later, one school board member was quoted saying he “didn’t find any literary value” in the book. Several years ago, a school board in Alaska voted to remove the book from schools. It could cause “controvers­y.” After a little educating by educators, the book was allowed. According to PEN America, “Invisible Man” won the National Book Award in 1953 and “was deemed one of the “Books That Shaped America” by the Library of Congress, … listed as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century by Time magazine.” Neverthele­ss, the book still appears on the American Library Associatio­n’s list of most-challenged books.

Reading “Invisible Man” for the first time, I sense what Ellison is expressing. Though I couldn’t pretend to understand the Black experience of racism, I know firsthand the feeling of not being visible, walking unseen even in a crowd.

From the beginning of the novel I sensed Ellison would speak truth about the ways religious beliefs either help or hinder the ability to see others, especially the “unseeable.” In the opening chapter, the central character states: “All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradict­ion and even selfcontra­dictory.” Who would do that, hand out answers that didn’t make much sense while trying to convince others they were true? Then, this profound realizatio­n: “I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.” It takes him years to learn a valuable lesson: “That I am nobody but myself.” And he discovers that, as a man, a Black man, a human being, he is invisible. And the truth is, as he says in the Prologue: “people refuse to see me.” Truly seeing another person, as a person, as who they really are, takes the will to make the choice to see.

Frequently faith is quite distracted by invisible things while effectively ignoring or erasing many realities, including humans and human experience, rendering them invisible. When your beliefs are focused on what cannot be seen, what is possible to see right before your eyes isn’t that important any longer. One very visible example of this is viewing another person as a “soul,” especially a soul to save (for the invisible kingdom to come). Verses like this one support that myopia: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (Second Corinthian­s 4).

Ellison’s “Invisible Man” ironically (yet intentiona­lly) reveals what is not supposed to be revealed: inhumanity. A person struggling to be seen, yet unseen, visible, yet invisible, in order to survive in a culture that so often chooses not to see and to punish those who step from the shunning and shaming shadows to claim: “I am a Man – a Human Being!” When all you can be is yourself, but others don’t see you, what can you do?

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