When I was in middle school, there was this girl in my church that I had a huge crush on. I was a shy, gangly boy, sporting a bowl haircut, glasses, and braces. Each Wednesday night before youth group, I’d put on a Polo shirt, tuck it in to my pleated-front khaki slacks, put on my braided leather belt, and tie up my Converse All Star high-tops. Then I’d try and find ways to get in her line of sight, hoping she’d smile or, even better, start talking to me. It never happened.
After several months, I got up enough courage to call her one Wednesday night after church. I retrieved the church’s photo directory from the kitchen and thumbed through to the “L’s.” It took me 15 minutes to work up enough courage to dial all seven digits of the number and let it ring. Her mother answered. I politely asked if I could speak to her daughter. She said she’d be right back. When she returned to the phone, she informed me that her daughter was taking a shower and couldn’t come to the phone right now. I left my number and a request that she call me back. The phone never rang.
I don’t think she was in the shower after all.
Most of us, at some time or another, feel like we are invisible. We want to be noticed, affirmed, or valued. When we are not, we are disappointed and sometimes hurt. There is, however, a more insidious, forced invisibility created by systems as a tool for preserving hegemony, quelling dissent, and controlling narratives. This is the kind of invisibility Sarah Thebarge writes about in her memoir, Invisible Girls.
The book is poignent, funny, and heartbreaking, one of those page-turners that takes you through the emotional spectrum. Sarah weaves together two narratives: her story of being diagnosed at 27 with breast cancer and the treatment that followed, and her subsequent move from Connecticut to Oregon, where she befriended a family of Somali refugees. Over the course of several months, she formed a deep relationship with Hadhi and her five daughters, Fahri, Abdallah, Sadaka, Lelo, and Chaki. Sarah helped them adjust to life in America while, at the same time, they helped Sarah heal from the psychological and emotional wounds her cancer and fundamentalist Christian upbringing left behind.
One of my favorite vignettes in the book is situated in one of the most mundane tasks most Americans take for granted: adjusting the thermostat.
Why is it so cold in here? I wondered, realizing that I was still wearing my coat because I was cold, too. “Hadhi, your house is cold,” I said, pointing to Chaki and Lelo, whose teeth were chattering.
Hadhi looked at me helplessly, as if to say there was nothing she could do.
I looked around the living room. There was vent on the wall, but no thermostat or “on” switch. After looking around the apartment for a while, I found the thermostat in the hallway and turned it on. Warm air blew out of the vent in the living room, and the girls began running around the house screaming that I had set their house on fire.
“Everybody relax!” I said, laughing. “It’s not a fire; it’s heat.”
We sat around the vent that was blowing out warm air as though it were a roaring fire. As the girls warmed their frigid fingers and toes against the hot metal grate, I scolded myself. I’d been visiting the family a few times a week for the past month. How could I not have noticed until now they didn’t know how to turn on the heat?
One of the markers of invisibility is the inability to fully participate in a system without outside help. For Hadhi and her family, this was manifest in simple things, like not knowing how to use a thermostat, and in more complex things, like trying to apply for government housing assistance while remaining hidden from an abusive ex-husband. Sarah stepped in from the outside and help make them visible.
Similarly, Sarah’s fundamentalist upbringing created a system in which she believed that her cancer was an expression of God’s anger toward her for something she must have done, though she couldn’t identify what that might be. She is painfully honest about the lack of support she received from her church, her fiance, and her Christian friends. Sarah became invisible to the church and invisible to that God. It was Hadhi and her daughters who helped Sarah become visible again, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how.
Since Sarah and I both live in Portland, I’ve had the good fortune to interact with her a couple of times. I told her I was interested in blogging about the book and asked her if she’d answer a few questions I had after reading it. She graciously obliged.
AC: Getting Hadhi’s address on the train that day was a pretty bold move. Actually going over there was even bolder. Most people in your situation would have gone over the one time, dropped off a few things, and that would have been the end of it. Why did you keep going back?
ST: When I met the Somali mom, Hadhi, and her girls on the MAX the first time, we had a lot of differences — different religions, ethnicities, skin color, and language. But as I developed a relationship with them, I realized that we had a lot in common at the core. Because I’d been a little girl growing up in a fundamentalist culture, where men buried you under yards of fabric and lists of rules and taught you that women were supposed to be silent. And I knew what it was like to be a refugee of sorts, because after I nearly died of cancer in my 20′s, I sold everything I had and got on a plane with a suitcase of clothes and flew from the east coast to Portland, OR, and started over.
And so even though it seemed like random strangers meeting on the train, they resonated with me because I’d been an Invisible Girl, too. And I simply did for that what I wished someone had done to me when I was at my lowest point — to spend time with me and love on me and let me know I wasn’t alone in my suffering.
AC: Religion is a prominent character throughout the book. It seems it’s always in the background. You are a Christian, the Invisible Girls are Muslim. In your relationship with the girls, what role has religion played?
ST: So far, we’ve found common ground by talking about God. We all love God and believe that God wants us to love each other, so that’s a good starting point. Beyond that, I try to live Jesus to them rather than just talking about him, which has been effective so far because there’s a significant language barrier and it’s difficult to communicate in words, and because I think it’s important to respect other peoples’ faith and not withhold friendship or support if they don’t convert when you wanted them to — or even if they don’t convert at all. I truly believe that God loves the world and every single person who inhabits it.
AC: There are a lot of conversations going on right now about “Missional Theology” and the call for the church to deeply inhabit the neighborhoods where it is rooted. Your church at the time, Imago Dei, helped provide some resources for the girls. How else did they engage or support those relationships?
ST: Many people from Imago pitched in by donating money, furniture, food and clothes for the family, which was great. But I think Imago’s most impactful role for me was in casting a vision for what it might look like to really love our neighbors. Not just talk about it, but really do it. Our church is very outward-focused rather than inward-focused, and we partner with the city of Portland and lots of non-profits to try to be the hands and feet of Christ in the city. And that vision definitely sparked my imagination about how I could be a good neighbor to this Somali family.
AC: Your initial journey to Portland was as a way to hit the reset button on your life. I think you wrote that you’d only planned to be here for a year, but it’s been several now. Any plans to move back East?
ST: Nope. (How’s that for a succinct answer?) I’ve really enjoyed it here on the West Coast. I’m not planning to move back to the East Coast at this point.
AC: Now that your first book is out, what’s next for you? Will we hear more about the Invisible Girls or are there other things you have on the horizon?
ST: I hope to keep speaking and writing about The Invisible Girls, because I think it’s important for people to realize that there are invisible, marginalized people in all of our lives. And I hope it inspires people to begin to look for invisible people in their own lives. I also plan to keep writing books. My next book should be out in the fall of 2014. Stay tuned!
I’m deeply thankful to Sarah for taking the time to answer those questions. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Do yourself a favor and go grab a copy. Part of the proceeds for every book sold go to a college tuition fund for Fahri, Abdallah, Sadaka, Lelo, and Chaki. Now, find the invisible people in your life and help to make them visible. How? At a recent reading and book signing event in Portland, Sarah answered that very question:
There are two ways to make the invisible visible. One is to get their story out there, to tell it, publish it, make people hear it. The other is to get up and throw a fit.
Sometimes we need to write. Other times we need to throw a fit. I’ll let you decide when to do which.