When I lived in Romania for a year after college–as a missionary to students–I spent a week of vacation visiting other missionary friends in a different country. We’d met at the outset of our year-long stint overseas and had been together at Christmas time, too. During the time in which the students in our ministry took exams, we got to take a break from our routines, and I visited friends in Eastern Europe.
I rode to Hungary with an American missionary couple I knew, where they were attending a training, and I met up with some missionary friends there. After a few days there, I traveled to Slovakia with friends (who’d also been visiting Hungary) who were located in Slovakia for the year.
While there, I joined the women on that team at a gathering that included several other American women who were serving there long-term. One of these women hosted this weekly fellowship time at her house. I sat and listened and enjoyed the time, along with the handful of other women in attendance.
Near the end of the time, the hostess asked the women, one by one, to share a bit about how they were doing and how they might like others to pray for them. She didn’t call on me to speak; I noticed this but didn’t give it much thought. Then she assigned prayers, each woman there praying for another woman in the group. We concluded the group time with those prayers, each woman praying aloud for another: for her life, her struggles, whatever she may have shared. Nobody prayed for me at that time, which wasn’t a big surprise since I hadn’t shared about myself. I was a guest there, not ministering in that country and not a part of their teams, long- or short-term. So I tried to reconcile that, although I was beginning to feel left out. Then, when the hostess wrapped up the prayers, she looked at me and said, “Sorry we didn’t have time to pray for you,” in a breezy tone.
So I matched my tone to hers–because it seemed clear that this was what was expected of me: not to be disappointed because there simply wasn’t time to include me when all the other women (who served in that country) needed to receive prayers–and I tossed out, “Oh, just pray for our team; pray for Romania.” And yet, it didn’t seem we had run short of time. Once the formal group time ended, women broke up into small clusters, chatting. I remember hearing somebody mention a dress that needed to be altered.
I felt hurt, particularly because I thirsted for this kind of female connection, and yet the message I’d received was that I shouldn’t feel hurt.
A couple months later, back in Romania, I was preparing for a slumber party at my apartment for the college girls in our ministry. It was near Easter, and we were going to dye eggs. So when I answered the phone that night–before the girls began to arrive–I was full of energy and hope about the upcoming gathering. The call deflated me a bit, though. The woman who served in a leadership role (over the long-term staff women in the Eastern Europe region) had come to Romania, and–I had assumed–was going to meet up with me while she was there. My friends in other countries in this area had told me that they’d met with her and were thankful for her input and encouragement. So I eagerly looked forward to my time to connect with this woman who’d served overseas for many years.
But she told me on this phone call, though, as I was getting ready to make pizza with the Romanian college women already on their way to my apartment, that she wasn’t going to be coming to my city. She didn’t give much explanation, and I didn’t ask for it, although I felt sad that I wouldn’t get to spend time with her. I experienced so much loneliness that year; I felt I needed this time with a woman who could pour into me, even for one conversation. So, running high on adrenaline and excitement about the slumber party, I told her It’s fine! It’s OK! She apologized for the inconvenience; then we said good-bye.
Again, I thought–based on the person’s response to me–that I wasn’t supposed to be disappointed, or if I felt that, I certainly wasn’t supposed to communicate that. Almost half a year later–as I ended my time in Romania–I sat down for an exit interview with this woman in leadership. At the end of the conversation about my year of overseas ministry, I tentatively broached the topic of her initially-planned visit to me that never materialized. Mostly, I just wanted to know why she’d met with all the other women serving in the one-year program like I was but didn’t get to see me. She explained that her priority was ministering to the women serving long-term. It just so happened that she could have time with the one-year folks because all those other teams were serving in the same cities where long-term staff women served–it had been convenient to meet with the women who (like me) were serving short-term. Only in my city, there were no long-term staff, male or female, with our ministry. It was just the four of us: 2 American men, one Romanian woman, and myself. Therefore, her getting to my city wasn’t a priority. And although this made sense given the scope of her job, I felt hurt–because I’d felt that I didn’t register as a priority.
As we talked that mild September day just weeks before I returned home, she expressed sorrow that she hadn’t come to visit me after all. She said even after she hung up the phone that night that she began regretting that decision. I felt free to cry then, because I finally felt I was given permission to express disappointment. I think she and I actually cried together. She had an inkling of what a hard year it’d been for me.
Sometimes Christians hurt people outside the faith, and sometimes we Christians hurt each other; sometimes we mean it, and sometimes–as I firmly and fully believe in these 2 situations–we do it accidentally, with no intention to wound.
Last week, since we’re approaching the 20-year anniversary of that year in Romania, one of the people who’d come over for the summer during my year posted some pictures on social media. The photos included descriptions and details and captions, and conversations erupted around the memories that the pictures evoked. People mentioned the year-long missionaries on the team that had hosted and cared for the summer group without mentioning me (and I wasn’t in any of the photos). Later one of the men on my year-long team tagged me in a comment, and then a couple pictures were added that included me. Again, I firmly and fully believe I was only inadvertently left out initially–nobody was trying to exclude me. And yet…I felt forgotten at first, and the loneliness of that year seemed so very fresh.
But I got in on the reminiscing, too, and it was fun to remember. I really enjoy (for the most part) reflecting on such a formative year in my growth.
But I hate feeling invisible. I hated feeling I didn’t show up as worthy of notice in that women’s prayer group; I hated feeling I didn’t rank high enough to merit a visit from a woman in leadership whose company I sorely needed. I hated I wasn’t remembered as a valuable part of the team from the very beginning of these 20-year reflections on social media. Feeling overlooked and unnoticed just hurts.
Even when those problems get resolved and healthy communication brings healing, the questions of Am I seen? Am I noticed? linger in our souls. It requires more than being included in the group prayer or the group conversations to satisfy that soul-hunger of wanting–needing–to feel seen and noticed.
Here are the truths that fill those empty spaces in me: My Father in heaven delights in me, rejoices over me with singing, and quiets me with His love. (Zephaniah 3:17). I am God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). That verse among all others is currently filling me with tremendous joy: If God has good works prepared in advance for me to do, my contributions–what I have to offer–must truly matter. And Genesis 16:13-14, where Hagar–cast out and alone–encounters God in the desert and calls Him El Roi, the God who sees.
If God Himself sees me, I cannot be invisible. Hebrews 4:13: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight…”