In one of my favorite passages from the Book of Mormon, a missionary named Alma begins preaching among a community of people called the Zoramites. At the time of Alma’s visit, the Zoramites had reached a state of such self-delusion and fear that they had banned certain segments of the community from entering their holy spaces. “[The poor class of people] were cast out of the synagogues because of the coarseness of their apparel–therefore, they were not permitted to enter into their synagogues to worship God, being esteemed as filthiness; therefore they were poor; yea, they were esteemed by their brethren as dross.” (Alma 32:2-3).
One afternoon, Alma sits down with several of these marginalized folks and one of them comes to Alma seeking guidance. The poor man says,
“What do we do? We have been cast out from the synagogues that we built with our own hands. We are despised by and invisible to our people. Where are we supposed to worship our God? Where do we find spiritual community and refuge?”
Alma hears this man’s plea for connection to God and to his people, and in a moment of pure grace Alma “turned [the man] about, his face immediately towards him.” (Alma 32:6).
This one simple gesture is, I believe, the beating heart of the entire chapter. For in this gesture–one man compassionately looking into the face of another–lies a profound and empathetic message: You, who are unseen? I see you.
For a group routinely rejected by their spiritual community, indeed literally hidden outside of their synagogues lest their appearance offend the wealthy, to be seen–really seen–would cause revolution in their souls. I can think of nothing more Christlike that Alma could have done than to look into this man’s eyes when no one else would.
My mom shared a story with me recently. My grandma is a widow and sits with a young man at church almost every Sunday–I think they have a found a friend in each other. This man is probably in his late 20s/early 30s, unmarried, and incidentally never takes the sacrament. My grandma is a guileless soul and makes room in her heart for all stripes. A few weeks ago, the young man handed my grandma a letter during sacrament meeting and asked her to read it after church.
As she read the letter later that afternoon, my grandma learned that this young man was gay (which she had already suspected) and that because of this he felt unseen and cast out by his spiritual community. He felt, as the poor among the Zoramites felt, that he was “esteemed as filthiness.” He went on to express his gratitude to my grandma. He thanked her for never judging him because he didn’t take the sacrament. He thanked her for sitting with him and being his friend. He thanked her for acknowledging him as a fellow saint who was worthy of love and belonging.
After reading the letter, my grandma started to cry. I don’t think she realized how transformative her simple gesture was. I don’t think she realized that by sitting quietly with this man every Sunday and creating a space of non-judgement, she was communicating that profound and empathetic message expressed by Alma: You, who are unseen? I see you.
My grandma, Alma, Jesus Christ: each remind me (in my more cynical moments) that there are those who deal in a currency of love so pure and so all-encompassing that to stand before them is to be truly seen. To be in their presence is to be truly known. I have found nothing in this world more comforting nor more transcendent than that.