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One of the best names for God is “El Roi,” which was the name given to God by a vulnerable refugee named Hagar.

El Roi, the Bible tells us, means “the one who sees,” and in particular Hagar meant it to describe the God who saw her. She’d been undetected, unappreciated, deemed unworthy by so many — left desperate and alone — so that the most important part of the experience of encountering God in the wilderness was not being rescued, or being fed; it was being seen.  

Seeing is important in Scripture. It’s all over the Gospels — the ones who see are the unexpected ones. The ones born blind, the ones possessed by demons, the women who play bit-parts in the societies they live in. Seeing is a critical means by which the Kingdom of God is entered, experienced. And it’s usually not the disciples who see.

Mary Oliver, beloved poet and inspiration for many a wild goose tattoo, spent her life practicing “seeing.” In a book she wrote about her relationship with her life-long partner, the photographer Molly Cook, Oliver says, “It has frequently been remarked, about my own writings, that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things, it was a good first step. But later, watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.”

To see, with an openness that makes room in our hearts for the experience of the other, this is the kind of attention that matters.

Sometimes I hear push-back about the toxicity of “identity politics,” and perhaps some of it is a rightful corrective against an over emphasis on self-actualization. (Fair point: I don’t think that the Gospel points us toward self.) But here’s what I know: there is nothing that makes us feel more human than being seen. And there is nothing that takes away our humanity more than going unseen. I think that is the heart of “identity politics” — of the #MeToo movement, of Black Lives Matter, of LGBTQ+ inclusion in churches — the insistence among those who have gone unseen to gain the attention they have so long been denied. To be treated as fully human, created “very good” by God, we must begin by being seen. We must correct the habits, systems, policies that have kept people out of the light. We must correct the vision of those in power so that they might see.

Seeing is the first step of loving. We cannot rightfully call any response to the border crisis a “faithful response” if it does not begin with seeing — seeking to know — the struggles of the people who are seeking refuge there. We can call it many other things (“pragmatic,” or “common sense,” or “America First”), but we cannot call it faithful. Faithfulness to the God who is called El Roi requires attention to those who are suffering. And faithfulness to the God who became enfleshed in a broken world requires more than “attention without feeling,” which Mary Oliver deems, “only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.”

There’s a family at the border who is staying with a CRC pastor, being cared for by a CRC church, and whose story was featured in Time magazine this week. The Office of Social Justice is partnering with Matthew 25 So Cal to raise money for legal fees, so they might have a chance to gain safety in the U.S.

There is so much that we have not been able to see — we who have lived our lives in North America, we who have lived with white skin, we who have known systems and laws and policies to be fair and trustworthy. There is so much we cannot see, if we only rely on the eyes that we have. That’s what it was like for the disciples, too. They needed the Samaritans, the tax collectors, the women, the children to teach them to see the Kingdom.

El Roi is the one who sees. May we, in love and obedience, open our eyes, too.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Kate Kooyman

Kate is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who serves in the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

5 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This is so good. So welcome. And you had me at the flickers and swallows. To watch a flicker flush is almost like a sacrament, and the way that swallows curl, OMG is not wrong.

  • Kathy D Van Rees says:

    Thank you, Kate.

  • Jeff and Jessica Groen says:

    Thank you for this reflection on how we might re-member ourselves to Hagar’s EL ROI naming event. I can imagine the relief Hagar’s rescue story brings to so many who are treated like she was. I can feel the rebuke this story provides for those of us who have community influence or parental “my kid first” approach of Sarah which motivates us to force Hagar’s existence out of sight and mind.

  • Kenneth A Baker says:

    Thank you for the biblical, theological insight and encouragement, Kate. Well done!

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