By Matthew Townsend
If you had met Sarah Thebarge at 26 years old, you might not have imagined her dedicating her life to invisible people. Thebarge was no stranger to the Gospel — her father’s vocation as a Baptist pastor ensured familiarity with Christ, and she was a regular churchgoer in college — but her life had exemplified secular success. She had completed one Ivy League education and had embarked upon another. She was in a relationship that seemed destined for marriage — with plans for a warm, successful life and beautiful family in Southern California.
At 26, Sarah Thebarge had certainly not lived a perfect, painless life — but she was visible and life was good.
Thebarge’s exploration of the suffering of invisible people began with her own. At 27, her life took a dramatic turn while working on her master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York City. She was typing at her dining room table when she noticed a pool of blood forming on her blouse. After rushing to her bathroom mirror, she realized the blood flowed from her right nipple.
Because Thebarge had already earned an MSc in medicine from Yale, she immediately recognized this as a symptom of breast cancer. Diagnostic tests quickly confirmed this fear, effectively shredding the life she had built. Until then, the writer says, her life had been characterized by capability. After her diagnosis, Thebarge found herself powerless against approaching events: aggressive surgery, recurrence, radiation, chemotherapy, the dissolution of her relationship during treatment, and a grave infection that nearly killed her.
Thebarge decided, during hospitalization for this infection, that the life she had led was over — it was time to pursue a new life elsewhere and to leave the old one behind. “I sold everything I had and got a one-way ticket from the East Coast to Portland, Oregon,” she said. “It was as far as I could get from Connecticut without falling in the ocean.”
When she arrived in Portland, she found herself feeling completely broken, struggling to construct a new life in a new place after extensive and alienating trauma. A chance encounter with a family of Somali refugees on the city’s light rail system dramatically shaped this new life. Thebarge was riding the train one day when a Somali mother boarded with her children. Because the train was crowded, there was not enough room for the children to sit with their mother. “The three-year-old ended up climbing into my lap and falling asleep,” Thebarge said. “That ended up as a conversation with the mom, which became a relationship with the family.”
This relationship grew into a book, The Invisible Girls, as Thebarge realized she shared many common experiences with the Somali family — including an escape from trauma into new circumstances.
“The premise of the book is that when I meet them on the train for the first time, we look very different on the outside — skin color, ethnicity, tradition, language,” she said. “But when I got to know them, even though we had many differences on the outside, we were very similar on the inside. I knew what it was like to be a refugee of sorts.”
Both the Somalis and Thebarge had experienced not just suffering but a sense of invisibility — others had looked away at critical moments in their lives. On that train, their stories merged and became redemptive. “The real reason why they resonated with me is that I’d been an invisible girl,” Thebarge said. “It wasn’t just my story or their story, it was our story.”
The Invisible Girls is an inspiring and sobering memoir on pain, redemption, and healing. The book’s success has helped cement a future for the girls — all of the proceeds go into a trust fund established for them. It has also brought wider exposure to Thebarge, now 36, who worshiped at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara before embarking on a whirlwind speaking tour about The Invisible Girls months ago.
Thebarge’s recent writings serve less as a testimony on suffering and invisibility than a witness on the interactions of the Church with suffering and invisible people. To Thebarge, these interactions are too often characterized by a lack of empathy that is pervasive in our culture toward people whose lives are different.
“I think with refugees, there’s a tendency to think that if people can’t articulate their emotions in English that they must not feel them,” she says. “I realized, as I was working with the family, that their vocabulary was very limited and they may not be able to articulate how they were feeling — but they were every bit as sensitive and intricate and aware as I am, even if they didn’t have the language.”
Empathy was key to Thebarge’s connecting with the refugees — she immediately wondered what their life was like and what it would be like to be a single mom with five kids in a strange place. “Their experience was as foreign and as difficult as if I had been dropped in the middle of Somalia and didn’t have any money and didn’t know anyone,” she said. “When I saw the Somali people on the train, I had a lot of empathy for people in that place — empathy for how you can be in a situation where you feel completely powerless.”
Thebarge, therefore, saw the family as people rather than labeling them as refugees or the poor. “When I had cancer, I was more than a cancer patient — I was always Sarah under that. That’s how I saw the Somali family: as holistic, valuable people. I had been where they were.”
She says the challenge comes, however, in serving others with our presence instead of prescriptions of advice, attempts to fix everything, or misplaced charity — especially when we have not shared another’s experiences.
“When it comes to people who are different from us, or who are in different life circumstances — people living on the street or people who are very ill — our first instinct is that if we engage in the situation, we have something to offer or can make things better,” Thebarge said. “So often, that’s not the case. There are so many situations in life that we will never be able to fix, so many problems we will never be able to solve.”
According to Thebarge, this can result in a lack of engagement because we feel we have nothing to do or offer — ignoring our finest potential gift.
“One of the most profound things we can do for people who are in difficult situations is give them the gift of our presence. I think that this represents the incarnation of Jesus. When God loved the world, he didn’t send Jesus to fix all our problems,” she says.
“Jesus didn’t overthrow the Roman government. He didn’t even heal all the sick. He came next door. He broke bread with us, walked with us, wept with us. He showed that God was love. I think this is what we can do for each other — not be paralyzed because we don’t have the ultimate solution but realize the best gift we can give people is to show up and give them our presence.”
Thebarge thinks of Job’s suffering — and how his friends’ focus on finding the right words to say drove him deeper into sadness. “The only mistake that Job’s friends made was that they opened their mouths. If they had just kept their mouths closed and sat with him and cried with him, they would have been the best friends in the world.”
Like Job’s friends, the Church can be tempted to speak to those who suffer rather than serving as a ministry of presence, she said. “I think the Church does people a disservice if we try to make church a place where you can come to get more information about God or if you have a problem a place to come to get an answer or a solution. We do people a disservice if we present God as a formula — if you do this, if you say this, you’re guaranteed to get this outcome. I think the best thing that a church can do, maybe the highest purpose that it can serve, is to be a place where people can come and experience what God is like.”
For Thebarge, this means the Church should help its members reflect God in one another. Her experience of God is of love, presence and goodness. “It’s God’s presence in our difficult situations that is God’s gift to us. God doesn’t give us answers or explanations; God gives us himself. This is the best reflection of God that the church can be: that we’re people who sit with each other in the dark. We’re people who show up and don’t leave. We’re people who love each other and don’t let go.”
As Thebarge writes her second book, she seeks to differentiate between our views of self-worth and usefulness with God’s perspective on our lives. She says we often see ourselves as wide brushstrokes in a landscape painting, while God’s plans for us more closely resemble pointillism. She sees God present in faithful people working in very small spaces — that God is very much alive in the people and tasks our culture describes as unimportant.
“The things we think are nothing become everything,” she said. “They all add up to tell a story about who God is and what God’s like.”
In this light, the Church can aspire to be faithful to the little things in life — rather than obsessed with building a larger audience.
Thebarge questions models of Church that serve consumers or promote prosperity because they perpetuate systems in which the last do not come first. She sees the greatest opportunity and challenge facing the Church as that very task — learning to reflect God’s vision for the world instead of the world’s vision for itself. This, she says, is especially challenging in the context of a culture that greatly values prosperity — and views the prosperous as being especially powerful or beloved in God’s eyes.
Through our culture’s lens, we can see the world as hierarchies, opportunities and assets. “When we see the world through God’s eyes, we see the world upside down,” she explains. “When God looks at the world, he doesn’t assign the most value to the people who have the most assets or who are in the majority.”
Through a beatitudinal lens, we start seeing people like refugees, the sick, the lonely and the persecuted as people of great value to God. “We start looking at people like undocumented immigrants as people who God loves,” she said. “We start looking at men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner as people who are treated unjustly and unfairly and who may not have a strong voice, so we offer them our voices.”
Our challenge is to change how we evaluate ourselves — to embrace God’s criteria for us rather than our own sense of qualification as Christians, Thebarge believes. “The question that God asks people is not did you sign the right doctrinal statement, did you read the right books, how many Sundays did you show up in church. He doesn’t ask us any questions with which we’re used to evaluating ourselves,” she said.
“Did you see me where other people didn’t see me? Did you see me through the eyes of people the world ignored? Did you see Jesus in the eyes of the suffering who were marginalized? Did you visit the least of these when you didn’t stand to get any credit, reward or financial compensation for that?”
Jesus loves everyone, she said, but the Church has an important role in loving those who are swept aside by the world, which Thebarge sees as exciting opportunities.
“There’s not a lot of competition for loving undocumented immigrants. There’s not a lot of competition for loving homeless people. This is a wide open field, and we get to run as hard as we want,” she says, directing our passion, creativity and skills towards loving those who are marginalized in our human economies of wealth, qualification or fame.
“In God’s economy, we’ll be surprised by how much value these people hold.”
Sarah Thebarge seems dedicated to participating in God’s economy, in sowing her seed in God’s fields. In so doing, cancer has become a life on fire with the Gospel. A $2 train ticket has grown into college funds for girls who were lost in a strange land — a fighting chance for a struggling family who would otherwise be invisible.
“Pray for the girls for their mom,” Thebarge asks. “Pray that God would provide for their needs and God would work in their lives and that they know that God loves them and is with them.
“Pray that God raises them to be women who are strong and who make a difference in the world, especially in their own Somali community.”
Proceeds from the sale of The Invisible Girls are invested into socially responsible mutual funds to provide for the girls’ college education. Donations can also be made directly. For more information, visit sarahthebarge.com.