We had friends stay with us for the first time this summer. Mostly, it was a good visit. Our children are about the same ages, and get along as well as young children can. Our house is big enough that we didn’t feel squished together. We all love to cook, and to eat well – preferably with a bottle of good wine.
But there were less-easy moments, as well, when the rifts in our worldview began to show.
The hardest was when the husband of the couple decided to go out for a run with their dog. He took off his sneakers and laced up his elite running shoes, strapped the dog into her specially-designed jogging leash, and took off down the street. He was back long before anyone expected him: it was, apparently, not a comfortable run. Not enough streetlights, not enough sidewalks, too many ill-kept houses. The area was just too “sketchy” for him to feel comfortable, even with the dog.
He never left our neighborhood. In fact, he ran right past my son’s elementary school.
“How can you live here?” is a refrain we hear from well-meaning friends and family. The house is nice, they all agree, but the location! To one side, it’s mostly single-family homes with small, neat lawns. To the other, a lot of slightly-run-down houses turned into apartments, overgrown grass and weeds, tracks for the local freight train, frequent police presence. All of this in a city where the poverty rate is above average for the state; in a state that has one of the highest per-capita rates of drug abuse in the nation. “Why would you want to live here? Especially with children?”
Jesus said to love your neighbor. The question arose, “But who is my neighbor?” And Jesus told them a parable, as Jesus was wont to do. Jesus pushed his hearers to re-examine whom they were willing to love, to care for, to nurture. But I wonder at his use of the word “neighbor”, and what that implies – especially for us, now?
I think that many of us, my friend included, are willing to care for those in need. We are happy to volunteer in soup kitchens and shelters, to build houses and playgrounds, to raise money for charities. We are happy to be the hero. To serve in a way that doesn’t require more than a gentle pull at our heartstrings or a moderate amount from our wallets. We are comfortable loving our neighbors as long as we don’t have to live with them; as long as we can determine the boundaries around our helping. Which shouldn’t come as a phone call at 6:30am, “Can you pick up my child and bring her to school? The baby’s sick and my husband worked third shift.” Or the day you’re sneaking home to take a much-needed power nap, only to have a young woman fall into step beside you and tell you about how she can’t feed her infant because WIC hasn’t authorized the hypo-allergenic formula yet. Or the day your six-year-old tells you how happy his friend is, because his brother was finally getting out of jail… and by the way, can he go to that friend’s house to play?
Jesus said to love our neighbors, but I think many of us want to be the Samaritan who can do a quick patch-job and then leave the hotel staff to deal with the nitty-gritty, no strings attached. We don’t want to actually be neighbors with those who so often need our help – with those whom we are called to love. We don’t want to be a part of their daily lives, don’t want to invite their kids over on playdates, don’t want their problems to be our problems, or our children’s problems. We want to choose our neighbors, and feel good about helping them.
We want the Body of Christ to look like us. Not like them.
But the Body is not exclusive. And God’s love does not accept conditions.
I live where I do because the health of the entire Body affects me, affects my children. Because I have some privilege, in this world, and want to use it to support the public school system; to get the roads paved and the sidewalks repaired in all neighborhoods; to break down the barriers that our culture insists on building, segregating humans one from another.
I live where I do because I don’t want my children to grow up with the same prejudices about money and worth that I have battled for most of my life. I could quote Dr. King to them, or model to the best of my ability what it means to judge someone more by the content of their character, than by the color of their skin, or the money in their bank accounts, or whether their brother has been imprisoned. I want my children to be more loving than I am.
I live where I do because I know the names of most of the people on my street. Because we divide and share the plants from our gardens, the overabundance of tomatoes and zucchini. Because we help each other shovel out, during the winter, and jump each other’s cars on particularly cold mornings. Because they offer me rides home when I’m stuck in an unexpected downpour. Because they watch out for my children when I learn the hard way that they can open the front door all by themselves.
I live where I do because, even when I am exhausted with worry about these people who have trusted me with their stories, I love my neighbors. And here, I can never forget that God loves them, too – that God loves us all: this colorful, broken, inappropriate, diverse, beautiful, tender Body of Christ.
Follow Eliza on twitter @elizaflemingbt.