Won’t you be my neighbor?

Feb 18, 2014 by

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As a white woman who somewhat recently moved into an area that is considered to be “gentrifying,” I try to be acutely aware of my impact on my community. Dannette Lambert’s article on “how not to be a gentrifier” was exactly what I needed. I absolutely love my neighborhood and its diversity, so a practical guide on being a positive force in your community for everyone gave me so much to think about and put in action.

The one piece of advice this article gives that I find the most powerful is her recommendation to view everyone you see in your neighborhood as your neighbor. This seems obvious, but it’s so easy to look at people who are different from you or even distasteful to you as not really being a part of your community. The homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks, the women selling their bodies, the young men who look like someone who might rob you: They are all your neighbor.

That word is so heavy. Neighbor. It shows up all over the Bible. Old Testament laws command us to show our neighbors dignity and justice. When Jesus is asked “What’s the most important commandment?” he answers that we must love God with everything we’ve got and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And when asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells us the parable of the Good Samaritan, teaching us that anyone could be our neighbor, we just have to accept them as part of our community and our lives.

Since I walk about half an hour to work every day, I see a lot of people. And Philadelphia is not New York — you are not just an anonymous and ignored person, invisibly walking down the sidewalk. In Philadelphia (and especially West Philly) you see and are seen by most everyone who walks past. Over the last few weeks, I have been intentionally thinking to myself as I approach each new person “This is my neighbor.” Often, this has no effect on the way I treat that person; but sometimes when I see someone who is different from me or even distasteful to me, I can feel something in my attitude change when I think “This is my neighbor.”

That teenager who just dropped their trash on the ground is my neighbor.
That man who leered at me is my neighbor.
That mother who just screamed at her child is my neighbor.
That homeless person who just asked me for money is my neighbor.
That angry-looking person who didn’t return my smile is my neighbor.

Jesus didn’t tell us what set number of people we are to consider our neighbors, but showed us that anyone we encounter can be our neighbor if we open ourselves up to the responsibility of claiming them as part of our community. If I have a right to be a part of this community, so do they. If I am deserving of grace, so are they.

Jesus didn’t just ask us to love our neighbor, he asked us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That change in attitude can best be summed up as me asking myself, “How would I want to be treated if I were them?” Looking at my daily interactions through this lens has helped me tap into a well of compassion and empathy I didn’t know I had. The practice of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is humbling.

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” — Gal. 5:14

Brooke Natalie Blough lives in Philadelphia, Pa., and works at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a regular attender of West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship and writes at Now Faith, where this blog first appeared.

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