On the anniversary of September 11th, I’m reminded of the sheer evil that can be manifested in any and all of us. I remember the shock and horror I felt when I heard the news of planes crashing into the twin towers in NYC. I remember the confusion, the theories, and then the crushing reality of terrorism. I also realize that this day in history continues to impact us. It is not a distant memory but a moment that still shapes us as we recall the precious lives we lost, grieve, and reflect. Today, as I stare down the long, dark corridor that hate and fear have since carved in the wake of 9/11, I wonder like I did back then – where do we go from here?
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
It’s one of the most well-known maxims of our day. It’s taught within our communities and our families. It’s found within our ancient religious teachings and emerging spiritualities. It runs across our different cultures, capturing the higher imaginations of our broken humanity. Yet despite its near universal value, it remains one of the most difficult teachings to live out. Try as we might to struggle towards progress, more often than not, we find ourselves backpedaling in futility, tripping over each other and ourselves over and over again. Fear of the “other” grips us. Ignorance leads us to unwelcome. What would it look like if we truly learned to love our neighbors as ourselves? How would the landscape of our cities change if we saw beyond labels?
How do you love your neighbor as yourself? What does it mean for us to serve our city? And as the challengers to Jesus once remarked, “Who is my neighbor?”
As I settle back into Austin, I sometimes wonder what the contours of my compassion will look like in the coming weeks and months. Will I only love those like myself, or will I learn to recognize the pain and need of people trapped in the greatest refugee crisis in history? Will I sit callous at the turmoil of others, or will I see into the plight of Native Americans who are protecting their land and their way of life? Will I remain sure about my convictions, or will I listen to the forgotten, small town, white Americans who are struggling with the economic changes of today? Will I live my own life, or will I hear the long cry for justice from my black brothers and sisters while also recognizing the sacrifices, the risks, and the responsibilities of our police officers? How I choose to define neighbor signifies an important decision. It changes everything, and yet it changes nothing. Good intentions alone have never moved us towards greater love and equity.
Serving the Other
Several months ago while I was still in LA, I had the opportunity to serve the homeless in Rosemead with a friend of mine I’ll call J . I met J a couple weeks earlier, and his compassion to serve others was evident from the first moments we interacted. With an uncontainable excitement, J shared about his desire to serve the community. I could sense his joy and his genuine heart. Despite having very little for himself, and still struggling to maintain regular work to support himself at his trailer park home, J counted himself blessed. This took me by surprise. I soon found out that he had recently experienced God’s love breaking into his life and helping him out of his drug habit. With a renewed sense of identity, J discovered a passion to help others with his same background. So he acted upon it. He looked around his neighborhood. He saw the homeless with the eyes of Christ and, with echoes of the four friends bringing the paralytic to Jesus (Mark 2), J’s heart compelled him to seek the good of his neighbors.
J started simple – he wanted to meet the physical needs of those around him, so he hatched a plan to cook food for those on the streets. On his own dime, J bought ingredients to prepare tacos for his homeless neighbors.
J then invited me to join him. That weekend, I met him at his home with a couple other friends. Together, we put together care packages that included J’s tacos, socks, water bottles, and basic necessities. As we started to make our rounds to the pockets of homeless communities in the area, we introduced ourselves and provided them with gift bags. But it wasn’t this activity of serving that I found significant. Instead, it was the act of getting to know our neighbors and praying for them by name that began to place me into shared relationships with others. There were people like Frances, Bobby, and Vu, who lived within the fenced confines of an abandoned industrial building and parking lot. There were also those hanging out at the park – Jeanette, Jamie, Richie, Robert, and Roy. And Mando, Chris, and Ambrosia.
Learning their names moved me towards kinship with my homeless neighbors, and something about that felt beautiful and right. It mirrored, if only in a faint way, the kind of love God first loved us with. The act of neighboring taught me to see the homeless, not as objects to be served, but as subjects created in the image of God, full of dignity and worth.
Compassion as a Precursor for Love and Justice
When J, my friends, and I jumped into conversation with our neighbors, my initial hesitancies and prejudices subsided. In place of those things, I started to see something vibrant and new appearing. In our mingling, talking, praying, and crying, compassion had somehow emerged. People were acknowledged. Stories were heard.
Over the next few weeks, we visited our neighbors more. With each interaction, our compassion for one another increased, leading us to experience mutuality with each other. We heard both their triumphs and their struggles. We prayed for each other. We even began to explore how we could bring about restorative justice to those on the fringes of society. There was something divine at work.
Imagine how different our world would be if we lived with compassion rather than fear? It’s a worthwhile question for us to ponder as we seek not only to serve others but to know and love them for how and who God has created them to be. How might you love where you live as you learn to respect, love, and empower the dignity of another? What kind of world do we want to leave behind for those who come after us?
“For the measure of our compassion is not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them, in mutuality.” – Father Greg Boyle
In Austin and Interested in Serving the City?
- Volunteer with Gateway South as we love our neighbors. Join us at Fall Fest 2016 for food, fun, and opportunities for you to volunteer to serve our city!
- Austin Statesman Article : for more info about how churches are coming together for the city
- Love Where You Live Initiative: for city wide opportunities to serve
Photo by refreshment_66 (Flickr)