When I was a little girl growing up on a Wisconsin farm, I thought of four families as being our neighbors: the farmers across the road just west of us – the Henry Henderson family; the farmers who lived on the farm immediately south of us – The Mulcaheys; the farmers just east of us – the Scotts; and Ruth and Merrill Kenseth, a brother and sister who were double cousins of my mom (their moms were sisters and their dads were brothers) – and they lived on the farm across the road north of us. I didn’t really know any of the neighbors very well, except the cousins. Sometimes, on a nice summer evening, I would walk over to the Kenseth farm to play with their barn cats while Merrill was milking the cows, especially when there was a brand new litter of kittens to play with.
I think the main reason I didn’t know the other neighbors very well is that they didn’t go to the same church as we did, and we primarily socialized with the people within our own church. Occasionally, Danny and I would walk down to the Mulcaheys to play with Michael and Margaret, the two kids in their family who were about our ages, but they were Catholics, so we were discouraged from playing with them too much. We grew up thinking of Catholics almost like a different tribe. They didn’t really believe in God quite like we did. They believed in Mary and the pope and saints and who knows what all… We were Methodists and we knew Jesus Christ as our personal savior. Back then we were taught to avoid people who were different from us, even if they were neighbors.
When I went away to college, obviously I had new neighbors. Living in a dorm, I had roommates, who essentially became my on-campus family. My new neighbors were the young women who lived in the rooms adjacent to and across the hall from us. Since I went to a small Christian college, these neighbors were all members of the same “tribe” and we all became friends.
After college I moved to a small town in Connecticut where I was an English teacher. I rented an apartment in a relatively new apartment complex of about 20 units. I had two kinds of neighbors in the apartment complex – relatively poor families who couldn’t afford to buy a house, and young teachers who were new to the community. Basically, we became two tribes. I had very little contact with the other tribe.
After a couple years in Connecticut I moved back to the Midwest, met Mim, and the two of us lived in Chicago together for 20 years. While we lived in Chicago, at first our concept of neighbor was not very different from what my concept of neighbor had been when I was a little girl on the farm. The houses next to us on all four sides were our neighbors, and to varying degrees, we became friends. Further down the block in any direction we didn’t even know the people, with a few rare exceptions – like when we got our first puppy, we got to know the other families on the block who had dogs.
Gradually, after living in Chicago several years, we began to think of the term “neighbor” in a little broader sense. We thought of neighborhoods, and neighboring neighborhoods. For a few years we attended LaSalle Street Church, located between Sandburg Village – an upscale high-rise residential development and Cabrini Green – the most notorious, gang-infested housing project in Chicago. The pastors at LaSalle prompted us to re-think how we should love and care for our neighbors, and just who our neighbors really are.
Back in Cambridge, after 20 years in Chicago, my concept of neighbor continued to evolve. I still thought of my neighbors as the people whose homes (or farms) were adjacent to ours. But then we subdivided the farm. Most of the acreage became new housing – a small apartment complex (The Hamptons), a condominium development (Stone Meadows, where Mim and I now live), and a couple residential subdivisions (Winterberry and Summer Prairie). Would all these new housing units, over 100, shelter a whole new community of neighbors for us? Mim and I tried to start out being neighborly by bringing homemade cookies or bread as a welcome gift to each new neighbor as they moved into their home. We kept that up for about the first half-dozen or so neighbors, then we stopped. I guess I need to think a little harder about just who my neighbor is, and how I should treat them…
So why am I thinking so much about neighbors today?
A week and a half ago I went to the annual meeting of the Jail Ministry. Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney was a special guest at this meeting, and he gave a short talk about the needs of inmates. Sheriff Mahoney said that his biggest hope is that the people of Dane County would stop thinking of jail inmates as violent criminals getting exactly what they deserve by being incarcerated, but rather think of jail inmates as their neighbors. He said that 80% of the inmates are in jail for crimes related to their addiction to drugs or alcohol. They need healing, not punishment. Mahoney said that in his 35 years of law enforcement experience, he has not known even one inmate that was rehabilitated just by being kept in a cage for a while. For all inmates who have been successfully rehabilitated, they succeeded because they were in an environment that provided the resources that enabled them to heal. The chaplains and volunteers of the Jail Ministry are an important part of those resources – people who care, who listen, and who try to help the healing process.
Mahoney closed his remarks by coming back to his biggest hope – that we all start thinking of inmates as our neighbors.
The dictionary defines neighbor in geographic terms – “a person living near another.” [www.merriam-webster.com] But the Bible broadens the definition of neighbor significantly, as this New Testament incident illustrates.
Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”
He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”
He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”
“Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”
Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”
Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
“A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’
“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”
“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.
Jesus said, “Go and do the same.” [Luke 10:25-37 The Message]
According to Jesus, it’s very important for me to love my neighbor, almost as important as it is for me to love God. In order for me to love my neighbor, I need to understand who my neighbor is, and Jesus makes it pretty clear that it’s not just the people living in the houses adjacent to my house. I think Jesus would agree with Sheriff Mahoney, that the inmates of the Dane County Jail are my neighbors. But that’s not all. Immigrants from Mexico and the Near East and actually all over the world are my neighbors, too. Dulce Maria, the little girl in Honduras that Mim and I sponsor, is our neighbor. Homeless people in Cambridge and Madison are our neighbors. Anyone who needs someone to listen and care and help. Anyone who needs to see God’s love in action in their life. These are my neighbors.
I guess I have more neighbors than I thought.