“Who is my neighbor?” This question, posed by a crafty lawyer in the Gospel of Luke invites Jesus to launch into one of his most famous parables of the Good Samaritan. (For those unfamiliar with the story: A Jewish man is walking along a road when he is suddenly robbed and beaten up by thieves. While he is lying in the ditch, two people whom we would assume to be helpful simply pass him by. In the end, a Samaritan—a person of a different race, with whom the Jews had very poor relations—comes to the injured man’s aid, binding his wounds and giving him money to stay at a nearby inn while he recuperates.) When he has finished telling this parable, Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer and asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” to which the lawyer replies, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” (NRSV).
I tell you this, not because I want to preach to you, or even because I want to talk about religion at all. Rather, I bring this up because that repeated question, “Who is my neighbor?” bears relevance for cities and neighborhoods.
Is a neighbor the person next door and across the street? That would be simple.
Does my entire neighborhood contain my “neighbors”? Linguistically, that would make sense.
Can I consider everyone living in my city a potential neighbor? This would mean a whole lot of neighbors.
Are business owners, cops and teachers my neighbors too, or just the people who live in the houses nearby? If they’re all neighbors, how do I get to know them in different ways?
After the Strong Towns National Gathering in which many of the participants challenged and encouraged one another to get to know their neighbors better, I realized I needed to first figure out “Who is my neighbor?” The passage from Luke helps me broadly define the term. If we were to follow the invitation of the Gospel passage, and the invitation of my fellow Strong Citizens last weekend—which is truly the invitation of any neighborhood that lacks community—we should show compassion, friendliness and warmth toward those around us. That means whomever we encounter in our daily lives. The aid pushing the elderly man at the senior center across from your office, the rambunctious children running around your grocery store with their tired mother, the fast-walking business man in a suit who passes by your house on his way to the bus every the morning, the immigrant couple that runs your laundromat, the teenager who makes your sandwich at the deli counter. These are the people around us and they deserve our kindness. One by one, person by person, block by block, these small acts add up to more pleasant neighborhoods and towns.
This week, as I have been intentional about saying hello to my neighbors on my way to work, in the grocery store, at my volunteering shift, and in the hallways of my apartment, I’ve discovered a few things:
- It’s harder than it looks. (And we already know this because we don’t do it very often.) First, it’s hard to be the one initiating. Most of the time when we’re walking outside on our own, we close ourselves off to the elements, process thoughts within our heads, and keep to our own business. So, it’s challenging for me to step out of that every single time I see someone (especially because I’m somewhat introverted) and say “Hello.” It’s also hard because the response from others is not always positive. I don’t know about your neighborhood, but in mine, people tend to keep their heads down. They don’t expect a stranger to speak to them, so when it happens, they sometimes take so long to process the occurrence that they can barely muster a reply before I’ve walked past. None of my neighbors have replied rudely to me—they just haven’t always replied with a cheery “Hello” right back. The two instances of pleasant greetings that stand out to me from the last week were from a young boy coming out of school, and an older man smoking a cigar on his front stoop. Unfortunately, most of the young people in my demographic are plugged into their iPhones or generally aloof. I’m trying my best to move against that stereotype.
- It helps to have a buddy. I’m not the most outgoing person, but I have plenty of friends who are. I like to be intentional when I’m with them about taking those leaps to talk to strangers, which I might not otherwise take alone, knowing that I have a friend at my side to join in the conversation.
- This is the beginning. Once I get my hello’s down and start recognizing faces, then I should move on to asking names. Saying hi to people doesn’t feel like it’s doing much, unless it encourages others to say hi too. I’m hoping to contribute to a community that feels warm and welcoming. Last week, without my doing anything, a nice woman struck up a conversation while we waited together at the bus stop. Her first comment was the simplest, “How about this warm weather we’re having?” but it led us to discuss our jobs, recent events in the city and the wild antics of the football fans here. Later that evening, I caught a glimpse of the same woman standing in the check cashing spot near my apartment, confirming that she’s a resident of the neighborhood. Next time I see her (for all I know, it might happen today while I’m waiting for the bus again), I’ll definitely find out her name.
- We have nothing to lose. Being friendly is the simplest way to make our neighborhoods better. Once you get past the initial hurtle of opening your mouth, it’s smooth sailing. Only good can come of this.
Does knowing your neighbors come naturally to you? If you live in a neighborhood like that, I’d love to hear about it. I’d also love to hear about your experiences talking to your own neighbors. Will you take the challenge?