It has been a difficult seven or so days for this country, but especially those at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. We all know what happened there, so there is no need in repeating what we know. We know it was horrific. We know it was drenched in hate. We know too that in spite of the intended racial division, we have witnessed great acts of charity and forgiveness. You and I know all of that.
What I do not know, however, are our neighbors. Right across from our magnificent church is a smaller congregation that sits in the shadow of our steeple. Gardner Grove Baptist Church is primarily an African-American congregation. They are not particularly prominent or large in number, so maybe that is why I have not encountered my neighbors. I do know they are faithful. Sundays and Wednesdays their parking lot is full, as well as other days when there is a wedding or funeral or some other special event.
Still, after ten years I have never met our neighbors across the street from our church. Following the Charleston massacre I knew it was long overdue for me to meet our neighbors. Between worship services this past Sunday I walked across the hot asphalt street that divides our congregations and entered the foyer of their sanctuary. They were well into worship so I was sensitive to the fact that my presence would be conspicuous as well as an interruption to their service. I left a card with the sound technician to give to the pastor that said something to the effect, “I am sorry about the racial hatred of our times. We need to get to know each other.”
That was Sunday. On Monday Pastor Rufus Copeland and I exchanged calls and then a visit. He is a good man whose gray hair shows his faithful service to that church for 29 years. Though we share “Baptist” in our church names, denominationally our affiliations are different. I am guessing there are other differences too. Yet we are happily united in a common devotion of faith and a common hope for our community and world. He said to me, “What happened in Charleston will not divide us. It has the opportunity to unite us.” We have made a commitment to not only get to know each other better, but for our congregations to get to know each other better. We are neighbors after all and that is what neighbors do.
I wish there were words that I could share that would resolve the racial strife we are experiencing in our land and in our time. I wish I could articulate a better vision of what could be. I wish I had the acumen to devise a plan, a program, or a response that could augment healing. All I can really do is meet my neighbors and move from being a stranger to a friend. I can walk across the many different streets that divide races, religions, socio-economic classes, politics, and extend a hand and be a friend.
You can walk across the street too, and I think it needs to be just that literal. If you do not know your neighbors, then make a moment to walk across whatever it is that divides you from another and bring a card, or flowers, or a cake, or just a genuine smile and say, “It’s good to meet you.” Some neighbors we cannot meet due to geography or circumstances beyond our control. Such divisions are seemingly insurmountable. But you can still get to know your neighbors by listening, learning and praying for compassion and empathy. Do not meet a neighbor intending to tell them what they need to know about you. Meet your neighbor to learn something new about them. It will change both of you.
The Bible is particularly sensitive to the importance of neighborliness. From the laws of the Old Testament to the teachings of Jesus; caring, protecting, and showing mercy to the neighbor is how others see God at work in this world. Politics and acts of Congress will not make this happen. We can change our symbols and our laws but if we do not change our hearts and actions it will all be useless.
Walk across the street and get to know your neighbor. You just might meet a friend.
“…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)
From your friend,