So…I want to delve into a few Biblical themes over the course of the next few blog posts. The first one I would love to tackle is the idea of LOVE…and thy neighbor…Love Thy Neighbor. We read about constantly how Christians preach a message of love and acceptance, tolerance and hope, but how frequently do we see this lesson in action on the streets of New York, San Francisco or even Northampton? Do we even know what true love really looks like?
“love thy neighbor as thyself.” What has fascinated me most isn’t the verse itself, but rather how it is interpreted and taken into everyday practice. Even the most lapsed Christian knows this verse in Matthew (Matthew 22:27-40), in which Jesus commands the doubtful Pharisees how best to live according to the ways of the Lord. Jesus’ first commandment to the Pharisees is to first love their God with all their being, and second, to love their neighbor as they love themselves. This appears simple and straightforward enough for most; however, not only do the Pharisees struggle with the concept of loving their neighbors, but also do many American Christians and non-Christians as well. Much of this problem is derived not from the lack of understanding of that particular piece of scripture, but rather perhaps from the misinterpretation of the gravity and widespread intentions of Jesus’ commandment to his followers.
This past summer, I had the immense joy and incredible chance to work for the Center for Student Missions as a City Host, where I had the opportunity and responsibility to serve the underprivileged and ignored of the San Francisco Bay Area in the state of California. Part of this job required that I open the eyes of junior and senior high-aged students to the problems occurring in America’s cities, in the process breaking their hearts for the same issues that broke Christ’s. Much of this work meant revealing the problems that have resulted from neglect, both on the part of the houseless (a seemingly less degrading and problematic term than the standard, “homeless”) themselves, and also from their neighbors, both literal and metaphorical, as well. As I served in this urban area for over three months, I noticed at times the complete lack of care and regard for the physical, emotional, and even spiritual wellbeing of one’s neighbor. In response to this, I often faced questions from groups who wondered why exactly so many men and women in this country were living in complete poverty and even to the extreme point of homelessness, while others were living in mind-blowing wealth? To this question, I could hardly come to a deserving conclusion, leaving groups without a proper answer to their very important query.
As a Christian, I am called and commanded by God to serve my neighbors, whether they are the small family living in the next townhouse over from my childhood home, or the houseless man living back on the corner by my apartment in Oakland. Much in the same way, Jesus’ commandment to his disciples and followers to love their neighbor is not limited by geography or language, but rather is the complete and inclusive spiritual love for all of God’s children, regardless of race, walk of life, gender, religion or geographical location. This love does not necessarily mean that I am required to invite the houseless man living on my corner into my apartment to sleep in my bunk with my eight other female roommates. Rather, it could easily mean that I ask for an invitation to come into his living room – the sidewalk – and share a meal with him. By sharing something as simple as a sandwich and meaningful conversation with him, I am able to return to him the sense of humanity God created him with, but American society has removed from him over time. The problem with this scenario is that while it seems like a nice thing to do for a fellow member of God’s creation, it should not be an opportunity for a Christian to accumulate “Jesus points,” so to speak. Instead, it is our duty, backed by endless scriptural evidence, to come to the aid of our ailing, struggling or downtrodden neighbors. Despite how simple it may seem to come to the aid of those who are suffering around us, it is both easier and yet harder to ignore those around us who are suffering; much of this comes from a deep sentiment of guilt for perhaps contributing to the cause for their demise. And while this guilt is perhaps warranted, the solution to this demanding issue is far simpler than one might understand. Ultimately, God does not necessarily expect us as Christians – myself included – to change the world and end homelessness. Rather, I believe that He encourages Christians through His Word to show the same unconditional loving-kindness that He shows us on a daily basis. Because while a day may go by when I forget that God always has my best intentions at heart, there are some who rarely experience the physical manifestations of God’s love. I strongly believe that it is our duty to show that love to all, not simply to a select few.
I will confess that I feel an immense sense of guilt regarding my relationship to my neighbors and the love that I have shown in the past. I don’t claim to stop to talk to every person who is in need, and provide them with what they require. I make excuses, or look the other way. I can’t advocate for the giving of money to anyone, let alone everyone, but the most important thing we as Christians and non-Christians alike can do is start a conversation. Get the person’s name, a bit of their story, how their day is so far. Stuff that seems so inconsequential and minute to us can be monumental and massive to someone on the stereotypical “outskirts” of American society. In reality, they are no lower than we are, as we are all God’s Children, and therefore created equal (yay US Constitution, among others…), but society has programed into our heads that if someone hasn’t bathed in a few days, weeks or months, and sleeps in a box on the sidewalk, they are of less significance than say a man or woman who works on Wall Street or for the US Government. We are all equal in the eyes of God, and to ignore someone because they don’t have the same access to food or showers does not honor God. Ultimately, they may not smell as clean as you do, but they are a child of God, and have much to share and bless you with.
In my experience with CSM this summer, I met many men and women who were down on their luck, either with the downturn of the economy or suffering from mental health or addiction issues. I remember one time sitting down to talk to one man and to share a sandwich with him – he looked as though he had not eaten in a week. He first approached me on the street, asking for money so that he could get his prescription from the pharmacy. He showed me his hand, which was wrapped in a bandage. “I cut my hand real bad, and the doctor gave me medication for it,” he said. I believed that he was injured, but CSM encouraged us to help people with physical interactions, rather than with money. If we didn’t have enough money to help anyone, who were we to decide who was more deserving than other? I agreed with this, and it also made it easier for us hosts in the long run. I told Eugene (the man finally told me his name…) that I didn’t have any money that I could give him, but I had a sandwich that he could have. He accepted, and sat down and immediately began to eat. Eugene didn’t speak much, but I could tell that he enjoyed just having someone sit next to him. He was extremely dirty, and needed a shower desperately. I couldn’t help him with any of his immediate needs, but I could at least show him kindness and treat him like the child of God he is. At the end, I stood up, as I had to get back to my group, and as I went to leave, he said, “Thanks for chatting with me. No one ever stops and listens to me, let alone sits near me. I’m homeless, but today I felt human.” I remember what he said, because I left, feeling as though I had not done enough to help him. But something I love about our interaction is that during that time, while I didn’t blatantly talk about God or Jesus, I showed him God’s loving kindness through my actions, much in the same way that Jesus showed love to the outskirts of ancient society.
I guess what I am trying to say, is that you don’t need a million dollars or know important politicians to make a difference in your community. All you need is an understanding of what it means to “love thy neighbor.” By doing this, you are spreading the love of God to all people. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel through actions, and use words if necessary.” This St. Francis dude got it right – not only is he the namesake of San Francisco, but he pinpointed the best way to show the love and grace of God to people in a short time.
So remember St. Francis the next time you walk down the street of Northampton and people ask for money. You are not obliged to give them money, but show them some kindness. Give them a smile, ask them how their days are. Show them most importantly that they are not the dirt of the earth and not worth your time. Rather, show them that God is merciful and loves all of his creation, no matter where they live and work (or not…). If God’s grace includes you and me, it most certainly includes them as well. HE LOVES US ALL, no matter who we are!