Home > Uncategorized > And who is my neighbor?

And who is my neighbor?

On my way to breakfast with my roommate Jon, I realized that I might have left my window open. I immediately became distracted by this, and from that moment on, I had difficulty concentrating on our conversation. I thought about someone climbing my fire escape, about coming home to find the window wide open, my apartment ransacked, my prized possessions gone. When I returned home, it turned out that I had, in fact, left my window open. No one, however, had decided to take advantage of this momentous opportunity to steal my Macbook.

I’m moving soon, and I don’t really like the neighborhood I’m living in now, I’m sorry to say. It’s far away from the city, from the places I frequent, and I don’t feel safe here. Every night when I walk down the long ominous block from the subway, I imagine myself being mugged. I think about the possible scenarios, and plan in my head how I would handle them. I look at the shadowy figures in the distance, and try to gauge whether or not they pose a threat. I always feel like something of an alien here, as I walk past people on the street. I imagine that people wonder what this little white guy is doing in this neighborhood that hasn’t really become gentrified yet.

At home, as I sat in my room planning my next move for the day, getting ready to leave, I noticed that there was something going on outside, on the street below my window. In front of my building, it looked like someone was moving out, or in. I didn’t like this. I wasn’t looking forward to awkward conversation, either with a neighbor that I didn’t know, whom I hadn’t bothered to get to know, whom was now leaving, or a potential new neighbor, whom I’d now never really get the chance to know anyway.

As I made my way down the stairs, I discovered that the door to the building had be propped open. This meant that there was only one line of defense between my apartment and the cruel outside world, which I’ve come to imagine is eager for an opportunity to invade my apartment and take my things. I didn’t like this either, but there wasn’t really anything I could do about it (I’m not one to put up a fuss), so I continued on my way.

Outside, there were two woman standing around an accumulation of various items–lamps and tables and such. I was carrying a bag of trash with me, and as I deposited it in the trash can, I made eye contact with one of them, an older black woman.

“Someone moving in?” I asked.
“No, out.” She answered. “My daughter is moving out. Her sister and I came up here from South Carolina to help her move.”

The woman had a friendly manner about her. I liked her immediately. She chatted to me a bit about their plans, something about the daughter moving to upstate New York. I mentioned that that’s where I’m from, and how I’m also moving soon, but to a different part of Brooklyn. She told me how much she likes this neighborhood, how she feels safe whenever she comes here. She told me she loves the landlord, how he has always been trustworthy and helpful. She told me her daughter wanted to keep living here, but couldn’t afford the rent after her roommate moved out. We chatted for a bit more; eventually the younger woman came wandering over.

“Are we taking this lamp?” She asked.
“No, we aren’t taking the lamp. What do you want that lamp for?”

I took this interruption as my cue to be on my way, told the woman that it was nice meeting her, shook hands and asked her her name.

“I’m Elaine. It was nice meeting you too. I’ll be praying for you.”
“Oh…thanks.” I replied. “Take care.”

As I walked down the street, I wondered about why she had said that she’d be praying for me. People don’t usually just say that sort of thing out of the blue, at least not in my experience. Was there something about me that suggested I needed to be prayed for? Or maybe it’s just something she says to everyone, perhaps a southern sort of thing. Whatever the case, I began to realize that this woman specifically is someone whose prayers I might particularly benefit from. I even thought about going back and telling her specifically what to pray about, but I didn’t have the courage.

That woman’s perception of the neighborhood was so very different from mine. It bothers me how I’ve come to fear my neighborhood, that I constantly worry about being robbed. Whatever the reality of the danger here is, the truth is that most people here are not criminals, and are just living their ordinary lives, and it’s not right for me to mistrust them. In the year I’ve spent here, I regret keeping to myself so much, not bothering to get to know many of my neighbors. More than that, since I’ve lived in this neighborhood of mine, I’ve come to realize something about myself that was, at the bare minimum, less clear than before I lived here.

I’m about to become a bit confessional here. Perhaps it’s too early in the history of this blog for me to do this, but I’d like to tell you about an internal struggle of mine that I am not proud of. It’s my tendency towards racism, towards judging other people based on their race. I see a stranger who is black, I am naturally mistrustful of him. I don’t want to be, but I am…my mind is often inclined to think that he is up to no good, more inclined than it is to think the same thing about a White person, or an Asian person, or a Latino person. I despise racism, as an idea, but I’m way more racist that I will usually admit. I hope those of you that are my friends, who are black, will forgive me for this. I want you to know that it certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t trust you, care about you, or love you. I do.

In today’s political climate, one gets the impression that to be a racist is to subscribe to a belief system, a theory about the nature of society: being a racist is perhaps thought to be similar to being something like a communist–that is, “racism” is thought to be like viewpoint that enlightened people have simply realized is a bad way of looking at the world. But really racism does not start with general theories, with systematic sweeping beliefs about entire classes of people. It might end there, for some, but that is not where it starts. It starts in our everyday interactions, and in our own thoughts and imagination. It starts in the human heart.

And he said,  “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7.20-23)

Racism starts with how we evaluate others, the subtle judgments we form, the evil expectations we create for ourselves about a person based on how they look, how they appear to us. These associations are not completely groundless. The can often be based on real events in our lives, on real evil that was done to us, or that we simply observed. Thus because I was robbed once by a black teenager was dressed a certain way, every black teenager who is dressed similarly becomes to me a “thug” who wants to rob me. But I notice how less inclined I am to form generalizations about the goodness of people, based solely on their appearance, even though those generalizations have just as much of a basis in my experience. I forget about the times that such and such a person has held the elevator for me, or given me directions, or had a friendly conversation with me. I forget, even, friends who might look like “them.”

I think that our fallen minds are inclined to take the sum of our experience with others and twist it, to interpret it all in a negative light, in a way that constantly emphasizes the evil in others, rather than the good. We are inclined to associate that which is neutral in a person with that which is wrong in others who have the same neutral characteristics. We must, by God’s grace, resist this. We must try to not judge at all. For out of our repeated judgments of others, which we are so inclined to form, our fallen minds attempt to discern a pattern, and this is how our wicked generalizations are born.

Racism is, in fact, only one manifestation of this. Thus in our day to day lives we must refrain from judging people in any way. Even when direct evil is committed against us, we must not judge. We must, instead, forgive. If we don’t, we will become blinded by resentment and cynical expectations. We must forgive those who do wrong, and those who have wronged us, because if we don’t, we will become unable to see clearly, and eventually we will come to hate even those who have not wronged us, or done any wrong. We must love even those who hate us, because if we don’t, we will become unable to love even those who love us. And to do any and all of this, we must first look to the One who loved us, and gave himself for us all.

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