As New Yorkers, daily we find ourselves in situations of close proximity to a diversity of people, some of whom look at lot like us, and others who don’t look very much like us at all. This diversity is evident even by looking around your subway car, or at the choices of language when you use an ATM.
As Christians, we are called to be authentic neighbors to those around us. What does it mean to be an authentic neighbor? While it is certainly evident in what we do, it is also about the heart behind what we do. Being an authentic neighbor is both a challenge to move physically closer in proximity to those who are different from us and a challenge to align our heart with the heart of God, who cares deeply for those who have been marginalized.
When we align our heart to God’s, we will hear clearly our call to regularly invite people, especially those who are different from us, into our lives through the sharing of time, attention, and resources. The posture of our heart will also allow us to more clearly see the inherent worth of our neighbors — who are, too, made in the Image of God — from whom we were once divided.
So, as a Church, we are to enter into issues of racism, sexual abuse, misuses of power and authority, immigration, affordable housing, gentrification, lack of access to education and other justice “issues” not just as “issues,” but as realities that deeply affect our neighbors. If we are being authentic neighbors, we will be in proximity to those who are suffering because of systemic injustices, and we will create occasions to engage and walk alongside our neighbors.
The early Church is a good model for this. The early Church was filled with converts who were from the margins of society — the poor, the oppressed, the sick — as well as members of the ruling class. These Christians willingly drew near to those who were sick, fearing not the danger of doing so, but instead, taking on the pain and suffering of their neighbors.
Surely, the marked movement toward those who were discarded and forgotten was a strong witness to the world of our Christ, who radically and sacrificially loved us by giving His life for us in the midst of our rebellion against Him. This kind of self-giving love is possible only for the person who has received the love of Christ in such abundance that it necessarily overflows into this powerful love of neighbor.
We in the modern Church should seek to move toward those who are forgotten with the full measure of our compassion in such a way that our lives (and words) boldly proclaim that we are here. We are close. We weep with those who weep. We give voice to the voiceless. We remember those the world has forgotten. And we bear witness to the inherent dignity of all.
All this — done in Jesus’ name — would almost certainly point our neighbors to the great love with which God, being rich in mercy, first loved us.