What is a Neighbor?
One summer Sunday, just over four years ago, weary, heartbroken, and completely uncertain about my future, I settled into my seat at church. The previous month had brought changes in both my job and my personal life that turned my world upside down and left me wondering, not for the first time, what exactly God intended for my life. I had said I was committed to the city. I cared about investing in the needs of the city. I wanted to live where I could serve the physical and spiritual needs of my neighbors, to share their needs as my own.
It was a vision first set out for me twenty years ago during summers spent working in the former Techwood Homes in Atlanta, a conviction shaped by the teaching and example of Bob Lupton and the work of FCS going on in nearby Grant Park, Rev. Terry Moncrief at the Techwood Baptist Center faithfully sharing hope and shelter in the largest and oldest housing project in the city, and the writings of John Perkins that pierced into the dark corners of my own prejudice and opened up the gospel command to love your neighbor as yourself in new ways.
Yet the path of my life went through several cities and different kinds of ministry work without ever arriving at that neighborhood I dreamed of settling in and serving in for the sake of the gospel. I prayed for the right city, a job that would allow me to work nearby, other Christians to walk alongside in that endeavor, and a church home that would be welcoming to anyone. And yet, on that Sunday morning, I was contemplating a visit I had scheduled with a woman in the mountains of north Georgia to discuss running her bed and breakfast near a wilderness area for a year. I was growing excited at the thought of getting the monkey of being committed to the city and concerned about the poor off of my back, moving to the mountains, and living a quiet, peaceful life.
The pastor preached that day from Jonah 4 where God exhorts Jonah to look beyond his concern for a gourd that had provided him shelter (and ultimately beyond his own prejudices) and consider “120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left… Should I not be concerned about that great city?” The sermon was about God’s love for the city, His concern for the poor, His care for the needy, and His call for His people to share His heart. Before the day ended, I canceled my meeting at the bed and breakfast and asked God to make a way for me to stay in the city.
A few months later, I began working at The Good Samaritan Health Center in downtown Atlanta, just around the corner from the old Techwood Homes neighborhood where those long-ago summers were spent. I was elated to find a job that I loved that allowed me to work in the city I had chosen to call home.
The Good Samaritan Health Center was named after the story of the Samaritan in Luke 10, told by Jesus in answer to a man who wanted to know how to have eternal life. Jesus, lovingly and wisely addressing the heart of this man, told him to love God and love his neighbor. The lawyer wanted to justify himself and asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Good Samaritan, founded in 1998 by Dr. Bill Warren, answers that question with the mission of “spreading Christ’s love through quality healthcare to those in need.” We offer medical, dental, counseling, and health education services to those who cannot afford insurance and do not have access to care. Every day, doctors, dentists, nurses, hygienists, medical and dental assistants, counselors, and support staff open the doors and welcome those who have wounds that need to be bound up—wounds that are spiritual and emotional as well as physical.
Soon after starting to work at Good Samaritan, I began to spend my lunch hours driving in the neighborhoods just west of The Center and praying about where I should live. Two years ago, I purchased a home in Grove Park and joined a new church plant that is focused on the west side of Atlanta and committed to serving and reflecting the diverse neighborhoods there. My home is in an older residential area that became almost entirely African-American after the “white flight” of the Civil Rights–era 1960s. Once a middle-class community bounded on either end by large government housing projects, the area deteriorated into poverty and neglect during the 1980s and is a haven for violent crime, drugs, and prostitution. Recently it has been decimated by the mortgage fraud crisis that has left more than thirty percent of homes in foreclosure and abandoned.
As Director of Development and Public Relations, it is my joy and privilege to stand alongside the staff and volunteers of Good Samaritan to love those who are in need in our community. And in 2009, it became my joy for Good Samaritan to serve my literal neighbors as the center moved to a new building located just a mile from my home.
I am not a pioneer in my move to a neighborhood of need for the sake of the gospel. Nothing I am doing here is unique or groundbreaking. I am simply being a neighbor. And little by little, I am learning more precisely what that means for me.
Being a neighbor requires presence.
My neighborhood is not one where people come and go, waving from their driveways before they pull into the garage and close up the house for the night. Most people walk or take the bus where they need to go. Life is oriented around the neighborhood. I am used to running in and out to work or the gym, meeting friends for dinner, attending Bible study or meetings, and traveling out of town for the weekend. I’m used to neighbors that I wave at in passing, if I see them at all. I find a sense of accomplishment from having a full schedule and being busy.
It is a fact that I can’t love my actual neighbors with this kind of schedule. I must choose to stay home and not be too busy on a consistent basis to build lasting relationships. My presence communicates my genuine concern and commitment; it is the action required to keep my words from being hollow and empty.
Being a neighbor means being noticed.
I’m not the only white person in my neighborhood, but I stand out as a single woman living alone in a neighborhood that is almost entirely African-American and known for its poverty, violent crime, prostitution, and drug dealing. The first time I called the police after a break-in, I was lectured by the officer about why it was a stupid idea to live here at all before he took a report. Nearly everyone I meet already knows who I am and comments on the work I’ve done on the house or the flowers in the yard. I can only assume my neighbors also notice how I spend my time, what I spend my money on, and who comes and goes from my house. More than at any other time in my life, I think carefully about all of those things.
Being a neighbor means taking risks.
Because I live in an area afflicted by poverty and crime, I’ve learned new habits like keeping my doors locked and alarm set. On almost any day, I may see a prostitute being picked up or dropped off or someone walking into one of the houses on the corner where drugs are sold. My porch furniture has been stolen. My father and I were assaulted by a woman looking for money after claiming she knew where my lost dog was. My front door has been kicked in. A teenager was shot and killed 4 doors down. There are times when hearing gunfire is common.
These are all risks that I share with my neighbors. We have the same concerns and need to look together for solutions. So, like many of them, I sit on my porch when weather allows to watch what is going on and who is walking and driving by. I strap my pepper spray on my wrist and take my dog walking through the neighborhood, getting to know people as I go.
Being a neighbor means having my heart exposed.
Living in an unfamiliar culture strips me of pretense. I’m not able to manage my image, because I’m the one that is out of sync, culturally. Often, I appear just a little dumb or slow to my neighbors because I don’t understand everything that is going on. Nor can I hide the attitudes, prejudices, and anger that rise up in me when I assume that my way of doing things, or my perspective on the world, or what businesses I think are good for our neighborhood, or whether I think it’s okay to drop your candy wrapper on the street is the one right way of doing or seeing or thinking. (I do think I’m completely right about not dropping trash on the street!)
Last spring, on a cold, rainy morning, I stopped for gas on the way to work. There was a group of men standing by the store making comments that I did my best to ignore. I honestly didn’t understand a lot of what they were saying, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like it. I had to walk right past them to pay inside. As I walked by, one man said “Don’t look so mad.” I smiled and said “You’re right! I was just trying to hurry to work.” But inside, I was fuming about why these men were just hanging out on the corner and not working, why they thought they had a right to make comments and demand that I respond to them, and feeling angry in general about how out of place I felt living in this community. When I came back out to my car, they started yelling “Shake it baby, shake it!” Something snapped and I spun on my heel and yelled back, “You know what? Shut up!!” They got quiet, but I wept the rest of the way to the office over the anger and fear that bubbled so close to the surface, stirred up from my heart.
In speaking of Jesus’ love, Paul Miller says: When Jesus interacts with people, he narrows his focus down to one person. When he encounters a lame man by the pool of Bethesda…in the midst of ‘a multitude of invalids…Jesus saw him lying there,’ John 5:3,6…This one-person focus is how love works. Love incarnates by slowing down and focusing on just the beloved…. Efficiency, multitasking, and busyness all kill intimacy.
Being a neighbor means having neighbors.
Life in this neighborhood connects me to the strengths and squabbles of forty years of community. I’ve been embraced, sometimes literally, by people delighted to hear that I was not an “investor” fixing up the house to rent, but a homeowner moving into the house. I’ve shared in grief when a neighbor died. The exterior paint color on my house became a street-wide decision, not because of zoning restrictions, but because people were around and interested. I voted in the presidential election in a packed elementary school, listening to my neighbors talk about what the day meant for them as we waited for over two hours. A neighbor suffering in the last weeks of leukemia was wheeled by his son on a teacher’s chair to cast his vote. Another neighbor put himself at risk to chase would-be burglars from my porch when I was out of town.
Loving your neighbor as yourself is truly achieved one person at a time.
It is “Miss Minnie”, an older, single, retired teacher who lives next door. For almost two months she watched me work on my house from behind her tattered kitchen curtains without speaking. Now she treats me like a daughter, leaving her own porch light on until I’m safely home at night and reprimanding me when I don’t call often enough. She finally let me sew new curtains for her kitchen windows.
It is the family in rental housing on the other side. It’s difficult to tell who really stays there, and there are regular outbursts of argument and violence. They’ve knocked on the door at 10 p.m. to borrow a screwdriver and 7 a.m. to borrow toilet paper and several Saturdays trying to sell me a pair of shoes or a car wash.
It is “Mr. Frank”, a retired firefighter, who keeps watch over the street and helps the older folks out as needed. His identity was stolen a few years ago when his home was burglarized. When going for a background check for a part time job, he was arrested for a string of burglaries committed by someone using his identity across south Georgia. Because he was a black man, his story was not believed as one county sheriff after another waited to put him in handcuffs after he posted bond from the jail he was currently in. It took him two years of court appearances to clear his name. After that experience, he says he will not live in fear, and he’s teaching me to do the same.
It is “Merle”, who grew up in Grove Park and exists on his SSI and the odd jobs he picks up from people who live on our street. Every day he rides his bicycle from house to house, mowing, patching a roof, cleaning gutters, or fixing a doorbell for a few dollars at a time. Merle had four of his front teeth knocked out last year. He will have his first dental appointment at Good Samaritan in November, and I dream of the day I see his smile restored.
Loving your neighbor as yourself is Christ’s command no matter where you live. While my neighborhood has particular issues of justice and mercy, each of us is called to be present, open, and sharing the needs of the people literally in our paths. The Good Samaritan Health Center is learning to be a neighbor in a new community. Our mission is simple: providing quality healthcare that spreads the love of Christ to our neighbors in need. I, too, am learning to be a neighbor in the same place. There’s a great deal that I don’t know and don’t do. But I plant a garden. I learn my neighbors’ names. I attend the community club and neighborhood association meetings. I repent of my selfishness about how I spend my time and my prejudiced attitudes and my fear. And I trust that being present and learning to love those around me will continue to lead me closer to God’s own heart and His own concerns.
1 Paul Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2009), 46–47
Karen Rose is the director for development for Good Samaritan Health Center in Atlanta. She and her two dogs, Daisy and Elle Mae, share the northwest Atlanta neighborhood with the people served by the clinic.