These are hard, painful days on many fronts. I don’t need to walk you through photos of refugee children washing up on shore or African-Americans being shot by police. We’ve all seen them. And most of you reading this article get to decide what to think about these things or, more importantly, if you will think about these things.
This won’t be an argument for the reality of the pain that the black community feels right now and has felt for generations (though that needs to be talked about), or the grief this brings to many police officers. This won’t be a political plea to open our borders to refugees, or a statistical appeal to the safety of bringing them in.
I have a bigger question today. A more foundational question. Rather than circling up around our opinions, let’s start asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Then, let’s start moving toward them with all the tenderness and care that we would treat Jesus with if he was suffering one neighborhood over from us.
But, how do we that? I’m so glad you asked. This is not exhaustive, but I have a few thoughts based on my experience.
1. Seek to understand. When I first got involved in cross-cultural ministry, someone told me, “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood”. That has served me well for years now. We have to assume that we have biases and ignorance. Likewise, we need to start with assumptions that we have much to learn and that we don’t have the full picture. We should be genuinely curious about the perspective of someone from the other side of the table.
If you don’t know anyone from the other side of the table, follow blogs and podcasts and twitter feeds. As you do, compassion (sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others) will grow and undeniably lead you to empathy (the capacity to place oneself in another’s position).
2. Show hospitality. I picked “hospitality” as my focus word this year. I thought I would learn a few things about cooking, maybe buy a bigger table and set aside some extra time and money to share meals with others. Then I started studying.
In the New Testament, the word hospitality actually means “love of strangers”; the same kind of love that you would love your family with. This is where things get interesting. Martha Stewart suddenly has less bearing on the conversation, and it gets a little more uncomfortable. This tells me that I am not off the hook after I invite my friends and family over for a meal. It also tells me that it’s not an event to be checked off the list. Instead, it’s a lifestyle of sacrificial love.
This love of strangers or outsiders (typically categorized as immigrants, widows, orphans and the poor) is a common thread woven throughout the Old and New Testament (Isa. 58; Rom. 13). What is God telling us about his character in this? He is showing us that he is a God who goes outside the gate for people who have nothing to give. He is a God that must go through Samaria. He is a God that invites enemies into his family and has the audacity to adopt them as sons and daughters through his Son.
I’ll never forget a hands-on representation of this I experienced. I was with my friends who are missionaries to refugees in Chicago, and we walked into a home where an impossibly small and aged grandmother was sitting in the corner—obviously blind, mostly deaf and very frail. And sadly, she was completely unnoticed by me. But this was not the case with my friends. They walked directly to her and sat with her, sang to her and prayed with her as our hosts patiently waited. One of my friends turned to me and said something to this effect—and I hope to never forget it—“Liza, always go to the smallest person in the room. It’s what Jesus would want.”
Hospitality practiced in a biblical sense matters to God because it is a direct reflection of the gospel. I don’t believe it’s just for a few believers with a calling; I truly believe it’s for everyone who follows Jesus. We are supposed to be taking care of the vulnerable—those that don’t have natural, societal provisions for thriving. Furthermore, we are to be intentional about putting the hand of the stranger into the hand of the Savior.
This preaches so “amen-y,” but it’s so hard to live. If you are going to adjust your actual lifestyle and go out of your way to be hospitable, it will end up turning some, if not all, of your life upside down. You will invite misunderstanding on both sides. You will be interrupted, taken advantage of, made uncomfortable. These kinds of relationships are messy and refuse to serve our ideals for efficiency.
3. Stay until you empathize. Another thing, and maybe the hardest thing, is to embrace an empathy for our neighbors—the kind that only comes after you sit with them long enough to crawl under their burden. And then, before you know it, you can’t turn your head, change the channel or be OK again until your neighbor is OK, too. A quote from a black brother drives this home: “I need people who don’t feel my pain to believe me when I say it hurts.” It’s possible to start to believe your neighbor, in the marrow of your bones, even though you don’t directly feel what he is feeling.
This is obviously painful, but isn’t it a better than apathy, ignorance or crossed arms? If the brokenness of the world hasn’t affected you, may I softly and tenderly suggest that, as a follower of Jesus, it probably should.
4. Start where you are. Most of us will not move to a refugee camp or live in an urban setting or open an orphanage in Thailand (but don’t rule those options out!), But you can start closer to home.
Another story from my everyday life illustrates this. I was with a friend on a business trip in Dallas. The pizza delivery youth in the lobby of the hotel didn’t seem to care much that his pants were around his knees, but he did care, deeply and loudly, that his pepsi was stuck in the vending machine. It was so easy to move past and be annoyed. But it wasn’t for my friend. She moved toward him, expressed sympathy and said, “Wait. Do you like RedBull? Yes? OK, stay right here.” She ran to her room, grabbed a 4-pack of RedBull, handed it to him and warmly wished him a good day. The pizza delivery guy was her neighbor for that moment.
We can do this, too. We can stop for the people that no one else stops for. We can be free to love them with arms wide open. We can go out of our way to be in their lane at the grocery store. We can intentionally get to know our immigrant neighbor. We can buy an extra coffee and stop next to that homeless man that we drive by every day and get to know them. We can sit next to the mentally handicapped person at our next party.
That’s my dream and constant prayer; that we, as the church, would be compassionate and courageous; that we would be sad, but not afraid; that we would spend more time asking who our neighbor is and less time ensuring our own comfort. I’m praying we lay down our rights and opinions, and instead, take up the incredible blessing of this burden.