Carrying Your Neighborhood With You
This piece is reprinted with permission from St. David's, Minnetonka's newsletter. Scott Clark is a parishioner at St. David's.
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
At the Episcopal Church of Minnesota’s convention in September of 2020, Bishop Loya introduced four priorities to help shape our lives together. One of these is Faithful Innovation, which is joining the Spirit in new ways to proclaim and live out the gospel. One of the practices being advocated is to listen, act and share, and to better understand where God is already at work in the world that surrounds us. Much of this practice has involved inviting congregations to see their neighbors and neighborhoods with more intentionality and to establish ways of connection.
This essay does not center on this practice per se, but contemplates the seemingly timeless question that this practice brings to the forefront: who are our neighbors, and in turn, what is our neighborhood? For me, the question of neighbor, a noun that much of the Gospel orbits around, has been contemplated for years. Many years ago, at a prior church, the idea of the Church’s role in neighborhood was discussed at length as part of a discernment process leading up to a calling committee for a new rector. Since that time, I’ve pondered the idea of neighbor and neighborhood and how the definition and idea of these words have changed with time and cultural shifts.
I grew up in Duluth, a city with a plethora of specific neighborhoods--sociological and stereotypically defined physical spaces. The western neighborhoods were in proximity to the steel mill and railroads; the eastern had the hospitals and colleges. My neighborhood was West Duluth, which abutted West End and Fairmont, far from the tonier neighborhoods of Chester Park and Lakeside in the east. There were agreed-upon street boundaries; each neighborhood had an elementary school, corner grocery store, and carried self-labeled economic and social status. Most importantly, families knew each other; the neighborhood was a collection of history, stories, and idle gossip.
My adult world of education, employment, transitory residences, and suburbia made the neighborhood of my youth a past ideal, a mere memory. Eventually finding roots and permanency living in suburban settings still did not offer the neighborhood of my past. Some of our nearest neighbors might be part of a limited neighborhood, but all the markers of cohesion and community were missing. The definition of neighbors, and the interrelationship to the world, was shattered by the digital age, and the COVID pandemic introduced the soulless practice of being with people in pixel form. To this author, seeing our neighbors was muddled, and the ideals of neighborhood had been banished from a physically defined area to the abstraction of space and time.
Who is my neighbor? To whom do I show mercy? The simpler question is, who do I even relate to as my neighbor? It was during the Faithful Innovation process that the simple but complex answer came to me: “I carry my neighborhood with me.” Wherever I go, so goes my neighborhood. Every day my neighborhood intersects with others. All people carry some form of neighborhood with them, consciously or not, and in these connections, we meet our neighbors. It is my conviction that we live in a conflicted world where individuals demand their individuality while their souls thirst for connection, to be part of a collective humanity that has meaning. Maybe this is part of the idea of a Beloved Community.
In I Corinthians Paul writes of the gifts of the Spirit. One of my gifts is the ability to discern who might desire to metaphorically come out of their ‘neighborhood home’ and talk. This gift also works in the reverse: individuals approach me regularly and engage my role as a listener. It is amazing the response one can get when someone says hello and how are you doing and your response is fine, thank you, how are you doing? No, how are you really doing?
One of these first real connections, which will never be forgotten, happened 25 years ago in a tea shop in Brighton, England. It is customary in many tea shops, due to their limited size, to be seated at a table with others. My wife and I sat with our tea, biscuits, preserves, and clotted cream, but the conversation with our table mates was the true meal. As it turned out, these two older women had spent their childhoods exiled from London during the Blitz and stayed at a rural home (at this time I had not read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where the protagonists were equally exiled children). These ladies discussed Doodlebugs (V-1 rockets) that were intended for London. Due to the capricious nature of these deadly weapons, they explained, you listened to them going over and learned by the sound if they were failing, meaning they were going to crash land, in which case one needed to take cover immediately. Up to this time, in life, all aspects of World War II were factual abstractions to me. Now, a personal remembrance from transitory neighbors changed my filter on life and war.
Last week I had a neighborhood interaction at a bakery coffee shop where I was pondering the writing of this essay over a latte. A woman approached me and said, “Why don’t you have one of those things in your face? Everyone else here has one.” Since this statement could have multiple meanings, I asked for clarification, and she said, “Phones.” She asked again why I didn’t have one and I responded that I was spending time with my essence (people who approach you will understand that type of comment). I didn’t tell her that I, too, had noticed that this coffee shop neighborhood was steeped in digital isolation. She then asked my political affiliation, and my response was that I don’t have one but hang out on the left side of the political spectrum. I added that unless someone is evil or doing harm, we need to find a path to inclusivity, that I didn’t have the power to judge who's in or out. She thought for a moment and said, “You’re not a Democrat or a Republican, you’re a philosopher.” We left it at that.
How does the idea of carrying our neighborhood with us help to proclaim and live out the gospel? What I’ve come to understand is that, for me, the single word “mercy” is too large. Mercy by traditional definition is when a person who has power elects not to use it on another person. I find it hard to relate to Jesus’ words of “who showed mercy” in my walk because my power is limited. But other Bible translations interpret the root word of mercy differently as compassion, kindness, or the all-encompassing “lovingkindness.” This last word doesn’t imply acting simply because it’s the right thing to do; lovingkindness is being fully sentient and alive to the Spirit that flows through all things. Kindness is holding a door open for someone, lovingkindness is the desire to want to know a person’s story, to understand their pain or, when possible, be part of their world, whether that is active listening or a simple gesture of recognition. Mother Teresa’s quote is, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
Within the context of Mother Teresa’s quote is where the neighborhood we carry daily meets others in theirs. Our willingness to participate in a Spirit-filled life is not only meeting people in their neighborhoods but also extending our lovingkindness towards nature and all that we have inherited. Whether the word is mercy or lovingkindness, my ardent desire is to be conscious of the opportunity to meet others as neighbors, wherever my portable neighborhood takes me.