Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Unlike Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, we don’t get to choose our neighbors. Most of us fall in love with a new house or condo, move in, and only then think about the folks who live nearby. We hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and usually settle for something in between.
Like most people, my wife and I have had a variety of experiences with neighbors over the years. Some have been surly, some virtually invisible, some nosy, and some have become life-long friends.
The most dramatic difference occurred when we moved from a Baltimore row house to suburban Westchester County, New York. Living in a row house, you can’t exactly avoid your neighbors. Some mornings I’d have a better chance of running into a neighbor while drinking coffee on our tiny front porch than I would my own wife drinking coffee in the kitchen. In a very real way, your neighbors define your living experience when you live in a row house or an apartment. You simply can’t avoid social contact whether you’re in the mood for it or not. Having a disagreement with your spouse? The postage stamp-sized backyard is not the place to work things out unless you want that old lady peeking from behind the curtains in the house across the alley to know that your wife disapproved of your recent purchase of a foosball table.
We were pretty lucky in Baltimore – to our right we had an understanding family with two boys in the kindergarten/elementary school age range. At the time Ben was a toddler and Zack was an infant which meant that advice, consolation, and great hand-me-downs were in close proximity. On the left lived a single, young professional male we almost never saw or heard from. The only reason we even knew his name was the occasional errant mail delivery.
After a couple of years, this was contrasted with our experience in New York where the houses were all on two to three acre lots. On one side we never even met our neighbors after living there for seven years. On the other side, we met the husband after a few years. He showed up at our door one day apologizing for the fact that a truck he hired had knocked over our mailbox. After paying for a new one and countless offers to invite us over sometime, we never saw him again.
Some of the best neighbors we ever had lived in the graveyard adjacent to the apartment we lived in when we were first married. They were respectful, excellent listeners, and I never had to call the cops to shut down one of their raucous parties. If it wasn’t for the occasional graveside seven gun salute that used to scare me out of my wits, they would have been the perfect neighbors.
In the gospel of Luke, a young man asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” prompting Jesus to launch into the Parable of the Good Samaritan. One important point of this well-known parable is that Jesus broadens the definition of what it means to be a neighbor. Of course it also speaks of how to treat our neighbors but first it defines the concept of neighbor. Through it, Jesus expands the entire notion of neighborliness – it isn’t just our friends or our family or those who live nearby. There are no boundaries or limits to being a neighbor just as there are no boundaries or limits to God’s love for us. Our neighbors are our fellow children of God and we have an obligation to everyone. We don’t pick and choose whom to love; we love all because God loves all of us.
We hit the jackpot with our neighbors here in Hingham – and not just because we live next door to the church. We have great neighbors next to the rectory and across the street. We socialize with them, our kids play together, and we’ve been warmly welcomed since we first arrived nearly three years ago. And while Jesus redefines for all of us what it means to be a neighbor, it’s still nice having ones we like living next door.