I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which is known to be one of the most politically liberal areas in New York and the U.S. Within blocks from my home lie Columbia University and the Frederick Douglass public housing project, where incidents of gun violence in our precinct were concentrated in recent months. Come by on a weekend and chances are high that you’ll catch me chasing after my kids as they scoot past nail salons and dry cleaners, dollar stores and transitional housing for men and women with physical and mental disabilities.
Over the summer, more than 700 people were transferred from homeless shelters into three hotels in the Upper West Side in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The ensuing controversies (amid an already turbulent year) were more than punchlines on the evening news. Some of my friends signed year-long leases for homes outside of the city, while others joined the rallies organized to show care and welcome to the new neighbors.
In the midst of all this, I found myself longing to be and be around the kind of Christians who persevered in these uncertain times, who engaged in debates about homelessness and hospitality, racial injustice, and reopening schools with distinctly Jesus-infused fortitude. (This book has been a great resource.) This community would not operate chiefly out of fear, but out of an identity as a people deeply loved. It would push back against convenient consumerism in all areas of life. It would not flee trouble but would get up close to face it, as the founder of our faith so radically demonstrated.
Leery of aspirational abstractions and looking to share simple ways for New Yorkers to live missionally day-to-day, I’ve been in conversations with colleagues and friends on our trial-and-error practices of neighboring in such a time as this. What to start doing? What to keep doing? And how to persevere?
WALK SLOWLY, LOOK, AND LISTEN FOR GOD ALREADY AT WORK
I once read that the key to blessing the street is to walk slowly. True to certain NYC stereotypes, it’s very hard for me to walk slowly. I like to get a lot of things done on a spectacularly ambitious timeline, virus be darned. But during the spring, the Spirit slowed me down enough to connect with a park bench regular who had lost his job. Small talk progressed to discovering that we both had past lives fighting human trafficking.
And then in response to my question, “Do you have any faith background?” my neighbor on the bench shared about a lifelong yearning to be a part of a faith community. “I would go, even if I didn’t believe any of it. But I can’t get past the hypocrisy and have never found a community to call home.” Our most recent conversation was about maintaining one’s humanity when serving in incredibly demanding situations. God, you are clearly up to something here. How can I join you?
“AS I’VE LEFT MARGINS IN TIME AND ENERGY, ESPECIALLY FOR THOSE OUTSIDE MY USUAL, COMFORTABLE CIRCLES, GOD SEEMS PLEASED TO SURPRISE ME WITH OPPORTUNITIES TO BLOW PAST THE STANDARD POLITE NOD AND WAVE LEVEL OF NEIGHBORING…”
This notion of “walking slowly” brings to mind God’s instruction to his people in Leviticus not to glean to the very edges of their fields, but to leave margins for the poor and the foreigner. As I’ve left margins in time and energy, especially for those outside my usual, comfortable circles, God seems pleased to surprise me with opportunities to blow past the standard polite nod and wave level of neighboring, towards the eternity he has put in people’s hearts.
My colleague Al Santino might take it a step further and say, “walk slowly and pray for eyes to see your neighborhood as God sees it.” As friends and I have prayed while walking the beaten and not-so-beaten-paths in my neighborhood, God has seen fit to give us glimpses into the richness of people and history we’re usually blind and deaf to. He is already at work in our kids’ school and the makeshift homeless shelters. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear what God is already doing around us—and the desire to join him in it.
LET OTHERS IN OUR NEEDS
The human needs of Jesus in the pages of the gospels is no less staggering to me today than when I first became a Christian. There he is conking out from exhaustion in a boat. Asking for a drink of water from a social outcast at high noon. And, as “many of his disciples turned back and left him,” asking the Twelve, “Do you want to leave me too?”
Since the pandemic hit, I have been struck by the unexpected spillover of grace that came from letting a neighbor in on my desperate need for childcare help in lockdown. This neighbor of ours lives alone. Work in their field dried up when Broadway went dark. Their friendship with and time invested in caring for my kids while I went from Zoom to Zoom was straight mercy from heaven. This friend also has a painful history of numbing deep loneliness with alcohol. As I later realized, taking care of my girls gave our neighbor rhythm and purpose to otherwise never-ending, monotonous days that could easily reopen cycles of addiction.
In the boat, at the well, and as many turned their back on him, Jesus’ human needs created windows for people to know him more fully and experience an entirely new kind of life under his Lordship. Christians are exhorted to live generously and hospitably. Here’s to a mutuality in that posture; to a genuine holding out our own needs with open hands to receive in ways that allow people to know us, and the Jesus we follow, more fully.
My experience with my neighbor in 2020 lightened the load for my family, for sure. But grace spilled out beyond us as others took note of this seemingly odd arrangement. It served as a reminder that strength for our journeys can come through unlikely combinations of people and circumstances. And those unlikely friendships that might perplex the world are a beautiful sign of life in the kingdom to come.
We do not know what fall and winter in the city hold. My prayer is that we will stay in conversation with one another about how to persevere in neighboring. That we would find ways to walk slowly, let others meet us in our needs, and see that God is already at work all around us—and join him.