“For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
– Galatians 5:14
People and communities thrive when they are experiencing a sense of love, well-being, creative expression, safety and unity. A neighborhood mural in East Harlem describes what the human heart longs for: “unity is the condition of being united with a single whole”. This longing is a reflection of the image and nature of God which He has endowed upon all humankind. This condition is referred to in Scripture as peace or shalom. In this verse, the apostle Paul emphasizes the horizontal dimension of the Great Commandment. This one line fully encapsulates the intention of God’s will for humanity. Before we can endeavor to bring shalom to our communities, we must check our motivation, ensuring that it is fueled by God’s love for our neighbor which He has poured out into our hearts.
What is a good neighbor?
A neighbor is someone who is proximate or “in our space”. We see acts like that of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. To love our neighbor, we must know them and be engaging in a relationship with them. This type of relationship extends beyond neighbors and can reach the larger ecosystem of a community, involving associations, organizations and institutions in proximity. Either through faith-based or secular organizations, God extends His common grace upon communities. If the police and fire departments are functioning well and with justice, there will be a measure of peace, protection and safety upon all members of the community. Growing in love as a neighbor is a commitment to discover and understand the needs, assets and hopes of our community and contribute to its well-being in a manner that honors God’s Kingdom.
We must find the community flow where the Lord is already at work.
God’s people can make a vital contribution to the shalom of their community as they display and bring about its spiritual and social renewal. However we must come to understand that we are not the only game in town. As God’s people we must enter into knowledge of and relationship with our community and discern where the Lord is already at work as we discover its needs, assets and hopes. A well intended church may be burdened to develop an after school program to meet the needs of youth in the margins. As it gets to know its community it soon discovers that there are people and associations already at work addressing the issue with whom they can learn from and partner with. We must find the community flow where the Lord is at work. Sometimes we go swimming in the wrong river. As a church and community leader, I challenge you to know who is already doing the work, and listen, learn, connect and collaborate with them
Practically, how do I do this?
Enter the conversation happening in your community through dialogue and hospitality with neighbors and participation in community events and forums. This can lead to volunteer opportunities and partnerships with community organizations where there is an alignment of church member’s gifts and passions with those of the community. This will take time as people need to see that we really care and are not just present to fulfill a church agenda disconnected from the needs and culture of our community.
At Uptown Community Church in Washington Heights, our members are seeking to become part of the flow of their neighborhood. A group of us joined with our neighbors in a now six-year endeavor to clean, beautify, and advocate for environmental justice around a lot that was a public dumping ground for over 20 years. All manner of folks have become part of the flow from neighbors, church members, local businesses, construction workers from an adjacent site, and our state senator and his staff. We are all standing literally on common ground seeking to do life together. In the midst of this flow, the fragrance of the Gospel is becoming evident. Through the common celebration of the toils and joys of this project genuine relationships and conversations are growing.
Let’s keep seeking the Lord for the discernment and obedience to “love our neighbors as ourselves” as we seek to bring shalom to our communities.