Like many of you, when I heard the weather forecasts before Hurricane Sandy hit, I was worried. While the monster storm neared landfall, I repeatedly telephoned my younger brother in Virginia Beach and checked in via Facebook on a host of friends and former students spanning the eastern seaboard.
As I thought about those family and friends, I also began thinking about the poor, the elderly, and those with no family close by. Who would help them? What of those who couldn't afford to stock up on water and food? Before the storm, I mentioned this to dear family friends who live on Long Island. Upon hearing my concerns, Danielle recounted the details of a news report about an elderly couple who needed a generator. The gentleman had diabetes and desperately needed a way to keep his insulin refrigerated should there be a power outage. He and his wife went to several stores only to find all the generators were gone. Store owners explained that some customers purchased more generators, batteries, and flashlights than they needed. The threat of scarcity scared this couple's neighbors into hoarding, leaving them without. Some neighbors weren't being good neighbors.
Of course, not all neighbors are scared into self-interest and greed. New York Times reporter Michael Winerip, a 30-year resident of Long Beach, recently strolled about his neighborhood in the aftermath of Sandy to assess the damage. It was really bad—worse than he imagined. But amid the destruction and despondency, he found beauty in the neighborliness of his neighbors. In "The Night the Dune Failed," he tells story after story of neighbors selflessly helping one another. There was Bill Long who, despite having lost his own home, attempted to contain a fire that started in a car and soon spread to an adjacent house. There was Louis Boyle, who noticed his neighbor John Duffy was having a difficult time transporting two cases of water on his bike. As Boyle drove by in his pickup, he offered Duffy a ride home.
Winerip's report reminds me of a time when my husband and I were bad neighbors. After having lived in our apartment complex in Rochester, New York, for a few months, we still didn't know the names of our people in the apartments beside us, below us, or across the hallway. Not only did we not know their names, we may not have recognized them if we saw them on the street. Granted, our schedules were probably very different; Shawn and I were graduate students and also youth leaders. We were in and out during odd hours. Thus, we didn't often see our neighbors in the common areas of the building. Still, I wondered, What if the frail elderly woman downstairs ever needs help? What about our neighbors next door who look our age and frequently seem to have a band playing in their living room and the occasional smell of marijuana hanging about them? What of their lives? What if we need help? It occurred to me that there might be deep joy or deep pain and a need for help or companionship a few feet away, on the other side of the thin walls separating us.
Shawn and I had repeatedly talked to our youth group about what it meant to love our neighbors. And here we knew nothing about our own neighbors—those in closest physical proximity to us. What did it matter that they didn't make an effort to get to know us? Shawn and I had been blind to our own hypocrisy. Consequently, we repented and in the following years made efforts to know our neighbors. At times our efforts were reciprocated, other times they weren't. However, at least we knew their names and were privy to aspects of their lives and vice versa.
The other night, a dear friend of ours, Carl, asked me about my current writing projects. I told him I was preparing this piece for Her.meneutics. Upon hearing the gist of the post, Carl related a story told to him by a friend. Jim realized that most of his neighbors in his suburban neighborhood were Christians. However, they never interacted during the week. On the weekends, they got into their cars and drove off to separate churches. Convicted, Jim sought to change his behavior.
How strange for us to go through the rhythms of living and dying side by side and yet be ignorant of each other's existence.
In order for us to love our neighbors in nearest proximity, we need to take the initial step of meeting them, way before a natural disaster necessitates it. Because family members aren't always close by, we may be the only ones who know of their welfare. And it's not just during emergencies and power outages that we are to consider the welfare of those next door. We can enrich each other's lives—love each other in sickness and in health—by making an effort to truly know each other instead of ducking into our homes so as not to be bothered with potentially messy, time-consuming relationships. For as C. S. Lewis observed in The Weight of Glory, "Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest thing presented to your senses." May we bear the aroma of Christ in our neighborhood streets and apartment buildings, long before disaster strikes.