Won't you be my neighbor?
February 5, 2020
A Philadelphia attorney told me about his early years as a Public Defender. Thirty years ago, this young African American lawyer would travel a circuit with a judge moving from a courtroom in town, to a courtroom in North Philly, and then to a courtroom in the Northeast. At each courtroom the complexion of the defendants would change and so would the charges against them, for the same offenses.
At the courtroom in town, the African Americans would receive harsher penalties than the white transgressors for the same crime.
In North Philadelphia, all the defendants were African American and nobody got off with a warning or a lesser penalty.
In the Northeast, the caseload was entirely reversed. The defendants were mostly white and most were referred to alternative remedies.
Why? Because many white police officers live in the Northeast and they see the people they police there, “as their neighbors.” As such, the police drive the children of their neighbors home to parents for discipline in the home or downplay the offense to a lesser charge.
Here we have both the problem and the beginning of the solution.
After Jesus taught that the greatest commandment included “love your neighbor as yourself,” he was challenged by the Pharisees with the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan which challenges all of us to see the neighbor we are to love as the foreigner, the alien, and the rejected.
As followers of Jesus everyone is the neighbor we are called to love, but first we must make an effort to be a neighbor. This means learning to be neighborly outside of our most comfortable environs and crossing over lines of historic grievance, division, harm, and sorrow to join our destiny to the destiny of those we would just as soon pass by, dismiss, judge, or write-off.
When we really are accepted as neighbors across lines of difference, we are changed. The concerns of that neighbor become our concerns. This is why we stress relationships and partnership in community engagement at St. Martin's. We cannot fund and volunteer and otherwise support an organization in Germantown or Kensington without learning from the relationship, without taking on and considering the perspective of our partners who are closer to the issues. When we do it right, our destinies, our future good, are joined together so that we will never accept success and comfort for ourselves unless it is shared equitably with all we see as neighbors.
The Rev. Jarrett Kerbel