Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Who is My Neighbor?

I recently read that each of us meets more diversity in one day than a pilgrim in 17th Century Europe would have met in a lifetime of travels. As I compare the neighborhoods that I grew up in with the one in which I currently live, this statement seems to hold true.

There was not a single person of color in the town in which I grew up. Diversity meant that the one family of Oberholtzers was Methodist while the other was Mennonite. They both came from the overarching Pennsylvania Dutch culture of Pennsylvania, so we ate the same foods, spoke with the same accent and mostly shared the same cultural values.

The neighborhood in which I currently live is quite different. Of course, I myself added to the diversity by marrying a Swiss woman. To my immediate south, my neighbors are a man from one of the republics of the former Soviet Union and his wife is from El Salvador. To my immediate east, the family is from a different republic of the former Soviet Union. To my immediate west is a Mexican family. Within two blocks of us there is a family from Colombia, an African American family and a family from Korea.

My neighborhood was built after World War II with everyone being like my childhood neighborhood. As these people died or moved into retirement communities, newer ethnicities began to move in. One of the original residents of the neighborhood, an elderly woman whom we befriended, bemoaned the arrival of each new family—they would cause a drop in property values! Interestingly enough, we found out from another neighbor that when she first heard that we were arriving, Mennonites for Pete’s sake, she had the same commentary about us.

This diversity has mostly happened in the past 20 years and has caused a great deal of fear in many of the long-term residents in my neighborhood. Part of that fear is the fear of the unknown; the stranger. It is true that “Birds of a feather flock together.” We prefer to be with people who think like us, who look like us, and who act (mostly) like us. When I survey the cafeteria at our university, it doesn’t take long to see this phenomenon at work.

Nevertheless, the biblical injunction is to include the stranger, and even love them. There are many verses to substantiate this claim. “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:34. See also Lev. 24:22, Num. 15:15, Deut. 10:19).

The problem is that we have mostly forgotten our alien status in the world. We think we belong to our neighborhood and others do not. If we recognize the fact that we all are pilgrims and strangers in the world, we would be more apt to welcome the “stranger” in our midst.

How do we work at this? Esther made a loaf of Swiss bread to give our newly arrived neighbors from Russia and El Salvador. We buy all our tires from the tire business owned by our Mexican neighbors. We share tea and ethnic delicacies with our other Russian neighbors. We could do a lot more, but we believe, as members of the majority culture,  “as you have done it to the least of these . . .”

Apropos to this discussion is an article I wrote for The Mennonite several years ago titled: “For I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

For I was a stranger . . .

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