Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
As my friend Betty Ann unpacked her young family in my Deep South hometown, it didn’t take long for the neighbors to arrive with a strangulating dose of hospitality. Their silver hairdos teased to perfection, and smelling of powder and lilac, they arrived on Betty Ann’s front porch with peach cobbler and smiling faces.
Of course, they came with their questions: “Who’s your folks?” and “Where do you go to church?” were the first two, followed by the usual Bible Belt inquisition that has all the trappings of geniality, but is plain nosiness masquerading as friendship. Betty Ann faced their inquiry with grace, but her answers to their questions all but knocked the wheels right off the welcome wagon.
First, she and her family were not from here, “here” being the confines of the local county. Anyone outside those hallowed boundaries was a foreigner. And for Betty Ann’s part, dear Lord, it only got worse. She wasn’t even from the South – she was a Yankee! This was a challenge exceeded only by the fact that she didn’t have a “normal” last name (as the ladies welcoming her pointed out). She was Polish.
As the trio of neighbors headed for the door after that first visit, they were in deep contemplation about this new woman in town. One turned, just before crossing the threshold, and asked a final question: “Ma’am, are you…Catholic?” Betty Ann smiled and answered, “Yes, I am.” As they scuttled out the door, one of the ladies could be heard whispering to the others, “Strike three…strike three.”
Betty Ann was undaunted. In all her New England, Polish, Catholic glory she sank her roots into the Southern soul. She went to work for the local Chamber of Commerce and became the director of tourism of the town; a town whose premier annual event is a Civil War reenactment. In time, she made that town her home, and upon her retirement – many decades later – she remained there, living on that same street where she was once perceived as such an anomalous stranger.
Betty Ann’s story is one I love to tell, as folksy as it may be, because it tells us two basic things about community. First, for community to “work,” it takes work. Someone has to “stay at it,” refusing to be shut out because of gender, religion, ethnicity, or culture.
Of course, I’m speaking of broad, diverse, healthy neighborliness – not insular, sectarian, “only-people-like-me” enclosures. And that is the second lesson in Betty Ann’s story: Some “communities” aren’t communal at all. They are segregated societies that fortify narrow-mindedness, bigotry, and intolerance.
The basic ethic of Christianity is simple: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” You can begin doing this by getting to know your diverse neighbors. You will learn that it becomes increasingly difficult to hold to false stereotypes in the face of an actual human being. And you might discover the most wonderful friendship – a real community – in those so different from yourself.
Photo by Benny Jackson