Vulnerable Neighbors

“Do we know the family that lives next door to the church?”

“Who are these new people in the community?”

“How do we reach the young adults over at the college?”

When folks in a congregation ask such questions, it’s often because they’re trying to get to know who their neighbors are. The trouble is that folks don’t always agree on the answers. Their differing responses can lead to misunderstandings, deep frustration, and even hostility. After all, how are we supposed to be in ministry together if we can’t agree on target audiences for evangelism, charity, justice, and education?

Part of the problem is the verb “to know.” English only has one verb for what is more than one action. Spanish, on the other hand, has two verbs for “to know”: saber and conocer. The former has to do with facts (“I know that Carl has red hair”); the latter has to do with familiarity (“I’ve known Carl since kindergarten”). Both ways of knowing are important, but they aren’t the same thing. So what exactly do we mean when we say we want “to know” who our neighbors are?

How do we help our churches go and do likewise? (“The Parable of the Good Samaritan” by Jan Wijnants)

A lawyer wanted to know (saber? conocer?) who his neighbor was, so he asked Jesus. In response, Jesus told The Parable of the Good Samaritan. At the end of this story, in which two clergy-types from Jerusalem pass by a half-dead man but a Samaritan stops and helps him, Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three travelers was a neighbor to the Jerusalemite. The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

How do we help our churches go and do likewise? David Lose highlights two challenges. First, Lose points out that Jesus defines our neighbors as those who have been left half-dead, not necessarily those who share our demographic makeup. A neighbor is therefore not found through their sameness to us, but through their vulnerability. Embodying this idea can be hard, but most churches I encounter have at least a basic understanding of this concept.

Second, though, is an idea that may be quite new for a lot of churches. Jesus defines the Samaritan as the neighbor in this parable, meaning that we (the readers) are to identify with the man who has been left half-dead. For Lose, this prompts a hard question: “Who has been our neighbor by caring for us of late?” He continues: “We spend so much of our time, energy, and money trying to be invulnerable, trying precisely to need as little as possible from those around us … yet … according to Jesus, being neighbor involves not only giving help but also being willing to receive it, even and especially to and from those we don’t normally see as ‘like us.'” According to Lose, we’re not only called to love folks in their vulnerability but also to receive love from folks we perceive as “other” by sharing our vulnerability.

Vulnerability is tough to witness and to embody (as Brene Brown discovered). Because it’s so tough, even the healthiest of churches will inadvertently try to avoid being around vulnerable neighbors or being vulnerable with “others.” According to Jesus, though, we have to embrace vulnerability if we’re going to know our neighbors.

“To know.” There’s that verb again. Church leaders need to know (saber) some basic demographic information about their neighborhood in order to establish the context for their ministry. Remember: Jesus used demographic knowledge (address, ethnicity, profession, etc.) to tell The Parable of the Good Samaritan. To get help with such research, click here. Demographics alone, however, offer an incomplete portrait of our neighbors. To fill in the picture, we as followers of Jesus also need to know (conocer) our neighbors, and this means encountering vulnerability on our own “Road to Jericho.” To do so, I encourage you to ask your church members a few questions:

1) Who have you encountered recently who was vulnerable and in need of a neighbor?
2) Who has been a neighbor to you recently when you were vulnerable?
3) Repeat both questions, substituting “our congregation” for “you.”

Consider using these questions with a random sample of folks in your congregation (to identify the number you need, click here). If folks are hesitant, you can discuss the benefits of such conversations, from literacy programs to a deeper sense of community. Once you’ve gotten solid feedback, pair the answers with your demographic information. In doing so, I believe you’ll get a more complete picture of your neighbors. With that knowledge, you’ll be better able to love your neighbors (and be loved by your neighbors!) through healthy mutual vulnerability.

Rev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, a congregation in the Central Atlantic Conference. 

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