By Nura Zaki - Member Engagement and Advocacy Intern
The Sunday of Independence Day weekend, I woke up bright and early to attend a worship service at a new church in my neighborhood. On previous weekends, you could find me at what I would consider to be a “popular church”- a well-attended, multi-satellite, free-donuts-before-church kind of congregation located in a theater. You can picture it, can’t you? I’d chosen this welcoming community for the past weeks because I enjoyed the company of a friend who went there. The only inconvenience about this arrangement was that the church was located quite far from where we were living to the point where we had to take a train and walk a significant distance to get there. I had been wanting to support a local congregation for some time, so when my friend went out of town for the weekend I decided to do so then. I spotted a local United Methodist Church one night while roaming the area and decided that this would be my place.
Upon arrival, I quickly noticed that this too was a unique place. For one, it was located atop a gas station. But what was most lasting was how eager the church was to extend hospitality to its guests. Walking up to the entrance that Google maps led me to believe existed (sigh), I was guided all along the street leading right up to the door of the church by clear signs that anticipated my history of getting lost. Once I entered, I was greeted by a nice woman who read me like a book. She asked, “You must be new! Are you visiting for the summer? Perhaps for an internship?” Coming from a church-work background, I was just as eager to be on the receiving end of such warmth in her welcome.
After getting situated in the sanctuary where there were predictably less people in-attendance due to the holiday weekend, I felt good about this decision. There was a different kind of comfort from that which I experienced at the familiar, contemporary-styled church. This comfort was more of a feeling that I was where I needed to be at that moment, despite the newness of it all.
The service began and a man stepped to the podium. He announced himself as the guest preacher for this weekend while the home-pastor was away on vacation. The title of the sermon flashed on the projector screen. It read, “Who is My Neighbor?”. I was curious how this message would be similar or different from previous ones’ I’ve heard in my PK (pastor's kid) lifespan.
Boy, was I not disappointed. After setting the context of the Biblical narrative as told by Jesus in Luke 10, he changed the direction of the familiar question. He asked, "Who is not your neighbor?" Go ahead, read it again. I had to let that sink in too. Is that a trick question? Who is not my neighbor?
He went on to say that the depth of the question as posed to Jesus is often lost on us as we resort to a generic response like ‘everyone.’ The answer is often so encompassing that its effect is empty. By saying everyone, we actually mean no one because the intent in who we are specifically responsible for showing care and concern towards is lost. It is hard to admit, but we do forget about people and sometimes those are the ones who need to be remembered most.
This 4th of July weekend, I could not help but think about the contrast in my own backyard. The whole weekend I had planned to leave the comfort of my apartment only to move to another comfortable place like a nice restaurant, museum, or festival. Sure, the weather was less than ideal, but I just had to make sure I would see the fireworks from the National Mall. I could and have easily navigated these journeys countless times before but after this sermon (And because of the rain. So much rain) I could not help but pay special attention to the people I saw along the way. There were people who were on the street in various forms – some sleeping, some asking for extra change, and some sitting seemingly content. These were uncomfortable positions to be in. Not just for the individuals who I’m sure would prefer to be elsewhere, but also, to a much lesser extent of course, for me as I fumbled to respond to each of them in the few moments we shared exchanging eye contact in passing.
Why is it so easy for me to justify not showing these individuals as much care, compassion, and concern as anyone else I would consider my neighbor? Is there really so much at stake in doing so? My safety, my time constraints, my own sense of limitations, etc. After hearing this preacher’s sermon and being challenged by my own actions, none of these reasons seemed good enough anymore. They exposed the bottom-line of my thinking and at least in those moments, it was not trusting in God to work through me. Based on the way I was acting, they were not, by definition, my neighbors. I had chosen to exclude them.
As I celebrated the 4th of July that next day, I really thought about what it meant for me to have the privilege of living in freedom and with independence (FYI, it was raining all-day this 4th, which may have played a role in this extra-deep mood I was in). I determined this much- it is not enough that we are grateful for our privileged positions, even if we genuinely celebrate that gratitude.
To be a good recipient of the gifts we have been given we must use them thoughtfully and responsibly to advance their reach beyond ourselves.
Through this unexpected message, delivered by an unsuspecting messenger, in an unfamiliar place, I was compelled to think differently about my position in that moment. This is exactly what I have been asking for during this season. Not about what grand plan I have ahead of me in the future, or about what I should pursue in preparation, but about what God wants of me now.
It’s been twice now this week that I’ve been reminded not to discount what happens “on the way” towards my destination, because that roadmap that Google maps so often gets wrong is sometimes just the detour that is needed to get my attention. For the rest of my experience in DC (and hopefully beyond) I will be sure to pay attention not just to what I am making sure I see, but also to what I could be missing.