Being neighborly wasn't just Fred Rogers' idea. The Welcome Wagon organization didn't come up with it first either. It is a human value as old as civilization is. In fact, it is part of what makes civilization civilized! But being neighborly isn't hardwired into us. It is acquired through education and practice.
Years ago, I heard a church member telling the story of how she came to be part of the church. She had grown up in a very different faith tradition. She wasn't involved in any church at that time in her life. And then a tornado ripped through her community. The first people on the ground and at people's doors to offer help were members of this particular church. She was stirred by their unselfish and compassionate service to others. She was convinced it was a testimony to their faith. She wanted to be part of it.
Kindness and generosity aren't stopped by differences. Compassion and mercy aren't kept at bay by distinctions. Everyone suffers at times. Disaster doesn't target particular people or a certain race. We all need a helping hand, a listening ear, a sturdy shoulder from time to time. But it is tempting to place restrictions on our kindness, helping only those who "qualify" in our minds. Of course, we can't help everyone in the world, so we do need to discern whom to help and how. Yet it's not a matter of the way we view others. It's how we understand ourselves.
One of the more familiar stories of Jesus is the parable of the Good Samaritan. We even use that designation generally to describe a neighborly, helpful person. But Jesus' point seems to be something of a boomerang. Just when his questioner hoped to be given permission to sift people into the categories of My Neighbor and Not My Neighbor, Jesus turns the question around and basically asks, "Will you be a neighbor?" The lesson smarts a bit, doesn't it? But it's the perfect question to shift us from evaluating others to examining ourselves. Jesus is pretty good at doing that, isn't he?
In 1969 the words of the hymn "Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love" were written by Tom Colvin. Set to the tune of a Ghanaian folk melody, the verses teach some valuable truths about the value of being neighborly. The chorus includes the petition for Jesus to "show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you." The final verse sums up the lesson: "Loving puts us on our knees, willing to wash others' feet; this is the way we should live like you."
In light of the steady reports of violence in our country and around the world, the need for people with neighborly attitudes and actions is great. Will you be a neighbor?