Lynda MacGibbon reflects on practical ways to love our neighbours in the current moment.
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Like you, there was a time when I didn’t think twice about opening my door to friends and neighbours. My friend Rachel, who lived down the hall in the same condominium building, would walk nonchalantly into my apartment.
She didn’t wash her hands when she entered, and I didn’t ask her who else she’d seen recently or where she’d been. There was no Covid app on my smart phone to ping a possible exposure warning. Being afraid to welcome her into my home never entered my mind.
So much has changed. Once vaccinated we’re advised to still wear masks, keep washing our hands and think twice before offering a hug. In this changed world there are defensible reasons not to get too close to people, and especially not to strangers.
And yet the ancient commandment still stands – Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.
I want to figure it out, this riddle of how to love my neighbour when it seems dangerous and risky. I want to understand what love means in the context of the woman who lives two doors down from me, and who has become friend as well as neighbour. What does love mean when I’m standing in front of the concierge in my condo building, who I see infrequently, but know well enough to call by name?
My answer to the question will make a difference when I pass strangers on my daily walks, when I pay the cashier in a grocery store, and when I encounter a woman without a home pressed up against a storefront.
Neighbours, as Jesus so succinctly taught in the story of the Good Samaritan, are the people we encounter at any given moment of our day. People who, simply because they are human, deserve to be seen and loved. What does this love look like?
Over the years, as I’ve wrestled with the question of what keeps me from inviting people into my life, I’ve come up with all sorts of answers – laziness, selfishness, complacency. But in this particular season of life, fear is the one that tops the list.
It’s understandable. We’ve lived for more than a year with a daily message from health and government officials to stay away from each other, to distrust and suspect the worse, all so we can keep ourselves, and each other, safe.
Following the rules have kept most of us safe from physical illness and the threat of this particular kind of death. Still, we all know by now that keeping our distance from each other has not kept us safe from loneliness, depression or anxiety. It has added to it.
Loving our neighbours is one of the antidotes to healing a year of isolation. But how, on this fearful earth, do we do that?
Here are a few things I’ve been doing this past year to shake off the grip of fear. I will continue them and add a few more to my toolbox as our society slowly opens once again.
Pass the peace
On my walks I’ve begun a quiet posture of passing the peace to people I meet along the way. I started it one Sunday morning when I was particularly missing my church family where, weekly, we spend a few minutes early in the service walking around the sanctuary, greeting each other with handshakes, hugs, smiles and lots of joy.
Sometimes, in church, it’s evident a friend needs more time with their friends, even if they don’t say anything. That’s also true of the strangers I pass on my walks. Mostly I simply say hello and receive a greeting in return. From time to time that greeting turns into a five-minute conversation as the stranger and I stand on the street, talking about the weather, the birds we’ve seen or their child in the stroller.
Sometimes though I pass people with grief evident on their faces, and I silently say, "Peace to you," as I pass, trusting the Spirit of God to come and touch that stranger in ways I never could.
Pay attention to the nudges
When the Spirit, or my own memory, brings people to mind, I do my best to act. I say hello via text message, make a phone call or mail a card. If the person lives in my city, I suggest a socially distanced walk. Sometimes, especially when I’m struggling with my own pandemic weariness, it takes me days to respond to the nudge. Sometimes I forget altogether. God is gracious with me and patient. The nudge will come back.
Take a small risk
Loving my neighbours has always been risky to me. In the days before the pandemic, my fears were not about whether strangers would bring a dreaded disease into my home. It was about whether they’d stay too long, require too much of me or behave in ways outside my social norms. And while all of those things have happened, the gifts and blessings I have received far outweigh the discomforts and inconveniences.
This learning has helped me take measured risks during the pandemic, like inviting a single friend to share meals at my house, even though she had a job that required her to be out among the public more than me. We practised safe protocols as much as possible, but we did not completely isolate from each other. It might have been safe, but it would not have been good. That mattered too.
Support others supporting others
Throughout the past year, as a way of marking their birthdays, some friends have requested donations for organizations serving vulnerable populations. For many of us money is an arm’s length way of following Jesus’ Great Commandment, but it is no less important. The Good Samaritan loved his neighbour with both presence and money.
Follow the commandment
Ten years ago I asked myself what life would look like if I took seriously the command to love my neighbour. I embarked on an intentional journey of hospitality in my high-rise in downtown Toronto. Along with a friend we hosted dinner parties for neighbours who were strangers, social nights and writing clubs. We took risks. We felt silly sometimes and strong at others. I learned there was so much goodness to be gained – for my neighbour, yes, but also for me. This ancient commandment that has stood the test of wars, plagues and time is still worth following today.
Easing the door back open
This pandemic will not end on a particular date. Rather there will be a slow easing back into society, gradual increases in appropriate gatherings, cautious decisions about who to hug, when to join a choir or host a potluck dinner.
Praying and thinking about what new steps we can take to love neighbours will serve us all as we adjust to more freedom. Who does God bring to mind when you think about reaching out to a neighbour? The single colleague who has spent most of the past year alone? The new family who moved to your street in 2020? The senior you used to sit next to at church, but haven’t seen in a year?
We’d be wise not to fill all our time with family and close friends, even though having missed each other so much, that would be understandable. But if we do that, we won’t have much time or energy to respond to those Spirit nudges, the ones that move us to engage with, to love, whoever happens to come into our sight lines at any given moment – our neighbours.
PRACTICAL WAYS to love our neighbours
Be intentional. Pay attention to the stranger you pass on the street, meet in the elevator, sit next to in church. Do they seem willing to engage in more conversation than a simple hello? Be ready to ask the next question.
Invite friends and family to do this with you. It’s easier to invite people into your home for a meal if you have a partner to share the work of hospitality.
Receive from your neighbours. As Christians we want to serve others, but sometimes the best way to serve is to allow others to serve us.
Let your guard down and enjoy the conversation, even if you don’t seem to have much in common with a person. The more you listen and ask questions, the more enjoyable the encounter will become.
Pray. Ask God to calm fears and equip you with courage and curiosity. Pray you will begin to see the person God has placed in your path because he or she could use a little neighbourly love right now.
Listen to our podcast with Lynda MacGibbon at www.FaithToday.ca/Podcasts.
Lynda MacGibbon, a Maritimer who lives in Toronto (LyndaMacGibbon.com), is author of My Vertical Neighborhood: How Strangers Became a Community (IVP, 2021). She also serves as vice-president of people and culture at InterVarsity Canada.