How can I love a neighbor I don’t know?

Every Friday, I have the opportunity to spend the lunch hour at Travis Middle School with a diverse group of 6th and 7th graders. We get together and just talk about anything and everything. We call it “Get Real, ” and it’s made up of a group of kids that school counselors and principals felt need some time in a positive, safe environment.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the kids to share one story or even that’s shaped them. It got emotional really quickly. Some things shared:

“My dad was in jail most of my life until a couple of years ago.”

“My mom was on drugs when I was born. I’ve never met her. I have ADHD and some other learning problems because of it.”

“I was bullied all of second grade. It’s why I don’t talk much to anybody at school.”

“My dad never let me show any emotions growing up. He treated me bad. CPS took me out of his house a few years ago.”

“My mom drinks too much.”

“My dad has a terrible temper and gets in fights a lot. That’s why I get angry easily.”

Others shared some things I can’t really even get into or wrap my mind around right now. These are just kids – 11 to 13 year old kids – who have seen things and experienced things in their short lives that many of never will in our full lifetimes. And it’s shaped them already. It’s formed who they are and how they respond and what they feel and how they relate to others.

These are kids who, if you didn’t know their story, upon meeting them for first time, you’d think:

“That kid’s a thug.”

“She doesn’t know how to behave.”

“He’s obnoxious.”

“I bet he ends up in jail one day.”

Yep. That’s the judgement you’d make – if you didn’t know their story.

That’s my problem with the internet and social media these days. We don’t know anyone’s story. We watch the news or see pictures and we rush to judgement. We label and pronounce guilt and judge and post hate toward a person or group that we don’t even know. Or care about taking the time to know. I see and hear people who don’t know the challenges single mom living in poverty faces, the struggles an immigrant endures trying to learn a new culture and a new language, what it’s like to grow up with a dad in prison or to be a young black man who faces racism daily.

We look at the world through the prism of our own experiences and make snap judgements about others without bothering to even try to understand them. And that’s wrong. When Jesus said I should love my neighbor as myself, it wasn’t a suggestion. And if I’m going to do that, I’ve discovered that it’s impossible to love a neighbor I don’t know.

I’ve been asked several times the last few weeks about how we bridge the the gaps between cultures in in our communities. So many gaps exist, whether they’re between races, cultures, classes, sexual orientations, political parties, theologies, or religions. I have no solid answers. But I know where it starts. It starts with listening. It starts with hearing others’ stories. Beneath all the noise – the yelling and protesting and criticizing – are stories. Stories that have shaped each of us.

And when we hear those stories, I hope we begin to gain some empathy and understanding. Does that mean we’ll end up agreeing with each other? No. Probably not. But maybe it will turn down the noise, and put an end to the anger and and the hurt. And make it easier to love our neighbors.

Then we’ll begin to experience all little bit of what the angels declared when Jesus entered this broken world of ours. Peace on Earth.


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