I’ve been asking myself lately what it means to be a good neighbor.
I was raised in a Christian home, went to a Christian church and a Christian school, then eventually enrolled in a Christian university. I learned very well how to love and edify my Christian community. What I didn’t understand was how I was supposed to interact with those who didn’t share my theology and belief system; those who dressed, looked, and spoke differently.
What did it look like for me to love that person and edify and build them up?
I was fortunate to find that Jesus, the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), had much to say on the topic. When a lawyer asked Jesus how to get to heaven, Jesus responded to love God with everything and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Seeing some gray area in his response, the lawyer asked Jesus to define some terms. “Who is my neighbor?” the cunning lawyer asked. Jesus responded with a story about a man left for dead, who was passed along the road several times before he was saved by...a Samaritan?
Many Jews looked down on Samaritans (John 4:9). They were thought to be in a “perpetual state of uncleanness” (ESV Study Bible). I imagine the shock and horror on the crowd’s face as Jesus asked, “Who do you think the good neighbor was?”
The lawyer could barely muster the words. “The one who showed mercy,” he muttered. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus replied. In other words…go and emulate that guy.
What we might miss from our sermons today is that Jesus’ story was not only profound, but also provocative. Not only does he tell us through his parable that “the other” is our neighbor; he also makes the Samaritan outsider the hero of the story.
Let that sink in. What Jesus is telling me is that his work in the world is not just confined to Christians in my tribe and churches in my denomination. He is sovereign over human history, and he is present in the stories of other faith communities, and their narratives are full of hope and a future. I am reminded of Paul’s words to the Athens who fashioned statues to an unknown God: “[God] himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else...God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:25, 27).
Many conservative Christians consider faith groups through one lens: what they lack. This doesn’t serve our efforts to be good neighbors, however. We also must remember that people of other faiths are image bearers of the same God, and because God hasn’t left himself without witness in the world (Rom. 1:20), they are equipped and capable of showing loving-kindness. And here’s the profound and provocative challenge today — because Jesus is present in their stories, it’s about time the church got to know these stories and learned how to be a part of them.
Thirty-four percent of white evangelicals — the demographic of my small Ohio church — have never met a Muslim. Muslims make up twenty-four percent of the world.
These aren’t great statistics. How can we say we love our neighbor if we’ve never met them? How can we say we love our neighbor if we don’t know anything about them?
This is why I approached the leaders of my church about visiting a mosque. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but they responded positively. Sure, they’re a bit nervous, and one or two may not be totally on board. But Jesus is moving, and he is calling us to love our neighbors a little better in this world. All it took was that first step.
High school and college students my age may feel under-qualified or ill-equipped to connect their local church with a mosque. However, consider that being young may be your greatest asset. As a college student, I was able to cast a vision for the future that not many would have considered feasible. You may have the vision, energy, and passion to bring members of your church into a community no one would have thought possible.
You also don’t have to do it alone. There are countless high school and college students doing this work, and organizations in place such as Neighborly Faith, which aims to bring Evangelical Christian and Muslim individuals into greater dialogue and friendship. This group and others work specifically with young people, giving them the resources and network to make real change in their churches and campuses. The call to bring reconciliation and restorative relationship to our communities was laid out by Jesus over two thousand years ago, but he calls us just as strongly today to bridge the gap and create a better future for the majority and the marginalized.
My advice? Go and do likewise!
Carissa Zaffiro is a senior at Taylor University where she studies cross-cultural ministries and Anthropology, specifically in the MENA region. She is passionate about navigating the intersection of religion and culture with diverse communities and building bridges of inclusivity and understanding between individuals.