And Who is My Neighbor?

Guest Post by Preston Kendall, President of Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep

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“And who is my neighbor?”  That question posed to Jesus in Luke’s gospel is also the opening line from a famous sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan and Dr. King uses his sermon to elaborate on three types of people in our world: (1) Those like the robbers who mugged and beat the man on the road to Jericho because their view of the world is, “What is yours, is mine!” (2) Those individuals like the priest and Levite who passed by the wounded man with a worldview of, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.”  And (3) Those persons like the Good Samaritan who stopped, got help, and paid for the man’s recuperation whose mentality is, “What is mine is yours.”

Coincidentally, our school address is 501 S. Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue.  It looks like a quiet residential street; the homes and lawns remnants of a once vibrant working-class neighborhood some 30 years ago but now an area struggling with chronic unemployment, decimated property values, hunger and crime.  Just before 11:00am on Thursday before last, while in our regular weekly meeting in my office, our Business Manager and I were interrupted by four pistol shots in rapid succession coming from the street right outside.

Working in urban areas, I’ve come to know gunfire when I hear it.  I shouted for one of our development team to call 911 and peeked out the window.  One man was running down the street and we heard a car speed off in the opposite direction.  Our school went on lock-down yet again – maybe 10 times in the last three years.

Police took statements, collected shell casings and were gone in less than an hour.  They determined it was just another drug deal gone bad.  Thankfully, no one was hurt.  Neighbors went back inside, we lifted the lock-down, and classes resumed.  In less than 90 minutes from the first gunshot, everything except the still heightened adrenaline in our collective bloodstreams was back to “normal.”

Nothing was mentioned in the paper the next day or on the local news – just like the last umpteen times this kind of thing has happened.   What do you expect in a place where half the people never finish high school let alone college?  I wish I could say shots are a very unusual occurrence in our neighborhood, but they are not – it’s just another day on the road to Jericho.

A couple days after this, something much more important and something much more indicative of our true reality at CRSM occurred.  I think I may have glimpsed the future of Waukegan and, perhaps, a roadmap for our world.  We celebrate Martin Luther King Day at CRSM with a special prayer service.  Between our faculty and staff and students, the CRSM community represents at least 8 major faith traditions including Catholic, Evangelical, Mennonite, Jewish, Hindu…  Our Admissions Director, Pierre Edmonds is pastor of Eternal Flame AME Church in North Chicago.  He runs our service.  This year his good friend, Pastor Francis from the Shiloh Baptist Church around the corner gave the sermon.  A Muslim family who attends the same mosque as one of our former teachers joined us.  We gathered in our “cafegymnachapellibratorium” as true neighbors to sing and pray together for a better world.

Pastor Francis’s words were interspersed with “amens” from the congregation.  “Don’t let anybody make you feel like a nobody.” “Amen!”  “You have Somebody-ness.  God created somebody special when he created you.” “Amen!”   “The time is always right to do what is right!”  “Amen!”  Slow and stilted at first, encouraged and occasionally chastised by him, we were all chiming in by the end of his sermon like good Baptists!

His message to our students was to study hard and earn a good education because you have a responsibility to yourselves, to your predecessors who fought hard for the right, and to our collective future to develop your God-given gifts and work for justice.  “Don’t let the amazing gifts in you not be fulfilled.”

We gathered that day in a diverse richness of faith to remember MLK – a pillar of faith whose life and assassination and memory call us to a higher ground, a greater potential, to a place and a consciousness where we are all better because we bring out what is best in one another.

All of us in that room shared something both wonderful and inescapable.  As human beings sharing the same Creator, we felt for a brief moment the joy and potential of being one family.  We professed our shared beliefs.  We believe in equality for all, we believe in justice for all, we believe in freedom for all, and we believe in Love.

The differences in our races, our cultures, our beliefs, and life experiences should never be the basis for driving us apart or justifying mistreatment or violence or murder.  Our differences are gifts that enrich us, that have the power to make us better when we are together rather than apart.  For a moment, we shared that dream.

In a short biography about the theologian Karl Rahner, author Ronald Modras summarizes his thought this way, “For Rahner it is a fundamental principal for Christian teaching that the love of God and the love of neighbor are but two names for the same reality; one does not exist without the other… the experience of God, our neighbor, and ourselves constitutes a single reality.”

In the Our Father, Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come.”  I think maybe the Kingdom is already here. We just need moments of grace to see it and to help others see it, too.  The Kingdom is always present, it comes to us in the way we treat each other.

Dealing drugs and gunplay are obvious but what other ways do we, on a daily basis, perpetuate an attitude of “yours is mine?” Or how often do events present themselves before our very eyes that invite us to do more but we are perfectly content to watch from the sidelines or go back inside to return to “normal?”  I have my problems and you have yours.  Conversely, why is it so rare in our world and our own lives to be persons for others – sensitized, empathetic and generous in spirit and willing to self-sacrifice? Every day in big ways and little, we are all on the road to Jericho, choosing which type of persons to be.  The consequences of our choices reach far beyond ourselves.

As our prayer service ended, one of the musicians began to play a saxophone solo; students filed back to their classes shaking hands with Pastor Francis and Pastor Edmonds.  I recognized the tune being played, “Oh, Happy Day!” It certainly was that day and in the eyes of our students I saw how infinitely more happy days there can be when we choose to be true neighbors.

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