Who is my neighbour?

 
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Imagine the scene. A woman is holding her children’s hands while trying to carry groceries home after a hard day at work—a difficult task in itself. She lives nearby the hospital where she works, but doesn’t have a driver’s licence so she must commute several blocks on foot. She is waiting on the corner and a car comes to a stop where she is standing. The window rolls down. Insults and remarks spew from the two men in the car. “Terrorists! Towel-heads!” The car drives off, but those harsh and ignorant words remain. I’m imagining these scenes as I sit on the couch, listening to my friend Zahira* recount the incident and pour out her pain.

Zahira and her husband Sabir* moved to Australia from Egypt a few years ago to continue their education and to find a more stable life for their children. Like many migrants, they received little to no support, and struggled to fit into this different world. I had met them because my church was just two blocks away. I personally wanted to know the neighbours who surrounded my church, rather than just focusing on the needs of those in the pews. When I met Sabir and Zahira initially, they were sceptical and cautious, but in no time I’d discovered that they were welcoming and accommodating.

With such kindness, it becomes easy to visit often. Every time I stop over I’m greeted with an excited hello and welcomed into the house. I’m offered drinks and food and treated with great respect and love. We have discussions about culture and lifestyle—they being from a Muslim background, myself a Christian. It was a whole new world opening up for me, as I had never had the chance to learn about Islam directly from believers. We often find ourselves talking about politics and religion—tense and taboo topics—and yet we remain good friends. On one occasion I was even asked what I think of the prophet Mohammed, the central figure of Islam, which took me by surprise. Yet despite our marked cultural and religious differences, I am not treated as different.

So listening to Zahira as the tears roll down her cheeks is hard for me. These are more than strangers to me—they are my friends. The way I’ve been treated by them, you would be excused for thinking we are family. Who knows Zahira better, the two men calling her a terrorist from their car window, or me, her friend? They know nothing about her or her life. I know Zahira personally and have heard what she faces on a daily basis.

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I have discovered that when we give people a chance, regardless of our religious or ethnic differences or whatever else divides us, our hearts are enlarged and we are changed. But we can’t benefit from these encounters unless we listen. Maybe the difference between people who spew hatred and those who give love is that those who love have listened, while those who hate never have.

All the stereotypes and things I had come to believe about Muslims were shattered just by spending time with my two friends. Instead of foolish assumptions I chose kindness and respect. (Not to mention I was shattering stereotypes of hatred for Zahira and Sabir just by being a Christian friend who cared for them rather than being a stranger hurling insults.) It only takes one person to bring pain to someone’s world, but it also takes just one person to bring healing. So never doubt the power of kindness—it can change the world . . . or at least the world of one person, and that’s enough for me.

As Zahira tells her story, I’m struck by the lasting impact this single act of hatred has had on this family. First, Zahira says, she wondered how to explain this incident to her two sons who are both under the age of 10. How do you explain hatred to children? Why would you ever want to explain such a disgusting thing? Then she tells me she feels scared to take that walk to work every morning. If these men are willing to hurl threats and insults, she fears one day someone will do something worse to her or her children. Is it really that much of a leap for words to become actions?

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I think the walls constructed by hatred can only be dismantled by love. Of Jesus it is said that “He broke down the wall of hostility that separated us” (Ephesians 2:14). How did He do it? Jesus in His life was dedicated to associating with the “untouchables”. This usually led to Him bearing the brunt of the hatred hurled at these social outcasts. In other words, He sacrificed Himself for the good and benefit of others who considered themselves unworthy. Jesus taught that to love a person’s neighbour is as important a religious act as loving God (Luke 10:27) and He removed all restrictions on who we have an obligation to as our neighbour (Luke 10:30–37). Who is my neighbour? No-one is off limits.

To use the lyrics of the old Crowded House song, “Don’t Dream it’s Over”, we need the clarity to realise that “they come to build a wall between us”, but to say with courage and hope, “They won’t win.” We need the courage to take personal responsibility for our actions and not let others build a wall between us. We need the imagination to see a world in which love for our neighbour truly exists and the walls others have worked to build are left as rubble.

 

*Names changed to preserve anonymity.

Jacob Ugljesa is associate pastor for Glenvale Seventh-­day Adventist church in Toowoomba (Qld), and chaplain for Darling Downs Christian School. A budding blogger, he has a passion for social justice issues.