Updated: June 5, 2013 6:06AM
At a recent gathering of newly ordained pastors serving in their first ministerial posts, I heard all kinds of “stories from the trenches.” Many of these tales give me hope for certain staples of civilization that seem endangered in today’s world. One story in particular, shared by an inner-city pastor who looked pretty much like one of my undergraduate students, has me rethinking everything from the meaning of “community” to the difference between heaven and hell.
On the weekend prior to our gathering, the young cleric’s congregation and members of several nearby churches had completed a major service project. The bulk of their work consisted of boarding up 200 houses in the surrounding neighborhoods. Anticipating, correctly I must confess, that some of her listeners wouldn’t understand the value of this effort, the pastor explained that boarded up houses, as compared to abandoned homes with windows broken out and doorways standing open, show that someone cares about the area. As a consequence, crime rates drop and vandalism decreases.
The most fascinating part of the story had to do with the presence of local police who offered to direct traffic around the streets clogged with volunteers and trucks delivering supplies. This made some workers nervous and suspicious, since more than a few volunteers had criminal records of one kind or another, and others carried less than pleasant memories of contact with police. By the close of the weekend, however, the sense of working at a common endeavor had people who usually avoided one another looking each other in the eye with gratitude and appreciation.
Community happened. People proved neighbors to each other in much the same way that the Good Samaritan of parable fame did when he came upon a half-dead mugging victim lying in the ditch along a deserted stretch of highway. In both scenarios, neighborliness occurred and community came into being as people worked to clean up after forms of human failure.
As in the wake of last month’s Boston bombings, inhumane and dehumanizing acts of violence became the occasion for the best and most authentically human qualities within us to emerge. Instinctively, people poured out care, mostly upon perfect strangers.
As I ponder the whereabouts of the families who once lived in all those boarded up houses, I imagine most of them have fled to neighborhoods they consider safer. Strangely enough, that means they’ve gone to places with less need for neighborliness. Indeed, some have likely ended up in gated communities, the safest places they could find. In such “communities,” residents depend on each other for little more than sharing the cost of walls to surround them and round the clock guards to protect the entry point. In such places, the best neighbors are those one never notices, much less knows.
For some folks, this is heaven — literally. “Paradise,” a common term for the place of the preferable afterlife in several of the world’s religions, derives from an ancient Persian word that means “walled enclosure.” When Jewish scribes first translated their scriptures into Greek, they rendered the Hebrew phrase for the Garden of Eden as Paradise, and thus it became a place whose most important feature was separation from all those we don’t want to see or know.
Somehow, walls that isolate us and therefore imprison us seem like signs of hell, not heaven. Ultimately, perhaps even heaven can’t have neighborliness unless there’s trouble to overcome, or at least a few of us have rap sheets of some kind and get to learn, over and over, how to look judges and inquisitors in the eye and exchange grateful smiles.