We should ask ourselves: Who is my neighbor?

Living and Growing

Posted: Wednesday, November 10, 2004

As a child growing up on a farm in Northwest Iowa, I knew who my neighbors were. Even when my parents took me to visit family in Norway, I knew who my neighbors were. In two very different parts of the world we were a homogeneous bunch! As my life has unfolded my definition of neighbor has changed more than I could ever have envisioned. Life experiences have prodded me toward an ever growing appreciation of diversity.

We live in a community and world of rich racial, cultural, language and socioeconomic diversity. Our differences can create barriers. Our stigmas and stereotypes prevent us from finding "common ground." Our challenge is to open ourselves to grow in our appreciation and understanding of who our neighbor is.

When my wife, Laura, and I were about to adopt our first child in 1971, we visited my family on an island near Stavanger, Norway. We shared our excitement of adopting a child, who would be of another race, with my grandpa Levar. In response, grandpa replied, "All children are created in God's image. I hope I live to see a picture." Two months later our son joined our family. We immediately sent a picture to Grandpa, who died a month later. Grandpa's wonderful definition of neighbor has been a lifelong gift to our diverse family.

In my children and grandchildren I see the blessing of rich diversity. All races and a variety of cultures are represented. Our family portrait is more diverse than I could have imagined!

Stereotypes, stigma and attitudes have caused pain in my family. Our painful experiences have crossed all races and cultures. For example, when our oldest son (who is African American, Caucasian, and Native American) was dating, he occasionally experienced racism because his skin was the wrong color whether dating a Native American, African American or Caucasian girl. We have experienced racism in educational, legal and social service systems, and society in general. For example, our children have been treated differently in school classrooms. Once our son came home and said, "I think my teacher is prejudice, because he treats me different than the white kids." Our son was an honor student appreciated by his other teachers. At a conference we identified ourselves as being his parents. The teacher looked at us, and said, as he twirled his finger in his hair, "You mean the kid with the curly hair?" Thereafter, he was treated with respect and given the grades he deserved, because we were white. Unfortunately, when other parents of color approached the same teacher, with the same problem, nothing changed.

Will our children's and grandchildren's diversity negatively impact their lives or will their God-given diversities provide opportunity for people to unlearn stereotypes? As a father, grandfather, and as a part of the majority culture, I want their lives to be on even ground with me.

God's love for the human community invites us, not simply to tolerate, but to accept and appreciate the diversity of God's human family. Scripture reminds us to. "... love our neighbor as ourselves". In fact in Romans 13:10 it says, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."

Jesus lived his life outside the boundaries of acceptability. He reached out to those rejected by society. Jesus was constantly lifting up the outcasts and challenging those who lived with a narrow definition of neighbor.

Our world reflects the glorious diversity of God's multi-cultural, multi-racial creativity. Our challenge is to grow in our understanding of neighbor and embrace the uniqueness that is "us." Let us be examples of inclusiveness in a world where exclusion hurts us and our neighbor.

• The Rev. Larry Rorem is pastor at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church.

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