I’m a bit of a hermit, and I have to admit I’m fine with that. Making the effort it takes to create strong community ties with my neighbors doesn’t come naturally to me. I like working alone, don’t normally befriend my workmates, and don’t much like the coffee cocktail hours after church. Party anyone? Nah. A real winner, eh?
But a recent event in the news has made me think I’m actually in the majority of those who don’t really know their neighbors and don’t want to make the effort to. In Cleveland Ohio, three girls were kidnapped and held captive in the house of their kidnapper for a decade without anyone knowing. Family, friends and neighbors had occasionally visited the house while he was harboring his victims. They were all stunned when they learned the news of his heinous, detestable crime. They saw no clues, or simply ignored the clues. The man seemed “normal.” We ask, how is this possible?
What really caught my attention about this story was the fact that several years before his arrest the kidnapper had written a letter which was essentially a confession and a desperate cry for rescue from his own tortured self. Instead of sharing the letter with someone, he kept it hidden in the house along with his victims. He had not only enslaved these women; he had enslaved himself behind a mask of normalcy rather than be known. So, beyond the unspeakable suffering of these three women is the added tragedy that no one knew the real heart of this man, and thus the demise of himself and his victims unfolded.
The girls were rescued when a neighbor, a black man, heard a cry for help and kicked a hole in the door, a small portal to the secrets within, big enough for the captives to be set free. When interviewed, he said, “I knew something was wrong when a little white girl ran into a black man’s arms.” What a statement. If this is a shock to our society, yes, something definitely is wrong. This man’s words are haunting. They confront us with so many questions, among them the question once posed to Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus’ answer, of course, is the parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable is often used to show that beyond caring for our own, we must care for those we least identify with, those we least like. Very true. The black man, who stepped out of the confines of race and rescued this girl while others chose not to intervene, is the classic example of the good Samaritan.
But Jesus’ story is about more than crossing racial barriers. Take a closer at what the Samaritan actually did. He did not simply offer the wounded traveler perfunctory sympathies or write him a check. He stayed with him, bandaged his wounds, watched him through the night, paid all his expenses, and promised to check up on him. He took the man’s plight on his own shoulders. He “loved his neighbor as he loved himself,” which are Jesus’ words at the start of the story.
So, these two stories – the good Samaritan and the rescue of the kidnapped girls in Cleveland – pose yet another angle on the question, “Who is my neighbor?” That is, “Who are you anyway? Do I really know you?” Nobody wanted to know the wounded traveler. Nobody really knew the kidnapper or the evil he hid in his heart. Are we really willing to get close enough to hear the pain in our neighbor's voice, feel his wounds and absorb them as our own?
We too easily glide along in life, thinking we’ve “made contact” with a passing hello at work, a smile and a how-are-you-doing at church, a catchy update on our Facebook page, or a pithy blog post. But can we see these moments of contact as divine invitations, as potential portals opening to the soul of another and ourselves? Do we have the courage to disclose to each other our greatest pleasures and disappointments, our deepest joys as well as fears, our most commendable aspirations as well as our most vile thoughts. Yes, it could get messy, and it’s risky. But imagine being fully known and being accepted with open arms.
I wonder what the outcome for those three women in Cleveland would be had the kidnapper’s family member, friend or neighbor taken the time to be a real neighbor to him. How would those girls’ lives be different? How would that man’s life be different? And I wonder for the rest of us what would happen if we really did pass through these portals and explore the question, “Who is my neighbor?” If we really did take the time to find out, what evil might we be averting unawares? What redemption might we be cultivating before evil can take a foothold? Captives are waiting to be set free within us and around us, perhaps right next door.