Who is My Neighbor?

Editor’s Note: Growing up white in 20th century Richmond, Ginter Park Presbyterian Church’s involvement with race relations continues to evolve. Two weeks ago, the Session unanimously voted in favor of our church joining RISC (Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities), a group of diverse congregations seeking to “address the root causes of injustice” in our greater community. The interest in RISC was sparked months earlier by informal conversations among a bi-racial group of our members, who also mounted a community supper and discussion around Michelle Alexander’s study of mass incarceration,  “The New Jim Crow”.  As GPPC seeks the Spirit’s guidance in addressing institutional racism, our blog welcomes Joe Adams’ story of talking, walking, and transforming on a personal level.


Almost every Sunday my pastor inquires “Who among us is in a position to judge”.    I love to hear her say that and I’d love to honestly say that I don’t judge, but I do.  I can’t help it.  Can I?  I hope I’m not the only one.  I hear the message and I try to convince myself that I’m not one of those people and I certainly don’t judge people that I’ve never even met before.  Do I?

Wrong!  Discovering that you’re a hypocrite, or at least have the tendencies, is humbling.  Actually, it’s embarrassing.


I live in the suburbs.  My neighborhood is predominately white and if my street has a “nosey neighbor”, then my next door neighbor is thatneighbor.  She’s white.  She is also very nice and caring, but just seems to know a lot about the goings on at everyone else’s home.  At least, she thinks she does.


One day, while talking to my next door neighbor, I got caught up in a conversation about our neighbors across the street.  My across the street neighbors are black and the man that we see coming and going has long, braided hair.  A black man with non-traditional hair?!  He must be bad, right?  Anyway, my next door neighbor refers to the house across the street as “the house with all of those kids”.  There are usually three of them.  I know, I know.  What a crime against humanity to have your kids play outside in a world of video games and the internet.  That house also seems to always have a light on upstairs.  No matter what time of night I look outside, that light is on.  What goes on there?  My nosey, er, excuse me, inquisitive neighbor also noted that their car comes and goes at odd hours.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t look for a logical, positive explanation.  I just got caught up in thinking that the black family across the street must be up to something.  (That was hard for me to type, and you’ll find out why.)


A few weeks ago I arrived home with my three year old son and 20 month old daughter in tow and I asked if they’d like to walk up the driveway with me to check the mail.  As we got to the top of the driveway, my three year old noticed that our across the street neighbors were outside playing.  The mom and all three kids!  Gasp!  All of those kids?!  My three year old is trying, but pure.  My son saw a kid with a ball then thought and said “That kid has a ball.  I want to play with that kid.”  No more, no less.  Perhaps most important, there was no judgment.  We walked across the street and played for over an hour with my new favorite neighbors!


Why?  What changed?  What did I learn?  What did I learn?!  A lot.


The couple across the street has three kids.  They’re all great!  Their youngest child is a young man that plays very well with my boy.  The middle child is a kind, nurturing young lady that caters to my shy little girl to make sure she feels comfortable.  Their first-born suffers from autism.  He is the reason that I will say that his mother has the most amazing patience that I have ever seen.  She is always positive and gentle.


Wait!  There are still questions!  What about the car arriving at strange times?  Dad works the night shift and commutes an hour each way because of the great benefits the job provides for his family.  O.K., what about the light being on all night?  Their special needs child won’t sleep with the lights off.  Does that cover all of the questions that my neighbor and I had?  Does that handle all of our concerns?  Yes.  I think so.


Did I learn to not judge people?  No.  I still do that.  Did I learn to not judge people from the front window of my home without first going out to meet them and talk to them and get to know them?  Yes!  Yes I did.  Can I tell you that I learned more from my three year old than I learned from my middle-aged neighbor?  Yes I did!  Am I teaching my son, or is he teaching me?  I don’t know.  Both?  I do know that one day I hope that my judgment is as free and pure as that of a young child.  “That kid has a ball.  I want to play with that kid.”  That person is my neighbor.  I want to know my neighbor.


Joe Adams lives south of the James with his wife Megan and their two children. He has served on our Session and currently enjoys the Wednesday afternoon gatherings of young children and their families for singing and potluck dining.