Seven years ago I was the mother of a baby and a toddler. We live in a neighborhood where the average home costs twice the median home price for the Richmond area. At the time, our neighborhood was sandwiched between two wealthy and majority-white elementary school zones in the city; in fact, they were, and remain today, the only majority-white schools in a district of 44 schools.
My zoned school was 21% white, representative of the Richmond Public Schools population as a whole. At a neighborhood association meeting before I had kids, a mother of school-aged kids warned me that “no one” from our neighborhood sent their children there. Without ever visiting the school or talking to the parents of current students, I deemed this school to be not good enough for my children.
There was a movement to rezone my neighborhood into one of the majority-white schools on either side, and I enthusiastically weighed in to give my support, both signing a petition and writing my school board representative at the time. “Ultimately . . .we'd be happy with being redistricted for either school,” I wrote. “We believe both are great schools, and that’s of course the most important thing.”
The three schools in question were between 0.9 and 1.5 miles from my house (my zoned school being 1.1 miles away). Yet, somehow, I felt that my “neighbors” lived only to the east and to the west. The people to my south did not fit the bill. I even complained to my school board rep that I was being “robbed” of a neighborhood school . . . but we had a neighborhood school; I was just unwilling to call those families my neighbors. And it worked; we were rezoned for an affluent, majority-white school while a thriving, majority-black school was closed and those students sent to a school seven times farther away than their previous school.
A lawyer once asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Jesus had him repeat the greatest commandments: to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29, NRSV).
Wanting to justify himself . . . Ah, here it is. We construct rationales when we don’t want to sacrifice our convenience or comfort to do what is right. If those people don’t count as my neighbors, then I don’t have to love them as myself, right? If the city doesn’t cater to people like me, then we’ll just move out and leave them without our tax dollars, right? We can almost couch protecting our privilege and excluding others in noble terms . . . almost.
Jesus cut right to the heart of that bid to dehumanize others and justify our selfishness with the parable of the Good Samaritan. A priest and a Levite walk right past a dying man so as not to sully themselves, while a Samaritan pours oil and wine on his wounds and bandages them. He places the man on his animal, so he himself must walk, and takes him to an inn where he spends the night tending to him. The next day he pays the innkeeper and leaves him with the promise of more money if the man’s stay requires it. He freely gives a dying stranger the time, money, and sweat equity that are required to bring him back to health. He sees the stranger’s humanity and treats him as a neighbor.
And who is my neighbor?
Seven years ago, I said that my neighbors were only people like me, white and wealthy. As a person of privilege, I had the luxury to live in a bubble where people of color weren’t redlined out of wealthy neighborhoods or trapped in racially and socio-economically isolated schools. I waltzed along like the priest and the Levite, confident that I was a good person as I hoarded all the resources for my children and washed my hands of the other children left without.
The research is clear. Integrated schools produce people who are more empathetic and less anxious, who indeed love their neighbors as themselves with no qualifiers on who is deemed a neighbor. They do not reduce test scores for children who enter life with all the advantages, but they make enormous differences in the test scores and life outcomes of children who attend integrated schools rather than isolated ones.
If I could go back in time, I would say the following to myself:
The world doesn’t revolve around you. Other people’s children, who need resources more than yours, are being short-changed by your choices.
Your kids will be just fine no matter which school they go to. Your actions are teaching your children that some of God’s children are better than others. Jesus didn’t say, “Love your neighbor as yourself, unless it’s too hard or it costs too much.”
You’d be lucky to be neighbors with those people to your south, if they’d still have you.
I can’t go back in time. But I am lucky to be loved by a gracious God, even when Jesus’ parables fly right over my entitled head sometimes. I am lucky to be loved by Good Samaritans who don’t walk past me when I am covered in shameful selfishness, but who treat me as their neighbor in good and full standing. I can’t change the past, but I can join all my neighbors and work towards a more equitable school system today.
Will you join me? Let’s be neighbors.
Shannon Lindbloom's recent efforts around this issue have received news coverage from various local outfits. We appreciate her time and thoughtfulness in sharing her story here. Our series by incoming Elders will pick back up this weekend.