Being a Neighbor


by Steve Lemke

Editor’s note: The following blog post was written before the tragic shooting of police officers in Baton Rouge July 17, however, its message still rings true. Faced with a new round of grief, confusion, frustration and anger, thoughts of “being a neighbor” gather increased significance. It is with prayerful hope that the editorial team at Geaux Therefore publishes this post.

It has been a difficult few weeks with racially charged conflict in Baton Rouge after police shot Alton Sterling. Since the shooting there have been many demonstrations protesting the shooting, leading to the arrest of over 100 protesters, including a Black Lives Matter leader. Baton Rouge police officers have been criticized for wearing body armor as they shepherded the demonstrations, even as BRPD officers uncovered a plot to shoot members of their department. The community gathered at a memorial service for Sterling last week, yet the tensions remain strong.

Carol and I were helping Austin move to a new apartment in Baton Rouge on the evening on July 12. His new apartment is located about 15 blocks south of where Alton Sterling was shot and the fulcrum of the recent demonstrations. We unloaded his car with things moved from his old apartment, but in that process his car battery was drained. When he tried to start the car, it wouldn’t start. We tried to jump start the battery from Carol’s car, but we were unsuccessful. It was after 10 p.m. in a darkened apartment parking lot.

A black man approached us. We didn’t know him, and he didn’t know us. He was about the same size and somewhat similar in appearance to Alton Sterling. He offered to help us. Since we had been unsuccessful with our efforts, we took him up on his offer. He pulled his vehicle over and we tried to start it with our battery cables, but it still wouldn’t start. So he pulled out his own cables and hooked them up, and this time it did start Austin’s car. I offered to pay him for his gracious help, but he courteously refused. We thanked him – a stranger who helped people of another race whom he didn’t know — and we left to get another load from Austin’s old apartment.

Jesus told a story similar to that experience. There was a man on a journey who came upon a man of a different ethnicity who needed help – an ethnicity different from his, between which there had been significant ongoing conflict. He helped the man at some personal risk and cost. Other people of the hurt man’s own ethnicity had ignored his need, but this man helped him. Jesus asked which of these persons was a neighbor to the man in need. Someone rightly answered that it was the man who showed compassion on his neighbor, a man whom he didn’t even know (Luke 10:25-37).

If we are to get beyond this current crisis in our country– if we are to survive and thrive as a nation – we are going to have to learn to be better neighbors, particularly to those who may be different in some ways from us. We must show compassion and help those in need, even to those we may not know. Being better neighbors is the only path forward toward a brighter future for our nation. We will either languish without each other or go forward together. I believe God would have us to join hands and be the neighbors we should be.

Dr. Steve Lemke currently serves as Provost and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.