Loving My Neighbor

0 comments Posted on June 1, 2021

by Lynda MacGibbon

I averted my eyes. I knew I was doing it, so I tried averting my thoughts by walking more quickly to my car, brushing them away as if they were a light dusting of snow. It didn’t work. My thoughts were not so transitory as snow. Thoughts rarely are.

The sight of the homeless man has stayed with me. Wearing only a tattered jacket, he was visibly shivering in the chill of an unseasonably cold spring evening as he stood outside the pharmacy where I’d gone to do a kindness for someone else. He was thin, such a wraith of a man that I wondered if he was subsisting on drugs, if that is why he’d chosen to occupy this particular square of concrete. Maybe he was thinking of robbery. I was afraid and so I hurried on my way, stepping into the shoes of the rabbi, of the priest, which at that moment felt more useful to me than those worn by the Good Samaritan.

It wasn’t until I’d arrived home, and was walking down the hallway toward my warm, safe apartment, that another thought occurred to me. I had a sleeping bag in the trunk of my car. I ought to have offered it to the man. It would have been so easy, had I not let fear direct my steps.

I’ve thought a lot about that man in the weeks since I passed him by. I’ve asked God’s forgiveness for averting my eyes, for in that action I know I disobeyed the Great Commandment. Instead of loving my neighbor, I wilfully ignored him. I’ve asked God to keep working on me, to keep challenging me, to keep helping me choose courage instead of fear.

I’m conscious of the power of fear and how quickly it wraps itself around my heart, restricting my capacity both to give and to receive love. I’ve asked God to help me be the answer to my own prayers, so that I might have the courage to see and to act, not to turn away.

I know God will answer this prayer, not only because it is in alignment with His Great Commandment, but because exactly one week prior to my encounter with the homeless man, God had helped me to choose differently, to live through love, not fear.

On that day, I was heading to a downtown hospital so I could receive my vaccination against the coronavirus. As I gathered all the things I would need—health card, driver’s licence, appointment verification—I tucked two $5 bills into my wallet. I haven’t carried cash much during this pandemic because it’s safer to tap my Visa as a means of payment. Like most people, I’ve been avoiding human touch as much as possible. But on this morning, I knew I would likely encounter homeless people on the street outside the hospital. I wanted to be prepared for that.

On the morning of my vaccination appointment, I set out with an intention not to avert my eyes, but to be on the lookout for someone who might need a little help. I wanted to be ready to respond.

There were two homeless men on the sidewalk that day, one sitting, a sleeping bag wrapped around his shoulders, the other stretched out, not even his head visible from beneath his blanket. It was, again, a cold, rainy day. Not the sort of weather to be sleeping rough.

Before taking my place in the line outside the hospital, I walked toward the man sitting against the window. I said good morning and he looked up, surprised, then smiled, and returned the greeting. I handed him the $5 bill and he thanked me.

Later, as I exited the hospital, the man was standing up, his sleeping bag still wrapped around his shoulders. He walked toward me, smiling, and said another thank you. I opened my hand to him, the second $5 bill passing between us. “Maybe your friend could use this,” I said, even as I wondered if he would give it up or keep it for himself. But the man quickly stepped away from me, leaned down toward his bundled-up companion and tucked the money under the sleeping bag, close to his friend’s head. “Here, this is for you,” he said, with a kindness in his voice that overwhelms me even now.

“Thank you,” I said to the man whose name I do not know but whose warm brown eyes I still see as I continue to think about him.

“Have a good day,” he offered. And we looked at each other, neither of us averting our eyes. In that moment, he was my neighbor, and I was his.

Two encounters: one driven by fear, the other by love. They are not fleeting. They are lessons. Many years ago, I asked God to teach me what it means to love my neighbor. Apparently, He’s not done teaching me, for I still have much to learn.

Lynda MacGibbon is vice president of People and Culture for InterVarsity Canada. Before working for InterVarsity, she was a journalist for over twenty years. She is the author of My Vertical Neighborhood.

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