Last spring, I was exiting the D train at 170th Street on my way to the Taft Educational Campus (why do so many interesting things happen to me on the way to and from schools in the Bronx?) when I saw a young man, probably sixteen or so, in an intense conversation—potentially an altercation—with a young woman around the same age. I’m a small person, probably too friendly and approachable-looking for my own good, and for this reason I’ve invested in good noise-cancelling headphones and cultivated the blank expression beloved by the realest of New Yorkers who spend a lot of time on public transit, and I definitely don’t get involved in incidents like the one I’m recounting here.
And yet. I didn’t like the look of this one bit. I still consider myself a teacher, and this raised my teacher’s hackles to the hilt. Something about this incident this particular morning made me stop. I went over to the pair and asked, “Honey, are you okay?”, directing my question to the girl.
“She’s my girlfriend,” the boy said. “It’s none of your business.”
“I’m asking her,” I said. “Honey, are you okay?” I asked again.
She nodded, not quite meeting my eyes.
“See, she’s fine,” he said.
I told her where the school was in case she needed help. She might have been a student there, might not have been. And then, with a long look back at them, I left, because I didn’t know what else I could do.
Donna preached about neighbors this morning, and neighborliness, reflecting on two big ideas: The Wall™, and the legacy of Rev. Fred Rogers, better known to many of us as Mister Rogers. She told a story about him I hadn’t known before, about how he shared a wading pool with his African-American “neighbor,” Officer Clemmons. They even shared a towel to dry their feet, this in an age in which many swimming pools and other public facilities were still de facto segregated (which, not incidentally, contributed and continues to contribute to high rates of drowning among black children). In these ways and so many others, Fred Rogers stood up for not mere polite neighborliness, but Biblical neighborliness, teaching compassion in small, personal moments that even children could understand.
Children. Just like the children I saw at the train station that morning. What did I teach them, in my hapless interference in what might have been normal teenage drama but might have been budding intimate partner violence? Did I teach them that adults expect better of young men these days, that they care how young women are made to feel? Or did I just teach them that they shouldn’t fight in public?
What are we teaching children as we contemplate building The Wall™? For we are building it, make no mistake, no matter how strenuously we object. The world will not forgive us simply because we don’t like it. We are teaching them that communities of faith don’t matter, that vulnerable species keeping our ecosystems in balance don’t matter, that homes and families don’t matter. The exact opposite, one might say, of neighborliness.
I feel failures of neighborliness keenly even though I commit them every day. We didn’t read from Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning, but I’m aware, like Paul, that the very thing I would not do is the very thing I do, and vice versa. I’ve never found a good way to address the neighbors who ask me for money every day on the subway. I profoundly resent my neighbors who listen to music or watch TV shows in public without headphones. Some days I eat yogurt on public transit. I need help to be a good neighbor as much as our President does.
There are more failures of neighborliness. Protestors planned to surround two churches in West Virginia, the crimes of these churches not quite clear. A community of nuns was dissolved after it was discovered that sisters had been abused by priests.
But we surrounded each other in prayer for these and other sorrows, a thumb on the scale in favor of neighborliness. Michael’s mother died after a long illness. We haven’t forgotten our friend Jean, still trying to rebuild his life in Haiti, a task now made harder with the civil unrest there.
I’ll be thinking about how to be a good neighbor his week. If I eat yogurt on the train, or give the side-eye to someone playing music too loud, or freeze when I know I should do something to help someone, pray for me.