Who is Our Neighbor?

how do we teach children who is our neighbor

I was hurrying, for no reason, really, except that that’s what grown-ups do. My four-year-old and I were taking another pandemic-necessitated walk around the block, passing houses, gardens, and cars we’d already seen dozens of times. Maybe hundreds.

Judging by my son’s exclamations and endless stops to examine things, though, it may as well have been entirely new. Every leaf was a portal to mystery, every barking dog a magical creature. Children have, it cannot be denied, a mystical capacity for observation that adults can access only falteringly.

I did my best to be patient with him, rushing as I was to get back home to do…nothing in particular. The thing that we often call dawdling in children is actually something more akin to holy observation. They are so endlessly generous with their attention.

When my son’s little voice piped up, it seemed like an ordinary question. “Why are there so many houses, Mommy?”

“Oh,” I answered, distractedly. “Because we live in a city, and we have lots of neighbors.”

I’d moved on to something else in my mind, probably a work deadline or an email I needed to send, when I heard his voice again. He’d stopped and was pointing at a house. “Is that our neighbor?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

And then again, in front of the next house, “Is that our neighbor?”

“Yes.”

Again. “Is that our neighbor?”

“Yes.”

My eyes filled with tears as I thought of the resurrected Christ’s tender question to Peter by the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He asks three times. By the third time, John’s gospel tells us, Peter feels hurt. Doesn’t Jesus know that Peter loves him? Of course he does. 

Sometimes a question is asked not for the benefit of the person who asks it. Sometimes it is asked so that the person who answers can be rebuilt by hearing their own response—their own voice, their own words, affirming what is true. And so it was for me.

There’s no theology I hold to more tightly than this one: the imago Dei, the belief that every human being bears the image of God. The conviction that we can see the face of the crucified Christ in everyone who suffers. The certainty that the holiest thing many of us will encounter on any given day is…each other.

And yet, you wouldn’t necessarily know that from observing my daily life. 

I’m an introvert’s introvert. I shy away from speaking to strangers. I’m just as likely to avert my eyes as I am to reach out my hand. Yes, I’m just as annoyed as everyone else is by that person taking forever at the post office counter. Most mercilessly of all, though my heart bleeds, I not infrequently find myself driving past unhoused people asking for help, as I rush off to school pickup or a pediatrician’s appointment. 

More often than I would like, I am the person who, overwhelmed by her inability to do everything, does nothing. I am always aware of my many failings on this front, of my inability to live up to my theology.

But my son asked a question that called me home. He asked it three times. Gently, but persistently. And it was my own voice that lit the candle in the window. 

Is that person my neighbor? Yes. Yes, and only yes.

A few years ago, my mother-in-law gave my son a children’s book called The Invisible String by Patrice Karst. It’s a very sweet story about a mother reassuring her children that an invisible string of love connects them, even when they are apart. On the last page, a crowd of people holds hands under a beautiful aurora borealis, as the children come to understand that, thanks to the invisible strings, no one is ever alone.

But I saw something else as I turned that last page. It’s not just that everyone is loved by someone—it’s that we are all connected by invisible strings to every other person on earth, bound up as we are in the mystery and joy and sorrow of being human, by the sacredness of the image of God that we all bear. 

My son’s question made those billions of strings visible.

And it reminded me of another question, this one in Luke’s gospel. A lawyer, trying to test Jesus and to justify himself according to the greatest commandment, correctly asserts that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Then he asks, rather cheekily, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answers the question, as he often did, with a story, the parable of the good Samaritan. My son answered the question by extending his little finger toward every house he saw. Neighbor. Neighbor. Neighbor.

For weeks after that walk, my son gleefully recalled its affirmation of our shared humanity. We would pull up to a stop sign, and he’d see someone crossing the street and shout exuberantly, “Mommy! A neighbor!” A couple would pass us by on yet another walk, and he’d exclaim, “Mommy! TWO neighbors!”

In his sweet voice, I heard the rejoicing that marks the heart of God, calling out to each one of us, “My child! My child!” Calling out to each of us to see each other as such—precious, beloved, sacred—every single one of us, strangers no more. 

Neighbors.


Cameron Bellm is a Seattle-based writer and contemplative in action. She combines her love of language with a deeply rooted spirituality to compose poems, prayers, essays, and devotionals linking our modern lives with our ancient faith. She is the author of the Spirit & Verse column at Jesuits.org and A Consoling Embrace: Prayers for a Time of Pandemic. You can find more of her writing on Instagram at @cameronbellm and on her website, cameronbellm.com.

To reflect on the Scripture passages mentioned above, see John 21:15-19 and Luke 10:29-37.

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