What does it mean to be someone who loves your neighbor?
Joe and I have been friends for almost 15 years now. We've had a variation of this conversation maybe a hundred times in those years as we both seek to understand what it means to be called to love our neighbors, to be a good neighbor, and how we encourage others to join us on that journey. Shortly after my wife and I got married, we sat in Joe and Steph's family room in a suburban neighborhood asking what it would look like if we both chose to move into the same neighborhood in closer proximity to the places we served, closer to our church, and closer to the needs we cared about. We wrestled with what it means to live with intention, proximity, and presence. Within about a year after that conversation, we both owned homes around the corner from each other.
We had no agenda other than to be neighbors to each other and do our best to get to know the neighbors around us. Little did we know, there were a lot of other families young and old that had done the same thing for a wide-variety of reasons. We've seen their kids grow up and us have kids. We have great neighbors, are burdened by crime and brokenness, and full of hope for what the future could hold for us as a neighborhood. The move towards intentional neighboring came from our desire to be obedient to follow Jesus as disciples. One thing we knew about that is that Jesus often went to the places and hung out with the folks very few would. While our neighborhood may not be the most poor in the city or the most broken, quite the opposite actually, it's surround by opportunity for love and development.
For the past 18 years, Joe Johns has been on staff at Fellowship Missionary Church and now serves as the lead pastor. Since the church first planted their roots in 1982 on the edge of the Southeast quadrant in a cornfield, the culture and dynamic of the south side has transformed and shifted significantly as business and industries that once made the Southeast side flourish disappeared and left that part of the city in the shadows.
As Fellowship watched the composition of the city around them change, they began to realize that they, as a church, needed to reflect their neighborhood. That the people represented inside their walls would be a representation of where they are in the city. Throughout his years in ministry, Joe has had a vision to see the southside of Fort Wayne more unified and healed from the old wounds of being left in the dust, so to speak. Joe has wrestled with and stopped to digest ‘What does it mean to be someone who loves your neighbor?’
Even if you didn’t grow up in church, chances are you know the story of the Good Samaritan – the guy robbed and beaten on the side of the road, needing help, as religious leaders and people who “should” have helped but instead left him hurting. Until the Good Samaritan comes by, a person who never would have associated with him, stopped to help. Breaking social barriers, the Samaritan stepped into this stranger’s world, vulnerabilities.
The story sheds light on the Christian commandment, “Do unto others as you would do unto yourself.” In other words, put yourself in others’ shoes, love the others the way they want to be loved. Joe really challenges us; if you were the one on the side of the road, in need, desperate, you’d want someone to help. How do we set aside our agendas, our mundane, daily routines to pay attention to the people around us, humanize other people and their situations? How do we stop to set our agenda to help? As a church, as a Christian, or even as just a human, what does it look like to see the people around you as neighbors?
This is hard work and never gets "figured out," but the more we practice mindfulness and respond to the prompts we receive, the closer we get. It truly is about a journey, and for some that have faith-backgrounds, Joe gives us insights into how we can follow Jesus towards the margins to find life.