I sometimes like to sit on the porch of my apartment building with my neighbor. We talk about life as we watch the world go by, and as I’ve gotten to know her, we’ve shared coffee, food and stories and even gone together to the local pool.
But I share this with a nagging thought in the back of my mind. I’m not sure I’m a very good neighbor. Sure, there are the occasional porch sits and friendly greetings. But often I’m left wondering, what does loving my neighbor really mean?
Having traveled to Arizona, south Texas and Mexico on a pair of Menno-nite Central Committee-led borderlands learning tours has added a new dimension to this question. When it comes to migrants at our southern border, who is my neighbor, and what does love look like?
Who is my neighbor?
Merriam-Webster defines “neighbor” as “one living or located near another” or “fellow man,” meaning “a kindred human being.”
While there is an element of proximity to the idea of neighbors—our next-door neighbors or neighbors in a nearby town—the definition seems to be more broad.
Thinking about my neighbor as a “kindred human being” sent me searching for another definition. Kindred means “of a similar nature or character” or “of the same ancestry.” Again, there are layers here. Kindred can be my biological family or those with whom I share a similar outlook on life—a kindred spirit. As humans, we are united as having been created in God’s image. Could my neighbor, then, be any human being?
Neighbors in the Bible
Equipped with a better understanding of “neighbor,” I studied what the Bible says about neighbors. Once again I pause to say that just as I am no neighborly expert, so I am not a Bible scholar.
A search for “neighbor” on BibleGateway.com produced 141 results, including 119 occurrences in the Old Testament and 22 in the New Testament.
According to Blueletterbible.org, biblical usage of “neighbor” can mean a friend, a member of the Hebrew nation or any person with whom we live or meet.
The command “Love your neighbor as yourself” occurs nine times in the Bible.
Leviticus 19:18 says, “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
Three of the gospels refer directly to Leviticus 19:18. Jesus speaks about this second great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (the first being love of God) in Matthew 19:19, Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31. In Luke 10:27, Jesus discusses this with an expert in the law.
The command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is also found in Romans 13:9-10, Galatians 5:14 and James 2:8.
In Luke 10, Jesus expands on what it means to love our neighbor. When an expert in the law asks Jesus who his neighbor is, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. Perhaps it’s a familiar story. A man was stripped and beaten at the hands of robbers between Jerusalem and Jericho and left for dead. Both a priest and a Levite pass by, but a Samaritan “outsider”—the Jews and Samaritans did not always play nice—stops to help. He cleans the man’s wounds and takes him to an inn, where he pays for his care.
The Samaritan was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers. Jesus commands the expert to “Go and do likewise.”
So, who is my neighbor? It appears Jesus is saying anyone in need.
How do I love my neighbor? By offering to help.
At the CAME migrant shelter in Agua Prieta, Mexico, I met a family of migrants whose journey has been filled with peril.
Through an interpreter I learned that Jorge’s family owns a ranch in Guerrero, Mexico. When the family purchased a truck for their ranching business, the state police began accusing them of working for organized crime. Because Jorge’s family’s land and resources are enviable, others began making accusations as well.
Jorge’s grandfather, uncle, cousin and father have been killed by organized crime. When his house was burned, Jorge knew it was time to leave. He escaped first to Morelos, but as a result of continued threats, chose to bring his young family to the border.
Jorge has not reported his father’s death. The reality is, local governments often work together with organized crime, so if a person reports a death, he or she is likely to be the next to go missing. Since he has no death certificate, all Jorge has as proof are photos of some of the murders. He scrolled through them on his phone—horrifying images I cannot erase from my mind.
Later in the trip, we asked an attorney at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project about Jorge’s asylum case. The attorney said Jorge would likely lose before a judge but would have an argument to make an appeal. In order to win his case, he’ll need to prove there’s nowhere he can go in his home country. I was surprised the attorney said it wasn’t a particularly strong case.
Extending a hand
Using a broad definition of neighbor, it seems that migrants at the border like Jorge qualify. Jorge is seeking a safe place to raise his young family. There’s a need, and on an individual level, we are united by a common humanity. But semantics creates interesting creases in my brain as I consider the difference in responsibility between individuals and governments.
Borders are a necessary reality, and we cannot welcome people without some kind of vetting system. But what kind of pathway is there? In many ways, the problems extend beyond people to systems, which is overwhelming and complicated.
I admit I don’t know all of the implications for welcoming people who show up on our doorstep. We ask legitimate questions: Are there enough pieces of the pie? What about the war on drugs? What does it mean for a government to love its neighbor? I’m left with more questions than answers.
A few topics for continued conversation come to mind. How could U.S. foreign policy help people stay home and thrive in their own communities? Would there be a way to clear the backlog in immigration courts by increasing the number of immigration judges?
It’s true, we don’t love our neighbor at the expense of our own family, and we can legitimately ask in what ways we—collectively and individually—are doing that. But can we also consider, if we’re created in God’s image, does that not also give us some common ground for a different kind of family?
In any case, people—on both sides of the border—become strangers no more when we listen to their stories. Our response will be quite different if we label people as neighbors instead of strangers or aliens. We would do well to resist the temptation either to romanticize or to vilify.
I certainly do not have a solution to the border crisis, but what if we as individuals chose not to look the other way but to take time to listen, see and care for needs? It’s already happening at shelters like CAME in Agua Prieta and Casa Alitas in Tucson, and evident, too, in a Border Patrol agent who adds his own water to stations in the desert and seeks to help peers in emotional turmoil.
Personally, I can buy coffee from Café Justo, a coffee cooperative based in Chiapas, Mexico, formed to address poverty and migration. I can share stories of what I’ve seen.
Back on my front porch, I remember how, on our tour, we were asked to consider what opportunity is provided at the border. Whether that be the front door separating my neighbor’s apartment from mine or the U.S./Mexico border, I’m left to wonder what it could look like to extend a neighborly hand instead of passing by on the other side.
Read more about the 2020 border tour.
Janae Rempel Shafer is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Shafer is an award-winning writer, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence and an Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals award in 2022. Shafer graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She and her husband, Austin, attend Ridgepoint Church in Wichita, Kansas.