“I’m just a neighbor.”

Do not forsake your friend or a friend of your family,
and do not go to your relative’s house when disaster strikes you—
better a neighbor nearby than a relative far away.  Proverbs 27:10

This is one of the “30 Sayings of the Wise” in Proverbs. It emphasizes the importance of staying in faithful relationship with friends and family friends, but then it says something that seems to be counterintuitive. You might ask, “Why not go to your relative’s house when disaster strikes?” The saying makes perfect sense when people go through a disaster like an earthquake. I was a part of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and after the earthquake walls came down (literally, too) between neighbors. Neighbors were helping neighbors in ways that you can’t imagine, but after a time we all retreated to our old patterns with one another. There is something to be said about geographic proximity when it comes to disasters, but should we only be there for our neighbors when tragedies occur? Mary Alice told me the following story about an elderly neighbor from her apartment complex that reveals what real commitment is like when it comes to loving our neighbor as our self.

Mary Alice Pollok’s Neighborhood

Jacob, my eighty-year-old neighbor, is Jewish. When his wife passed away from cancer two years ago, he fell into a deep depression. I contacted the other neighbors that he and I knew, and for almost a year we took turns delivering dinners to him and checking on him. When his spirits would sink low, my kids and I would drag him out of his apartment and take him to the pool. One night, however, he fell into a serious depression and tried to kill himself with some pills. I called 911 and stayed with him until the paramedics got there. They took him to the hospital and saved his life.

Afterward, he asked me why I cared so much about him when his own children did not even bother to keep in touch.  I said the love and compassion I have for people comes from Jesus Christ. That is who he has seen in action over the last year and a half. This opened up many more conversations about life and death. With the Jewish faith there is no hope — but with Jesus, He is our hope. We ran into each other weekly and he gave me updates on his progress.

One night, I was deep in conversation with my fourteen-year-old son. Because I treasure and protect these times with my son, especially as he grows into a young man, I was screening my calls. That night my caller ID revealed it was Jacob.

Jacob had been calling our home regularly and never seemed to get back on his feet —  regular phone calls, evening visits with homemade dinners four to five times a week, and weekend walks didn’t seem to relieve. In Jacob’s own words, he was “a crotchety old Jewish man who doesn’t make friends easily.”

What a sight we had become in our community when we would take our walks, a mother of two eighth graders happily chatting with a grumpy, disheveled old man. No one could figure that one out. But God had plans for this friendship.

When I answered the phone to see what Jacob needed, I could hear breathing but Jacob didn’t respond to my questions. I threw on my warm coat, told my son not to worry, and bounded down three flights of stairs and over to the next building where Jacob lived.

As I approached his home, I could see the front door ajar. I walked in and I saw Jacob on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. He was clutching his chest and having difficulty breathing. It took a split second to realize this was not one of his anxiety attacks. I called 911 and heard sirens almost immediately from the fire station up the hill. The paramedics arrived and began to do their work. A paramedic asked if he could speak with me. It took a great deal of effort to disentangle my hand from Jacob’s as he was clutching it so tightly. His eyes filled with fear as he said, ‘Please don’t leave me.’ I assured him I wouldn’t. The paramedic asked me if I could provide medical information on ‘my father.’ I told him what I knew about Jacob’s mental and physical condition and then explained I wasn’t Jacob’s daughter. “Then who are you?” he asked. I told him I was just a neighbor.

I followed the ambulance in my car and could see “the terror on Jacob’s face” as medical personnel lifted him onto a hospital gurney. I asked the ER receptionist if I could see Jacob. The receptionist asked if I was a relative, but I said I was just a neighbor.

“You’re kidding,” the receptionist said, but he allowed me to go back in the triage area to see Jacob.

I held Jacob’s hand as technicians drew blood and placed EKG patches on his chest. The nurse asked me privately how long my father had been in this deteriorated condition. I told her what I knew and ended the conversation (yet again) with, “He’s not my father, I’m just a neighbor.”

Shortly after they wheeled Jacob into another room for further testing, the attending physician thanked me for keeping Jacob calm and asked the question I already knew was coming. “How are you related to Jacob?” I responded, “I’m not related, I’m just a neighbor.”

“I wish I had a neighbor like you,” the doctor said.

As I left the emergency room, the doctor asked me with a giggle laced in seriousness, “Will you be my neighbor?”

A time for reflection:

When the attending physician said, “I wish I had a neighbor like you,” I think we all would like to have a neighbor like Mary Alice. More importantly, this is what our neighbors need from us, whether or not they realize it. In each case, when those in the hospital asked her if she was a relative and found out that she was just a neighbor, they shook their heads in amazement. Sadly, we live in a day when finding a good neighbor is a rarity. Good neighbors are few and far between. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church stepped up to become the good neighbor? I think that’s the silent appeal of neighborhoods today. Will we respond?





Listen to Bruce Zachary's experience with Neighborhood Initiative.

Listen to Dallas Willard's word to pastors and leaders about Neighborhood Initiative.

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