Who Is My Neighbor?

March 19, 2017 — Rev. Dr. Edward Dougherty


Lee Gabay is an English teacher at Brooklyn Democracy Academy in the Brownville section of Brooklyn. His students were reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Mr. Gabay began by congratulating his students for finishing the book, “That was a beautiful thing you did today,” he said. Brownville has the worst schools in the city, the worst health care, the most homicides and the worst food – there are no Starbucks here.   Mr. Gabay says that he wants to give his students access to all the good things that he was blessed to have. He was born on the Lower East Side and grew up in Great Neck Long Island. He networks relentlessly to open doors for his students. He brought in a spoken-word performer who inspired one young man to travel to Africa with the artist to study.  He invited an Oscar-nominee, Jesse Eisenberg, to the school, the actor mentored a student who was passionate about the entertainment industry. When Jon Wallace, the former Knicks player, came to class, another student ended up with a job.

When people ask Gabay, “How do you do all that?” He says, “It’s simple. Just reach out and say thank you.” He says it’s not a strategic thing; I think it comes from someone’s heart.” Mr. Gabay says he is informal, focused on the little things- small deeds that can inspire one person, and have the potential to turn a life around. His motto is,” Students need to know how much you care before they care how much you know.”

Mr. Gabay is unconventional as far as teachers go. He has a Ph.D. in urban education and says that he loved to learn but hated school.  He describes himself as a class clown. “I think that has inspired what I’ve become,” he says, “what I wanted to do and the kind of classroom I wanted to create.” He rides a motorcycle to school. He is fascinated with sneaker culture. He is a vocal Knicks fan. He sits with students during lunchtime to talk about music. And he winces at the thought of being called Dr. Gabay.  Some students simply call him “G.”

A majority of his career has been spent in unconventional settings, teaching literature to students who have been locked up, working at a group home for children who have been in prison. His graduate work focused on juvenile offenders. He taught for more than a decade a juvenile detention school in the city and his current school is a transfer school for under-credited students whose education has been interrupted.  In his current role he has become more like an older brother to those struggling teenagers-many of whom have spent time in foster care or in jail.  He is adamant about nurturing them socially and emotionally as he is about preparing the to take tests. Mr. Gabay was chosen as a New Yorker of the Year by the New York Times this last December.

What strikes me as important about this story is Mr. Gabay’s focus on the little things – the small deeds that can inspire one person and have the potential to turn a life around.  He has not started a foundation to cure the world of disease, as worthy as that may be.  He has not tried to eliminate hunger or homelessness or crime.  He simply begins by saying “Thank You.”  Thank you for finishing that book.  Thank you for just being here, thank you for trying your hardest.  Furthermore, he has chosen to do this work with lowest of the low in socio-economic terms. Teenagers who are likely to be disowned by their parents or foster parents, kicked out of school by other teachers, and thrown into jail by the police. If I were to ask him, “Who is your neighbor?” he would have no hesitation to say these kids are my neighbors.

If I were to ask myself that question, my answer might not be so magnanimous. I might say that this time of the year my neighbors in Biddeford Pool are few and far between.  But I might also say, “Oh yes, you are my neighbors.” Barbey and I were attracted to this church because of its strong sense of community and neighborliness.  The emphasis here on loving and caring for one another is one of this churches strongest characteristics and its outreach programs help us expand our definition of who is our neighbor. Yet I find that the hardest thing we have to do in our lives is not just to love those who are close by or those who are likable and like us, but the real challenge is to love those who live beyond the church door, those who are not like us, especially the stranger, the poor, the suffering, the lowest of the low, those who take us beyond our comfort zone.

This challenge is especially difficult in hard times, or times when we might feel threatened or somehow endangered. Our tendency in the face of threat is to retreat into our comfort zone, and in the face of fear, the church often encourages that retreat, telling us that when we are afraid, pray or meditate or contemplate. When we are threatened, the church says come in here to this sanctuary and close the doors, we will protect one another. Now there is nothing wrong with that advice, after all, did not Jesus tell us to love our neighbor?  The problem is who do we define as our neighbor?

That is the question the Pharisee asks Jesus.  As an expert in the law he knows that the Great Law is to Love the Lord your God with all your heart and to Love your neighbor as yourself, but he asks Jesus, who is my neighbor? In response to this question Jesus tells the  familiar story of the Good Samaritan. A man is beaten by robbers, stripped of his clothes and left in a ditch by the side of the road half dead.  A priest and a what we might call today a church elder pass by on the other side of the road, probably telling themselves it is too risky to get involved. It is the Samaritan, the foreigner, the outcast from Judaism who picks up the injured man, binds his wounds, puts him on his own donkey and takes him to an inn where he can be cared for at the Samaritan’s expense.  Jesus simply asks the Pharisee, who among these three is the neighbor? The Samaritan, of course, and Jesus says go and do likewise.

What might appear to be an easy task, “go a do likewise,” turns out to be the one of the most difficult tasks we face as Christians. Our natural instincts are like those of the Temple Priest and Levite, we want to avoid risk and retreat to our comfort zone for self-protection. We don’t want to get involved, but the Samaritan does. How is this possible for us today?

The paradox is that in order to reach out to others we must begin by looking inward.  We must begin with an interior transformation that comes with the awareness of the Divine Presence in ourselves. It is only through an awareness of that spark of the divine within that we can come to an awareness of the spark of divine in others. That interior awakening of the divine presence allows us to transcend our fears and look beyond the potential danger that threatens us when we meet a stranger. Encountering God in ourselves is the key to seeing God in others and key to understanding who is our neighbor. Faith is not a matter of holding fast to a set of beliefs and doctrines. Faith is a matter of trusting that you are fully seen and known by one who is merciful, gracious, faithful, forgiving and steadfast. Faith is knowing that God is steadfast in his love toward us so that we can be merciful, gracious, faithful, forgiving and steadfast to others.

That internal transformation is not a once in a life time conversion, but a lifelong process that we renew every day.

But we cannot stop with introspection. When that internal transformation takes place, we have to move beyond our comfort zone and, like the good Samaritan, redefine who is our neighbor.  We can use Lee Gabay, our New York hero, as an example of how this process works. It begins by saying “Thank you,” one person at a time. It begins by reaching out to our neighbor who may live beyond our comfort zone and letting them know that we are trustworthy, gracious and steadfast and doing that in such a way that does not demean them or diminish their sense of self-worth.  As we reach more or less the half way point in Lent, let us resolve to take one small step in reaching out to our neighbors beyond the church door and say, “Thank You” for revealing God’s love to me and may we together let that love shine brighter and brighter throughout the world.