“There is ugliness in us, isn’t there?” the priest begins. “We are flawed. We are human. And God wants us — God is commanding us — to take all of the ugliness we work so hard to bury deep within us, to take all that poison, the aspects about ourselves that cause us shame and burden. All that negativity we carry with us every day and work so hard to hide. God is asking us to hand it over. God wants us to give it up. Give it to God. Amen?”
“Amen!” the congregation affirms.
“Today,” he continues, “I want you to consider how loving neighbor, loving God, and loving yourself are three parts of the same commandment. We must love ourselves first. When we love ourselves, we love God.”
Only then, he said, can we love our neighbor.
It’s an apt sermon. My husband Sean, our kids, and I are attending a Mass honoring the patron saint of our church’s sharing parish. Less than two miles from our well-resourced suburban home, this sharing parish is in Austin, a neighboring community to ours and one of Chicago’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods.
Before that morning, on countless drives through Austin from suburb to city, I’d locked my car doors, never stopping, never getting out of the car to see who lived in the houses and apartment buildings I was driving by. This is the first time I’m setting foot in their church. This is the first time I’m seeing these neighbors up close.
“What does it actually look like to love our neighbor?” the priest asks. “Turn to the person behind you. Look at them. Hug that person. Yes, hug them. And after you hug them, ask them, ‘How can I be a neighbor to you?’”
I turn around, and there’s a man with salt-and-pepper hair who looks like he’s in his 70s. His skin looks soft, like crinkled paper. Fear is an undigested heap in my belly. I look into this stranger’s — this neighbor’s — bright brown eyes and try not to let my anxiety rush me through the encounter.
“How can I be a neighbor to you?” I ask him.
He doesn’t respond. Even as I eke out the question, I trust that I’m already being a better neighbor than I’d been simply by being there that morning — by leaving the comfort of my home parish to venture into his neighborhood and be present with him and his faith community.
I open my arms and lean toward him.
He opens his arms to me.
Our hug is a brief thing. And yet we have crossed a border between us, and it feels like the most important thing we can do.
At the end of Mass, my son and daughter have a lollipop in their mouths and another in their pockets, generously dispersed to them by the neighbors who had been sitting in the pew in front of us. The man I’d hugged has already left, but now there is a woman behind us. The persistent ugliness in me worries that our kids, as well-behaved as they were for the duration, might have annoyed her, or perhaps Sean and I annoyed her for the way we parented (or failed to) during Mass.
When she looks me in the eyes, hers seem wise and unreadable. Is this the moment when she chides me about my antsy kids or faulty parenting?
“It is good to see you today,” she says instead. She smiles at me, at all of us. “You are beautiful, and you did great today at church,” she says to Henry and Magnolia, who smile.
“I really wasn’t sure how they’d do,” I say, self-consciously, apologetically.
“They’re great,” she says. “I hope you’ll come back.”
“We will,” I tell her, determined to be a better neighbor.