Service Trip Reflection: Sarah Carnes in Montgomery

Is anyone ever truly prepared for the experience of a lifetime? I wasn’t. That’s for sure.

As we pulled up to the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, it all began sinking in. This, this was where Martin Luther King was shot. I walked up the stairs. I looked in the window of Room 306. This was his room. That was his bed. Yet, when I looked down at the ground, it all suddenly became very real. I was standing exactly where he was shot… At that moment, I could see him standing there. I could see the bullet pierce his chest. I could see him lying in front of me. We hadn’t even made it to Montgomery, but my life was changing.

I love kids. Maybe it’s because of the energy. Maybe it’s because of the freedom. Maybe it’s because I am one. In any case, when I was told I’d be working in a school, I was ecstatic.

However, what should’ve been an incredible day quickly plummeted into a torturous afternoon.

Aaron came in late. He’d missed the first part of the lesson because he’d needed to have a test read to him. His face was hardened. He was scowling. He drug his feet all the way to his desk. Finally, he sat down.

When his peers began pestering him, he retaliated.

Completely disregarding his classmates’ behavior, the teacher barked, “Aaron, stop messing around and get to work!”

He glared at her. Taking out a sheet of paper, he slowly began taking notes. His note-taking gradually stopped.

Again, his teacher reproached him. And again, he made a halfhearted attempt to work.

I couldn’t help but watch him. As he turned around to talk to the boy behind him, he was quickly scolded, “Aaron, come back here and sit by me!”

He stood up. There were daggers in his eyes. His peers stared…

“Everybody stop staring at me!” His eyes met mine. His face broke and the daggers fell. He looked down.

Aaron took his things back to the teacher’s desk and began taking notes.

If you could’ve seen this kid’s face break, your heart would’ve burst into a thousand pieces…I couldn’t handle it. I began drowning in my own emotions. At that point I realized something very important: your heart must be broken in order to be reformed.

I began examining myself. Do I write people off according to a certain stereotype as opposed to seeing the whole person? Am I quick to judge the actions of my neighbor? Do I love others as I love myself?

The Civil Rights Movement itself may be history, but it also remains history-in-the-making. Though we’ve made great bounds in the right direction, we have miles to go. Yet, our future is bright.

I could see it in the 8th grader who cleared the bathroom for a couple of potty-dancing preschoolers. I could see it in the four year old boy who took it upon himself to make absolutely certain that every single child in his class had something to drink after recess. I could see it in the way they praised God through every word they sang in church.

“Smile first… I’ve never seen an icicle that hasn’t eventually melted.”

After all, it all begins with small things because eventually, the small things become big things.

–Sarah Carnes

THINK: Neighborliness

Alright, so the following list was found in an article on Sojourners. The title of the article is “Neighborliness is the New Sexy.” The tone that is created because of calling neighborliness “sexy” seems a little silly–but nonetheless, the ideas hold. So, you don’t have to be concerned with sexiness to be concerned with your neighbor. Anyway, just read:

7 Ways to be a Good Neighbor

1. Be a regular somewhere: Our neighborhoods are actually rather expansive spaces. Some of them involve strip malls. Some of us commute to work and, in that sense, we live in various neighborhoods. Yes, plural. How can we root ourselves in these places?

Well, becoming a regular at the local cafe or restaurant can be sexy in that Cheers kind of way. Always using the same branch of your bank or credit union and learning people’s names can be too. Develop some habits of participating in the local economy like it was a small town even if you live in a big city or suburb. Suddenly, you’ll find that you are learning the concerns of the shop owners and coffee clerks. You might find yourself learning the names of the others you see every day at the same time. You’ll learn about their lives, their worries, and their joys. As localized as it is, you’ll find that it will expand your image of the world around you. Having an expansive image of the world is sexy.

2. Leave your garage door open when you are home: Yeah, I know this sounds like a recipe for having your bike or lawn mower stolen, but think of it this way: When you get home from work, do you just pull in your garage and shut the door behind you? It’s like crawling in a cave and rolling a stone in front of it. Not sexy, Trogg. None of your neighbors gets to see you … or your stuff. I love seeing what someone’s garage looks like, the stuff they store there … the old tennis racquets and basketballs. Maybe there’s fishing tackle there or just boxes of old books and a Hoosier cabinet. Who knows? But what people store in their garages is really interesting … even sexy. Heck, maybe there’s an old motorcycle in there and suddenly the revelation strikes you that the neighbor you thought was so stuffy and boring is actually a weekend gearhead hoping to go out for a ride with her spouse. Garages are sexy. Let people see yours.

3. Hold people above principles: Are our neighborhoods enclaves of like-minded people who all vote the same? Well, some sociological evidence suggests that they are slowly becoming so. Definitely not sexy.
We redraw districting lines to make sure that elections favor one party or ideological set of concerns over another. Certainly that can’t be sexy.
Even our congregations are increasingly homogenous in this regard. Are we losing the ability to hold people above our ideologies? I hope not. People are not their ideas. Our lives are much more complicated than that. Complicated is sexy. We may even change our minds many times over the course of a lifetime as events befall us that challenge our thinking. What if we made a habit of holding people above ideas? Love your neighbor … even if they vote for the other candidate.

4. Listen first: Our culture needs to regain the sexy art of listening. Listening is sexy because it’s about relationships and connects us to one another. We can get stuck talking about ourselves, our kids, our work, and never ask, “How are you?”
Listening requires our full attention to the other— make eye contact,don’t make everything about you, don’t start thinking about a response before the other person stops talking. Those things are anti-sexy. Instead, absorb their words and repeat them back. That way, you open up to one another. And the vulnerability of opening up is sexy.

5. Be confrontational when necessary, but never hostile: I’m not a confrontational person, and my sexiness is diminished because of it. Jesus was sexy (only an extreme Gnostic would disagree with that statement!) in part because he was confrontational with some of his neighbors. We’re human. As such, neighbors will experience conflict. But if we bottle up emotions, they become hostile … and they will explode. It’s a way of scapegoating and that is about the most anti-sexy thing anyone can do.
It works like this: I have a dispute with a neighbor. Because I’m a nice guy, I don’t want to confront him about it. So I go to another neighbor and tell him about how much of a jerk our neighbor is. (Not sexy.) When we have a conflict with a neighbor, the sexiest thing we can do is go him or her – keeping in mind that number four on our list is listening. Listen. Try not to blame. Seek to understand. If you find yourself feeling hostile, then walk away. Come back when you are ready.

6. Pray: Prayer is sexy because it connects us to God, who seeks to connect us with one another in the spirit of love. Pray alone and pray in community. Listen for where God might be leading you and talk with God about your successes and failures of being a good neighbor. Only through prayer can God keep us centered on the big picture. Through prayer God lead us in participating in the reconciliation of all things. Oh. The reconciliation of all things … now that’s sexy.

7. Be foolish: None of this is possible if we aren’t willing to be foolish in some way. The vulnerability will embarrass us, but it’s sexy … and I don’t mean in that ‘Hey, girl’ Ryan Gosling way. I mean in that “Take me as God made me” way. What if they see your old golf clubs in the garage or, simply, the mess that’s there? What if our neighbors find out that our kitchens are a mess? “What if the coffee clerk figures out that I buy the same beverage each and every time. I’m so boring! I’m so disorganized!” Yeah. We’re going to look like fools. But that’s OK. We’re going to have to be foolish and give our time to this slow and fitful process of becoming good neighbors to one another. Jesus said that we’re going to look like fools. It’s true. Embrace it. Enjoy it.

Speaking of foolishness, this may have been an exercise in foolishness. It’s silly. It’s ridiculous, but what’s so wrong about finding these things desirable? What’s the problem about understanding one another as an object of God’s desire? “Sexiness” is just a fun way to think on it … to get a laugh from it. But there it is.
This is why we’re playing with the idea of neighborliness being sexy. We are to desire one another like God desires each and every one of us. What would it take for you to see each and every person you encounter in your neighborhood as an object of God’s desire? And if you could receive that spiritual gift, how might that change the world?

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What hinders you from being a good neighbor? What are other ways that you can orchestrate your neighbors in to your life? If you don’t have a garage door, what other parts of your life can you “leave open”? Where can you be a “regular”; do you know people there in the same way that they know you? When do your principles stop serving people and their flourishing? Do you find yourself talking way more than you listen? Do you shy away from confrontation and thus deprive a relationship of reality? Do you ask God to center you and remind you how to be a good neighbor? Are you willing to risk looking foolish to be a good neighbor?