The day my mother purchased her first home is still one of the proudest moments of my life. At the time, I was a freshman in high school. We had been living in an apartment for almost as long as she and my father had been separated. It was exciting to know that we were going to be moving to a place that actually belonged to us. Unfortunately, that excitement was short-lived.
Within hours of moving into our new home, I caught one of our next door neighbors staring me down through the rear window of her house. (The other neighbors had already kindly introduced themselves.) Her look let me know that she was purely disgusted with my overall existence. I didn’t know why, but I figured it was racially motivated. After all, she was an elderly white woman and I was a black male teenager.
While I managed to get to know many of the other neighbors on my new block before leaving for college a few years later, my relationship with that one next door neighbor remained troubled. I had found her husband’s social security check blowing down the street after the mailman dropped it and when I brought it back to her, she acted like I had tried to steal it. I was cleaning up after my dog and she started yelling out her window at me and claiming that I was getting the dog’s urine on her property. Thankfully, the other neighbors constantly reassured me that she and her family were “just crazy.”
A lot of time has passed since then. Most of our original took advantage of the housing boom a few years ago and moved to larger homes in the suburbs. Our troubled neighbor remained and her relationship with my family became even more problematic. My mother and my uncle had caught them throwing trash from their yard into our yard moments after we finished cleaning. Whenever we shoveled snow in the winter, they were very careful to leave a few inches of snow on their side of the property line just so that they would not have to touch ours. When they gardened, they often left a thick line of weeds on the edge of their property line for the same reason. To make matters worse, they regularly accused my mother of not keeping up our house even though theirs was clearly falling apart.
Last night our perceptions of our difficult neighbors changed after my mom heard gospel music playing through their window. She went outside to investigate and saw a black woman and her family working together to clean the house. Being the friendly woman that she is, she immediately struck up a conversation with her to find out what was going on.
It turns out that the people who were cleaning the house were actually neighbors who live a few doors down. They are Christians who have only lived in the neighborhood for a few years. They stepped in when they noticed that our next door neighbors were going back and forth to the nearby supermarket with a shopping cart. (We noticed as well, but my mother didn’t offer to do anything for them because they always seemed intent on blaming us for some problems they were having in their lives.) Since then, they managed to form a relationship with these difficult neighbors.
Still, as the conversation progressed, the woman actually agreed with my mother’s overall approach to the neighbors. In spite of the woman’s efforts to share God’s love, the neighbors were still pretty rude to some members of her family–particularly the male ones. (A big part of my mom’s resentment toward those neighbors still stems from their treatment of me as a teen.) The woman had an explanation for it. Through conversation, she had learned that prior to moving to our neighborhood, both women who live in the house next to ours had been sexually assaulted by black men. That explained a lot. I knew that the look that neighbor gave me when she watched us move in years ago was one of pure disgust and hatred. She and her family had moved to our neighborhood to get away from people who looked like me.
In the end, my mom left the conversation feeling a bit convicted. Maybe we should have been praying for them and ministering to them more instead of settling for the fact that they were just difficult neighbors. (Then again, a few years back, some friends and I were praying for my cousin’s situation with her difficult neighbor only to have the neighbor lose her house in a sheriff’s sale a few months later. True story.) For now, it is my goal to recognize the need to stay in prayer for the difficult people in my life instead of just trying to pray my way around them. After all, they are people who need a touch from God just as much as I do.