What does it mean to be a neighbor in a polarized America?
My wife and I bought our first home about seven years ago, after William, our first child, was born. We had loved the small and cozy apartment that we rented only a few blocks away from Boston College, where I teach. Yet by week two, William had taken over the place.
A crib, a changing table, a diaper disposal, gadgets that I did not know existed, and toys of all sizes and colors now occupied almost every corner. We procured a large chest for the countless little pieces of clothing floating around. How many clothes and artifacts does an eight-pound human being need? Apparently, a lot!
Three months later, we were moving into our first home. We searched for a neighborhood that was family-friendly, close to work and with a high concentration of Catholics. We wanted a place that was safe and clean. After doing the usual research, we found our house and fell in love with it. That was it! We were homeowners. Victoria, our daughter, was born two years later. Our children were growing up in their own place.
This house belongs to us, and we love it. We own a piece of this country—small, for sure, yet ours.
Homeownership has always been an important marker of belonging in this country. The promise of owning a parcel of land attracted millions of people from around the world to the United States. The idea of homeownership is deeply ingrained in the American Dream.
We own a piece of this country—small, for sure, yet ours.
About two-thirds of people born in the United States live in their own homes. Immigrants also have a strong record of homeownership: About half of the 42.3 million foreign-born people in our nation live in their own homes. This is a remarkable record worth celebrating. It holds promise for the stability and integration of our society.
Except for two other immigrant families, all our neighbors are Euro-American. White. When we moved here, we did not mind this at all; my family is bilingual, English and Spanish. However, after several months, only the two immigrant families and one Euro-American neighbor from across the street had befriended us. We reached out to others but did not get beyond formal greetings. Almost seven years later, things have not changed much.
Not long ago I was standing outside our home. One of our neighbors came over decidedly. I stepped forward and, without giving me much time to utter a sound, she said, “It is people like you and your family that are bringing this country down.” Then she turned around and has not spoken to me since.
The promise of owning a parcel of land attracted millions of people from around the world to the United States.
I still wonder what prompted her. Did others share her feelings? Is distrust the default mode to treat the immigrant among us? My wife and I have talked and prayed a lot about this incident. It is interesting that the adults in the three immigrant families in our neighborhood have graduate degrees and hold professional positions. We all have young families. If anything, we bring the American Dream to life.
My wife and I continue to discern whether this is still the best neighborhood to raise our children. They will soon reach the age where they will need to join these conversations. In any case, the place where we live is our home and the families around it are our neighbors.
While we ponder this, millions of immigrants will continue to search for their first home in family-friendly, close-to-work, safe and clean environments. They will call those places home. Their mere presence will challenge their neighbors to practice the virtue of hospitality. I believe that there needs to be room for this conversation in our faith communities. Authentic Christian discipleship requires welcoming our neighbors―literally.
My experience and the experience of most we know in our town is that there is little communication with our neighbors. Most of our socialization in our town has come from families of our children's school friends or families from our parish church. I love to walk and on my rounds around the neighborhood say hello to several people all of which wave or smile back. But I have never socialized with any of them outside of this.
From what I know this is more common than uncommon and has always been this way. I am sure there are exceptions. The larger the community the more this will be as people sort themselves on people like themselves.
We met a couple a few years ago on an organized trip. They were graduates of Johns Hopkins and were living in a small town in Alaska of about 1500 people. Before that they lived in New York City. They mentioned that they did not know anyone in their apartment house let alone in their neighborhood when they lived in New York. They had several friend from work.
But in the small town in Alaska, within one year they knew almost everyone in town on a first name basis. They were not all friends but they knew everyone.
People will sort based on likes and cultural similarities and things in common like age or children. Unfortunately today they are sorting based on politics too. But I bet they would help you immediately no matter who they were if they thought you were in need.
It has always been this way and nothing new.
I agree that, in general, getting to know one's neighbors is a pretty rare thing in cities and suburban areas in this era. I was surprised at what my sister-in-law said when she retired. She had lived in the same, small apartment building in Manhattan for 40 years - maybe 12 units in her building. She commented that now that she was retiring, maybe she would be able to meet some of her neighbors and get to know them.
Your faith that "But I bet they would help you immediately no matter who they were if they thought you were in need. may be misplaced in the situation described by Mr. Ospino. Note that, with one exception, the one personal contact he had with a non-immigrant neighbor was not urban/suburban indifference, but overt hostility -
"she said, “It is people like you and your family that are bringing this country down.”
Personally, I would not expect this woman to come to my aid in any need whatsoever. She would be more likely to lead the the mob trying to drive them out of town instead.
Many people who think of themselves as christian - as followers of Jesus' teachings - simply don't see what happens all too frequently to minorities in our country.
It is important to learn to listen to the stories told -by this author and countless others - who frequently encounter hatred and hostility due to the color or their skin, or to their ethnic background, or accents and non-native white status. I suspect that if Mr. Ospino and his family were immigrants from, oh - let's say - Norway - the woman in question would not only have refrained from attacking them, she might have gone out of her way to welcome them to the neighborhood.
All of we privileged white people, descended from immigrants of a generation or two or four ago, need to open our eyes and observe. Open our ears and hear - not just hear - open our ears and listen. Open our hearts, souls and consciences and begin to live what Jesus called us to do - love thy neighbor, welcome the stranger. Help the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the hungry, the thirsty.
The author of this piece is a highly educated professional, teaching at a top Catholic university. But he and his family are still the victims of hate in his own neighborhood.
Imagine the treatment that less educated, poor immigrants from the south encounter every day of their lives in this country, from people who hate them simply because they are here and they don't look like the majority of citizens - their skin color is darker. But immigrants and refugees are here because they are trying to make better lives for themselves and their families, and better futures for their children and grandchildren - just as my Irish immigrant and German immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents did when they arrived in America, poor and without a lot of education, and without fluency in English in the case of my German grandparents.
It is not I, nor most white Americans, who paid the price their own ancestors paid when they got here. In most parts of the country, we later-born generations were not despised because we were of Irish heritage, or Italian or Polish - or because we were Catholic. But our ancestors often encountered the same kind of blind hate and prejudice and hostility that today's immigrants and refugees face in the US. As christians, it is up to us to welcome them, to help then gain a toe-hold here, and to fight the unreasoning hate that the woman in this encounter displayed. I can't help but wonder if she then goes to church on Sunday, patting herself on the back because she is a "good" "christian" woman.
I am often appalled at the vitriol and hate I read on this site, in the comments from people who claim to be christian, mostly directed towards immigrants and non-christian refugees. These commenters may think they are christian, but they seem to be completely unaware of what Jesus taught.
My guess that what happened to Prof Opsino is rare. If it was common, it would certainly be all over the news but it isn't. There are certainly ignorant people everywhere but it is not the norm. Discrimination is way down in the United States compared to where it used to be.
A related phenomenon is the Kitty Genovese effect where bystanders witness someone being attacked and fail to help. But we rarely here of this either.
Actually, it is not all that rare, and happens a lot more often than you clearly think. I am Mexican-American and have lived all over the US and it has happened to me and to my friends (Black, Latino, Middle-Eastern) in ways large and small. We talk about it among ourselves, but most of the time we just shrug and move on. I urge you to accept our testimony rather than deny it: you don't experience it and we do.
Unfortunately, this kind of animosity also get expression in church. Until we can address xenophobia and the desire for power in church, we are unlikely to be able to address it in our communities.