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Fighting Racism by Getting to Know Your Neighbors

It has been a difficult seven or so days for this country, especially those at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

We all know what happened there, so there is no need in repeating what we know. It was horrific and drenched in hate.

In spite of the intended racial division, we have witnessed great acts of charity and forgiveness.

You and I know all of that. However, far too often what we do not know are our neighbors.

Right across from First Baptist Church of Augusta, Georgia, is Gardner Grove Baptist Church, a smaller, predominantly African-American congregation that sits in the shadow of our steeple.

They are not particularly prominent or large in number, so maybe that is why I have not encountered my neighbors. I do know they are faithful.

Sundays and Wednesdays their parking lot is full as well as other days when there is a wedding or funeral or some other special event.

Still, after 10 years serving as First Augusta’s pastor, I had never met our Baptist neighbors across the street. Following the Charleston massacre, I knew it was long overdue for me to meet them.

Between worship services last Sunday, I walked across the hot asphalt street that divides our congregations and entered the foyer of their sanctuary.

They were well into worship so I was sensitive to the fact that my presence would be conspicuous as well as an interruption to their service.

I left a card with the sound technician to give to the pastor that said something to the effect, “I am sorry about the racial hatred of our times. We need to get to know each other.”

On Monday, their pastor, Rufus Copeland, and I exchanged calls and then a visit. He is a good man whose gray hair shows his faithful service to that church for 29 years.

Though we share “Baptist” in our church names, denominationally our affiliations are different. I am guessing there are other differences, too.

Yet we are happily united in a common devotion of faith and a common hope for our community and world.

“What happened in Charleston will not divide us. It has the opportunity to unite us,” he said to me.

We made a commitment not only to get to know each other better, but also for our congregations to get to know each other better. We are neighbors, after all, and that is what neighbors do.

I wish there were words that I could share that would resolve the racial strife we are experiencing in our land and in our time.

I wish I could articulate a better vision of what could be. I wish I had the acumen to devise a plan, a program or a response that could augment healing.

All I can really do is meet my neighbors and move from being a stranger to a friend.

I can walk across the many different streets that divide races, religions, socioeconomic classes and political affiliations and extend a hand and be a friend.

You can walk across the street too, and I think it needs to be just that literal. If you do not know your neighbors, then make a moment to walk across whatever it is that divides you from another and bring a card, flowers, a cake or just a genuine smile and say, “It’s good to meet you.”

Some neighbors we cannot meet due to geography or circumstances beyond our control. Such divisions are seemingly insurmountable.

But you can still get to know your neighbors by listening, learning and praying for compassion and empathy.

Do not meet a neighbor intending to tell them what they need to know about you. Meet your neighbor to learn something new about them. It will change both of you.

The Bible is particularly sensitive to the importance of neighborliness. From the laws of the Old Testament to the teachings of Jesus, caring, protecting and showing mercy to the neighbor is how others see God at work in this world.

Politics and acts of Congress will not make this happen. We can change our symbols and our laws but if we do not change our hearts and actions, it will all be useless.

Walk across the street and get to know your neighbor. You just might meet a friend.

Greg DeLoach is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Pilgrim’s Walk, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @GregDeLoach.