By Steven Norris
“Is it true that some Americans don’t even know their neighbors?”
The question hung uncomfortably in the air as I considered my response. We had been in the country for a few days at that point, and it was impossible to overlook the importance of community among the Cuban people. There were no direct routes when traveling with our host pastor. Every trip was punctuated with stops to greet a couple on their front porch, to say hello to the butcher, to check in on an elderly neighbor, or to pick up a loaf of bread from the baker.
It seemed that everywhere we went, the pastor knew his community and his community knew him. He couldn’t just walk by on his way to an appointment. That would have been considered rude, rending the relational fabric that held his community intact.
By contrast, I had to admit that I did not know the names of all of my immediate neighbors back home. Sure, I could recognize their faces. We shared pleasantries and the occasional small-talk when we were out walking the dog or taking out the trash, but I did not really know them.
“Unfortunately, that is true in many places in America,” I eventually confessed.
The man sat perplexed for a moment before his follow-up question tumbled from his lips: “How do you survive?”
It was a valid concern for a person who lives day-to-day hovering around the poverty line. What does one do when the milk, flour, or sugar runs out and there is no market in which to buy food or no money to make a simple purchase? You depend on your neighbor to help you out. You need your neighbor just to survive some months and your neighbor needs you.
In each of my three visits to Cuba, I was confronted with our collective “poverty of community” in America. Granted, most of my life has been lived in suburban, middle-class communities. Perhaps here, more than any other place, we celebrate the seeming strength of independence and privacy. Our culture celebrates those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and do not depend on others. Many times, we don’t know our neighbors because we don’t need to know them.
If we are going to do missions as Jesus models it for us, we will have to enter through the door of mutuality. We must be willing to name our areas of wealth as well as our poverty. We must be willing to be both teacher and student. Scripture is clear: we are all part of the body of Christ and need one another to function properly (see 1 Corinthians 12).
Through our multi-year partnership with Rios de Agua Viva (Rivers of Living Water), we were able to offer assistance out of our material “wealth” for a number of projects. At the same time, we were also able to learn from our Cuban brothers and sisters how to better follow the commands of Jesus to love God and neighbor well. Such mutuality should be the goal of all Christian ministry.