I wrote this article in July 2011 for GVBC’s bi-weekly Spirit newsletter, when I was on Gardena Valley Baptist Church staff as pastoral intern of neighborhood impact. It was an attempt to help our church members begin the process of looking inward at our isms, beliefs, and values which may restrict our openness toward those who are different. Gardena has seen an influx of immigrant and working class communities of color in the past few decades, which has created new challenges and questions to the cultural and community identity of GVBC. Our church’s historically Japanese American evangelical identity must learn how to be neighbors to its increasingly diverse neighborhood, just as Jesus admonished the Jewish lawyer to be a neighbor to the culturally foreign (and despised) Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. For in the words of Latino theologian Justo Gonzalez, the Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us “to go and be a neighbor to those in need, no matter how alien they may be.”
Seeing the Humanity in Our Neighbors
As the pastoral intern of neighborhood ministry, it is my job to dwell upon and seek to strengthen the relationship between GVBC and its neighborhood. In this pursuit, I’m realizing there is a very real problem that hampers my ability to do so: the way I view Gardena’s neighborhood, and by extension, certain types of people. It is not my wish to disparage or criticize any race, ethnicity, socioeconomic level, or any other group that does not fit the norm in our church. I simply want to explore the implications of the ways in which we view those who do not look like us or who do not have the same social or economic stations we do.
That being said, when I think of Gardena in comparison to a slightly more well-off city, such as Torrance, I feel nervous, uncomfortable, even unsafe. To be frank, Gardena connotes images of lower levels of income and education, poverty, higher crime rates, unsafe streets, a place where you will get taken advantage of. While some of these perceptions may have aspects of truth to them, to debate whether Gardena is a safe city is not the issue at hand.
The real issue is how we view and thus treat the people who incite these images. In all honesty, my normal gut level reaction towards Gardena residents, such as a homeless woman or an African American male whom I see as threatening, is judgment, fear, or avoidance. My first thought is not, “How can I show this person God’s love?” My first thought towards a homeless woman is, “How did you screw up to get in this bad state?” Or towards the African American male: “Please don’t mug me.” I automatically judge them and then become fearful and avoidant because of how they appear and of the deeply engrained stereotypes in my head.
Thus, I dehumanize them because I see them as less than people, and more as “things” to avoid. God did not call the Church to be afraid or avoid certain people. Jesus tore down the walls of hostility (Eph. 2:14) between Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, women and men, hostility and fear.
Perhaps as a starting point, every time I begin to mentally strip away another’s dignity and humanity, I can question why I am reacting this way and where those stereotypical thoughts come from. As a spiritual discipline, I can also recite 2 Corinthians 10:5 silently in my mind to challenge those deeply engrained lies:
“Take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ Jesus.”
For I deeply believe that one of the initial steps we need to take in loving GVBC’s neighbors is to first deal with how our stereotypes distort the way we view and treat them.