A couple in Newton Massachusetts give birth to a daughter who is deaf. In response, twenty of their neighbors learn sign language and have been speaking to that child regularly for the last two years. Rather than having to travel hours away to learn how to sign at a school for the deaf, the little girl is able to stay in her community and learn by signing with her family and friends.
In my town, Hastings-on-Hudson, the high school wanted to put on a production of Hairspray. The play is homage to diversity, acceptance and integration. Because the student body isn’t itself diverse racially, they invited students from nearby towns Yonkers, Stamford and the Bronx to join their cast. The show is a hit – on every imaginable level.
In the recent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, there is a scene recounting when Mr. Rogers invited the postman, Mr. McFeely, to come soak his feet in his pool. This is a response to the resistance at the time to allowing African Americans to swim in the same public pools as their white neighbors. This decent man in a small public television studio in Pittsburgh transmitted a powerful signal to the country.
The origin of the word neighbor comes from combining an old English word “neah” meaning “near” and the Germanic word “bheue” meaning “to be, exist, grow.”
Together they suggest something so elemental to our existence - the importance of connecting with those around us in order to grow or add meaning to our lives.
There is an oft-cited phrase that fences make good neighbors. Some today might extend that to include walls.
These three stories demonstrate how short-sited that aphorism is – as these barriers limit our ability to truly see other people.
Whether the neighbor is next door in Newton, the next town over from Hastings or spanning across the airwaves and state lines as in Mr. Rogers. It is the lack of fences, walls, and boundaries – both literal and psychological - that allow us to fulfill this most fundamental part of being alive and growing.
Being a good neighbor asks us to see everyone - not just those next door or in our town - but across all borders - as someone with whom we share our planet and humanity. Someone with whom if we gave the time to be welcoming, we might both grow from that experience.