Faith Matters: Who is our neighbor?

  • Rev. Dr. Adele Smith-Penniman of Wendell. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Rev. Dr. Adele Smith-Penniman of Wendell. July 12, 2018 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Unitarian Universalist minister, retired
Published: 7/29/2018 9:30:14 PM

(Each Saturday, a faith leader in Franklin County offers a personal perspective in this space. To become part of this series, email or call 413-772-0261, ext. 265.)


When I retired from full-time Unitarian Universalist ministry, I moved to Wendell, a quirky town known for its sense of community. Its Good Neighbors program offers food, clothing and emergency small loans. It is not unusual to drive an elder to an appointment or to exchange vegetables for firewood. And the community pulled together to build an impressive library that is often busy night and day with programs for all ages.

As people of faith, who do we see as our neighbor? Unitarian Universalism is guided by seven principles, the first of which is the inherent worth and dignity of every person. How might we expand our circle of neighbors to include the stranger in our midst? Scripture from the world’s religions abounds with commandments about welcoming the oppressed. Repeatedly, the Torah admonishes that because the Hebrew people were once slaves in Egypt, we need open our hands and hearts to the least among us. If we haven’t ourselves been strangers in the metaphorical land of Egypt our forebears have. Let us not forget that, at some point, almost all of us were immigrants.

The Qur’an reminds us that righteousness is not about whether one bows to the east or west but rather about our commitment to the sacred and to loving those in need, the traveler, the near neighbor and the far neighbor. The third-grade Christian can recite, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” but do we adults seek to practice it? Why are we more apt to build walls rather than bridges? Can we name our fear and move beyond it?

Last week, I was at a People of Color retreat at a Buddhist center. A meditation teacher spoke of holding in tandem compassion and joy. The world aches; tears flow as we strive to practice tikkun, to mend or repair a broken world. But our efforts — the meetings, petititons, prayers — must be balanced by joy.

May we open to a neighbor’s smile, a walk down the road, a cup of chamomile tea. May we lift up the small steps we each can take to make this a bit better place. In the words of the Talmud, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, do mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

The Book of Matthew reminds us that, sisters and brothers, we are one family: “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Who is our neighbor? All of us.

Rev. Dr. Adele Smith-Penniman, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, preaches in the area, works toward peace with justice, and attends Mount Toby Friends (Quaker) Meeting.

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