Deuteronomy 30:914; Psalm 25:19; Luke 10:2537
The lawyer who came up to Jesus seemed to say just the right thing:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your
soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor
“Do this,” Jesus said, “and you will live”; that is, you will have
life abundant, life full of meaning, mountaintop life even when you are
in the valley.
The lawyer was well pleased with Jesus’s response, but wanting to
justify himself, he asked, “So, who is my neighbor?” The lawyer was no
doubt looking for a feel-good answer, expecting Jesus to say that the
other lawyers were his neighbor, that those who worshipped with him in
the temple were his neighbor, that those who practiced Torah were his
Instead of answering the lawyer directly, Jesus told the man the
story of the Samaritan, the outsider, the supposed enemy of the Jews. A
man was left badly beaten up on the steep, desolate road from Jerusalem
to Jericho. The priest and the Levite, another religious figure, passed
But the Samaritan (today’s Palestinian) stops without hesitation,
raises the man to his feet, puts him on his own horse, takes him to the
innkeeper in Jericho and makes sure that the man will be given whatever
long term healing is necessary. He defies custom by reaching out to his
supposed enemy not just with band-aide help but with long-term
Who is my neighbor? It is the Samaritan, Jesus says, the one who
crosses over from the other side to bring healing…I am always
intrigued by how Jesus tells stories, parables, to explain his most
profound teaching. His way of teaching invites us to tell our own
stories to explain his teaching.
Well, who is my neighbor? I’d like to speak to that question by
telling two stories, one written up in the Atlantic Monthly a few years
back and one I experienced many years ago in my early ministry in
Conway, South Carolina. I chose the South Carolina story because this is
the Sunday we celebrate the great people of that state, my home state.
The special “neighbors” in both stories are teenage girls. First the
story from the Atlantic Monthly.
SuAnne Big Crow was the best girls’ basketball player that the
Ogallala Sioux (from the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota) ever
produced. And girls’ basketball is big in that part of the country. In
1991 a year after her graduation from high school, SuAnne died
tragically in an automobile accident, but she had already become
something of a legend before that.
People remember her for her mastery of the basketball court of
course, but it was during a particular game during her ninth grade year
that SuAnne showed us all the way, the Good Samaritan way of claiming
what is best in us and of giving others an opportunity to claim what is
best in them. In the Atlantic Monthly issue of December 1999, Ian
Frazier told what happened.
The Ogallala Basketball Team was away, far from the Indian
Reservation, playing the team from the town of Lead [pronounced LEED].
As SuAnne and her teammates were preparing for the game in the locker
room, they could hear the fans mocking them, this visiting team of
American Indians. The fans were chanting fake Indian sounds, like “Woo,
woo, woo, woo.” Like we used to make when we were children, imitating
the Indians we had seen in the movies.
When the girls came out the court, the mock Indian sounds and other
heckling became louder. “Where’s your welfare stamps?” “Who let you off
the reservation?” some hollered. The Lead High School band joined in
with fake Indian drumming and a fake Indian tune.
What would you do in a situation like that? When crowds of people
are putting you down, belittling you because of your racial and ethnic
identity. What do you do when others mean you harm? Do you declare open
war and throw things (as I would do) and yell back? Or do you withdraw
and refuse to play? SuAnne did neither.
She was the first of her teammates to come out on the basketball
court. Ian Frazier tells the rest of the story this way:
She came running onto the court dribbling the basketball, with her
teammates running behind. On the court the noise was deafening. [The
mean cat-calls were deafening.] SuAnne went right down the middle and
suddenly stopped when she got to center court. Her teammates were taken
by surprise, and some bumped into each other as she stopped…SuAnne turned to [a teammate] and tossed her the ball. Then she stepped
into the jump-ball circle at the center of the court facing the Lead
fans. She unbuttoned her warm-up jacket, took it off, draped it over
her shoulders, and began to do…the Lakota shawl dance. SuAnne knew
all the traditional dances (she had competed in many powwows as a little
girl), and the dance she chose is a young woman’s dance, graceful and
modest and show-offy all at the same time. And then she began to sing in
Lakota, swaying back and forth in the jump-ball circle, doing the shawl
dance, using her warm-up jacket for a shawl…The crowd went
“All that stuff the Lead fans were yelling—it was like she reversed
it somehow,” a teammate recalled. In the sudden quiet all they could
hear was her Lakota song. Finally, SuAnne dropped her jacket, took the
ball from her teammate, and ran a lap around the court dribbling
expertly and fast. The audience began to cheer and applaud. She sprinted
to the basket, went up in the air, and laid the ball through the hoop,
with the fans cheering loudly now. Of course [her team] went on to win
The Old Testament prophet Micah once said poignantly: “What does the
Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk
humbly with your God.” SuAnne insisted on justice. She would not let
her brave and beautiful people be put down by the prejudice and
mean-ness of others. That was completely unacceptable. But at the same
time, she demonstrated her love of kindness, even to those who would be
her enemies. She knew somehow, as we might put it, that Christ lives in
those same people. And finally, she demonstrated not a weak but a strong
humility, a courageous humility, before her God, our God!
SuAnne Big Crow took the very instrument of the fans’ prejudice,
their crude mocking Indian calls and fake drumming, and as the teammate
said, “reversed it,” changing it into something graceful and lovely and
sublime—a Lakota dance and a Lakota song.
Who is my neighbor? SuAnne Big Crow is my neighbor, but so are all of
those people in the stands who had been belittling her people but who
were able to see, through SuAnne, the loveliness of those same
people—they are my neighbor too.
Now let me take you all the way back to 1968 to Conway, South
Carolina. The year before, the Supreme Court had outlawed the South
Carolina plan to avoid integrating public schools. The next fall,
Conway High School finally took in its first black students, something
they had put off since the Supreme Court decision of 1954.
In 1968, I was a young priest with everything to learn at St. Paul’s
Church in Conway, a small town fifteen miles inland from Myrtle Beach,
South Carolina. Not so long before, the Klan had been strong in Conway.
Integrationists were widely viewed as the enemy, as Communists even. The
churches were completely segregated.
I had gotten to know Covel and Mary Green (I will call them), two
highly respected African-American public school teachers in Conway.
Their daughter Cheryl was one of the five students to integrate Conway
High. Toward the end of the school year in 1968, some of us at St.
Paul’s Church invited Cheryl to tell us what was going on for her and
the other black students.
I tell some of Cheryl story now because her story was repeated over
and over by young people of good will all over the South, and of course
in the North as well. During those very turbulent days of the 50s, 60s,
and early 70s, the teenagers were our teachers.
It was the teenagers, not the Supreme Court, not the Congress—as
important as their work was—it was the teenagers and the school children
who taught us adults about what it meant to be a neighbor.
Unfortunately, we need to learn their lesson as much now as we did then:
The schools and the culture in places like Washington, D.C. seem almost
as segregated now as then. In my work as canon missioner here the
National Cathedral, I see this segregation up close most every day.
That evening at St. Paul’s Church, Cheryl told her story something
like this: She did not want to go the white school. The morning before
the first day of school, she cried and cried. “I want to be with my own
friends,” she said. “Please, don’t make me go. Please, please.”
But then her daddy came over and put his arm around her. “Cheryl,” he
said, “you’ve got to go, not only for your sake, but for the sake of
your mother and father, and for the sake of your children that you will
have some say. Separate schools are not equal schools, Cheryl. Go and
try it for us.”
Cheryl finally agreed to go to the white school. The first day of
class the teacher was nice, but none of the other teens said one word to
her. She could see out of the corner of her eye that they were looking
at her in a funny way. It was a relief to meet with some of her friends
also new at this school when class was over.
She had been at school for three weeks before anyone spoke to her.
“It sure is lonely there,” she told her parents. And then when someone
did speak to her, he called her a bad name. She turned and ran from him
and when she got to a place where she was by herself, she cried and
cried and wanted to go back to the black school, where all her friends
were. When she returned home that day, she told her parents about what
happened, and they asked her to please keep trying…Another month
went by. Still, no one had talked with her.
It was the custom of the young people after school to cross a white
man’s yard in order to get to the school bus. Cheryl had been avoiding
walking across his yard even since school started. But all of the other
young people walked across the lawn, so one day she thought she’d just
take a short cut. When the white man saw her, he yelled at her. “Get
off my yard, you black…” I won’t say the rest.
This time Cheryl was really ready to quit. “They don’t want me
there, and I don’t want to go there,” she said over and over. Finally
her parents agreed. Once again her daddy came and put his arm around his
daughter and said, “Okay Cheryl, you’ve tried, you’ve really tried.
Finish the week, and we’ll see about getting you transferred back to
your own school.”
That made Cheryl happier than she had been in a long time. She would
only have to ride on the school bus four more times. But the next day on
the school bus, a white girl Cindy made a point of sitting next to her.
Tears were in her eyes. “Cheryl,” she said, “I’m real sorry that old man
yelled at you for walking across his nasty old yard.”
Cheryl and Cindy began a long conversation that lasted all day at
school and wasn’t over until they rode the bus back together that
afternoon. They became and still are good friends. Cheryl decided to
stay on at Conway High and when she talked to us at St. Paul’s, she was
making all A’s and B’s and planning to attend the University of South
…I have kept up with her parents, Covel and Mary. Several years
ago I visited them and found out that after graduating from Carolina,
Cheryl married a physician and that she and her husband are pillars of
the Conway community, the white and black Conway community.
Who is my neighbor? It is the Good Samaritans who cross over to the
other side to bring healing. It is the Cheryls, who have the courage to
do what is best for their people, who are after all, our people. It is
the Cindys, who have the courage to stand up in love for those put down.
It is all those wonderful people in my home state of South Carolina and
in every state who have learned the lesson of Cheryl and Cindy, of
SuAnne Big Crow and the people in the grandstands that night.
Who is my neighbor? It is all of you gathered here today. You are my
neighbor, our neighbor. Let us all be good neighbors and—when
necessary—courageous neighbors to one another and to those who live on
the other side.