At the food pantry where I work, I recently acquired a new officemate.
Where we work, office space is scarce, so we’re paired up despite the fact our work has little intersection. Mostly we sit with our backs to one another typing away at our separate computers. Once a day I make a practice of trying to get to know my officemate better by asking her some of life’s most important questions:
What’s your favorite day of the week? (Saturday, it turns out.)
What’s your favorite holiday? (Sukkot.)
If your face were a song, what song would it be? (I never did get an answer to this last one.)
All of these questions, of course, are variations on another question I’ve been trying to ask a lot more lately, and that is, “What’s your story?”
Last spring I tried the question out in an adult Bible study at my church. “What do you think God looks like?” I asked the group. “And how do you think your experiences have made you see God that way?”
The answers were profound. One woman saw God as a sustainer and provider and connected the image with her own childhood on a farm. Another man saw God as distant and formidable, much like his own father growing up.
The exchange brought us closer together and helped us better understand each other’s world.
“This was so easy,” I thought to myself, so proud of discovering this new tool for relationship-building. “Why didn’t we start this long ago?”
Only a few weeks later, though, I discovered just how difficult it could be to ask that same question to those who perhaps need to be asked the most.
One morning as I was walking out the back gate of my condo building, I found a neighbor standing in the parking lot, leaning against his cerulean blue Ford Mustang, staring off into the distance.
I waited for him to turn so I could make eye contact and say good morning, but he never turned to look at me. I got in my car and drove to work without saying a word.
When I returned home that evening, police officers had blocked off the entrances to our building. All of my neighbors had gathered on the sidewalk to make our best guesses as to what had happened. Days later we learned that our neighbor had invited a friend into his home, taken his friend’s life, then turned the gun on himself.
For months my neighbor’s Mustang remained parked two spots down from my own car while his family decided what to do with his belongings. Each day I’d pass it thinking, “What happened? How could you ever reach a point where you’d get so desperate, sad or angry? What did I not know about your life?”
Seeing his car every day – this reminder of what had happened – eventually began to bother me so much that I told a friend I wanted to have the car towed.
“What if you turned it into something beautiful instead of something tragic?” she asked me. “Put a flower on his windshield. Or write him a note.”
I decided that night to leave my neighbor a letter.
“Michael,” I wrote. “I’m sorry that I never got to know you better. I’m sorry I never thought to ask you about your story. I wish I could have told you that I have also felt sad, desperate and angry. If there’s something I could have said that morning that would have made a difference, I’m sorry I didn’t say it. I hope that you’ve found peace.”
God challenges us to know and love our neighbors. Who is God calling you to reach out to today?