At the food pantry where I work, I recently acquired a new office mate. Space is scarce, so we’re paired up even though our work has little intersection. Mostly we sit with our backs to one another typing away at our computers. Once a day I try to get to know her better by asking 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 one ….)
All of these are variations of another question I’ve been trying to ask a lot more lately: “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 childhood on a farm. Another man saw God as distant and formidable, much like his father.
The exchange brought us closer together and helped us better understand each other’s world.
“This was so easy,” I thought, so proud of discovering this new tool for building relationships. “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 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 did. I got in my car and drove to work without saying a word.
That evening I arrived home to find that police officers had blocked off the entrances to my building. My neighbors and I 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 life, then turned the gun on himself.
For months my neighbor’s Mustang remained parked two spots down from my 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 it towed. “What if you turned it into something beautiful instead of something tragic?” she asked. “Put a flower on his windshield. Or write him a note.”
I decided that night to leave my neighbor a letter: “Michael, 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 you’ve found peace.”
God challenges us to know and love our neighbors. Who is God calling you to reach out to today?