Neighboring and Sheltering in Place

I’m writing this the morning of the fourth Sunday of Lent. The gospel lesson is the story of the man born blind, whom an un-beckoned Jesus hastens to heal as the disciples debate over who is to blame for his condition. My family will have “family church” at 10:30 this morning over chorizo egg bake, which I promised to the boys last night.

My state is one of the first five to receive an executive order to “stay at home.” The governor didn’t use the term, “shelter in place,” given that the phrase conjures frightening images of active shooters and classroom lockdowns in many people’s minds. For me, to shelter seems much more accurate to the purposeful action asked of us. Deriving from the word shield, to shelter is to take guard—and more so, to protect those who need guarding, as in providing lodging for the homeless poor or taking in stray animals. My having put egg bake in the oven and my spouse’s designing word games for the kids and our family bike rides each makes shelter for our family.

The difficulty is how to shield those who are not already under our roof. Whom else will I be summoned to shelter? What can hospitality look like across property lines or at distances of six feet? These may turn out to be my versions of the lawyer’s question to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Who is my neighbor? I am trying to stay open to an array of answers that I would not expect. After all, the summoned life, according to David Brooks, is more attuned to unexpected circumstances, difficult negotiations, and surprising opportunities than the well-planned life. (See Brooks’ The Summoned Self, New York Times, 2 August 2010).

Christ healing the blind (c. 1567)

El Greco (1541-1614)

Dresden State Art Collections.

I recently received an email from E, a recent graduate from my institutions. Students like E make me proud to teach at a church-related liberal arts school. He identifies as non-religious but would visit my office hours to discuss faith and hope and spiritual wellness. Soon after moving to Boston to look for jobs and attend to his mental health, he sent me the link to a short story about a young cancer patient who was dragged back into his abandoned Catholic faith at the end of his life. E wrote his final paper in my “Suffering, Death, and Endurance” class on the theodicy of hip-hop music, which first turned me on to the prophetic and profane musical artist, Brother Ali.

He reports that the streets of Boston have been disconcertingly quiet, like the calm before a storm. “Still, it’s not all bad,” he writes. “People are settling into their new norm. I’m starting to get involved with the mutual aid networks popping up across the country. It’s wonderful to see how much people are willing to share, both in knowledge and resources. I’m grateful for social media allowing us to stay connected while remaining distant.” He says he’s been organizing people in his Sommerville neighborhood, ensuring that channels of communication remain open. And then, with characteristic humility, E asks me for advice about how to talk with people about the pandemic itself. He confesses, “I’m not sure how to talk about this moment in time we’re living through. I want to be a source of stability, but I don’t want to be more than what I am.”

There’s so much here to comment on, including all the ways that E is serving the neighbor more creatively than me. I am particularly struck by the wisdom of not wanting to be more than he is. He could have said that he didn’t want to overextend himself or that he didn’t want to do more than he could effectively do, but his language is about personhood and character, not activities and tasks.

He’s writing about his ongoing vocational discernment, that understanding of himself and his necessary limits that must be carefully discerned and then bravely lived out in service to others. While many idealistic young adults bravely want to change the world in whatever ways they dream up, E has intuited the more discerning insight of Parker Palmer and others—namely, that pretending you are something you’re not is a recipe for resentment, then fatigue, and then cynicism. We must rather “accept that our lives are dependent on an inexorable cycle of seasons, on a play of powers that we can conspire with but never control” (Let Your Life Speak 97).

My family and I have also been in touch with C, a graduate from several years back who is now an intern doctor at a major university hospital in a state hit hard by COVID-19. C lived in Micah House her senior year, a living and learning community dedicated to the ideals of hospitality, service, spirituality, and vocational discernment. She wrote an honors thesis on identity formation through personal narratives among adolescents with chronic diseases. She did all this and graduated summa cum laude with a pre-med major while living with her own chronic, immunosuppressant disease, sometimes taking final exams from a hospital bed. She’s now trying to discern her appropriate place in the hospital rotation, having gone into medicine and knowing all too well the life-and-death balance of self-care and other-care that every nurse and doctor is now negotiating as well.

Reading her texts, I thought of Henri Nouwen’s description of “wounded healers”—those who know their own vulnerabilities and limits (like the ultimate limit of mortality) well enough to compassionately help others. Compassionate healers avoid “the distance of pity,” but also the “exclusiveness of sympathy” that results from over-identifying with a select group (Wounded Healer 45). Like the Good Samaritan, they “come near” (Luke 10:33) and are moved to help any who summon them. But they know, too, that nobody is helped for long by rash self-sacrifice.

The last we heard, C had been working to help assign incoming coronavirus patients to medical teams or recommend transfer to affiliate sites. This is important, meaningful work, which also prevents her from having direct contact with patients, minimizing the risk that she will need a hospital bed and ventilator of her own.

Jesus answers the question, “And who is my neighbor?” by expanding the lawyer’s circle of concern and turning it outside-in. It’s not only that the Samaritan, the one disregarded by Judeans in Jesus’s day, should be counted as the neighbor. This candidate for receiving the lawyer’s love also becomes the central exemplar of what it means to compassionately, capably respond when summoned. You should love like the neighbor you don’t yet love, the one loving and neighboring you. While I hope I’ve never disregarded students, learning neighbor love from those that I am called to teach has its own surprising, parabolic lesson.

My colleague M, who teaches in our music department, also reached out by email last week. She is a wise leader within the “Education-for-Vocation” seminar that I coordinated for faculty and student life staff this academic year. She wrote to me of that key vocational discernment question we had discussed a few weeks before: “To what am I being summoned?” Then referencing the worldwide pandemic: “If this is not a moment of summoning, I don’t know what is.”


Jason Mahn is Professor of Religion and Director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College in Illinois. He is the author of the essay, “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things,” which appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). The above is adapted from Jason’s new book project, tentatively entitled Neighbor Love through Fearful Days: Real-time Reflections on the Coronavirus.

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