Michael Howes is husband to the Rev. Sue Conrad Howes, father to Michael and Emily, and an ordained pastor in Mennonite Church USA, although he currently serves as Pastor of Youth and Faith Formation at Lancaster Church of the Brethren. For the last 25 years he’s pastored everywhere from rural west Texas to the most economically and ethnically diverse suburbs of Washington, D.C. He loves making Sue laugh and all things nerdy.
In 1 John 3:16, the author writes, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”
My wife Sue and I live, very much by choice, in the most diverse part of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Now, the notion of diversity in Lancaster might strike you as funny, but it’s not all plain folks hereabouts.Our block is old homes, built more than a hundred years ago. Some have been rehabbed into nice one-household places, and some have been subdivided into much less well-maintained apartments.
Meet some of our neighbors – I gave them different names for the sake of their privacy: to our left, two doors down, lives George. George is in his 50s and has some cognitive disabilities, but is able, with support, to live independently. Most evenings, when I get home, George is on his front porch, and greets me enthusiastically. I’ve never known George to be in anything less than a stellar mood.
On the other side of us live Sam and his daughter Tina. Sam is on disability and one of the ways he and Tina get by is the local food bank. It must be one where each household receives a prepackaged box of whatever is available that week. Here’s how I know: Sam sets the items he and Tina can’t use out on the edge of their porch, for others to have as they have need. In our neighborhood, it all goes quickly.
Between George and us live Bobby and Martha. Like Sue and me, they are white collar folks with good jobs. We’ve never been inside each other’s homes, but we tell one another when we’re going away on vacation and I’ve borrowed the odd tool from Bobby. About a year ago, I noticed something. Bobby and Martha are porch sitters – they are there in the evening with a cool drink. Then George became part of their porch crew, just about every evening. George who laughs too loud and, beyond the sports teams on which he fixates, doesn’t have a lot of conversation. And then, the party moved inside. Through the dining room wall we share, I would hear George, laughing, at dinner with Martha and Bobby. Then baseball season started, and Bobby and George began walking over regularly to see our local minor league team, the Barnstormers.
In the summer, George trundles his push mower down the sidewalk and cuts Sam’s grass for him – we all have tiny back yards. When it snows, I see George and Bobby up and down the street, shoveling folks’ walks and digging their cars out.
Here’s what I find incredibly challenging: of the seven of us, Sue and I are the only ones who go to church regularly. As professional religious people, we regularly exhort people from the pulpit to demonstrate God’s love in their actions.
On the average Sunday morning, I get home from church having told people to love their neighbors in the name of Jesus and in the power of his Spirit, to find my neighbors, with their right wing bumper stickers, in fact, loving one another.
Talk is cheap.
What I need desperately is to learn from my irreligious, unchurched or de-churched neighbors, in and through whom I see the Spirit of Jesus powerfully at work. Through them I truly see that Love is a Verb.