Dead for the Neighbors
Every six weeks or so, instead of going to a Sunday-morning service, the members of my church do
some kind of activity to serve the communities where we live: host a breakfast, rake fall leaves, paint
over walls slathered with graffiti. This past “scattering” Sunday, we worked to pick up trash and whack
weeds along a couple of the main streets in our neighborhood.
I ended up on Sunset Highway, a road whose name is far too romantic for its true nature: a crisscross
of bridges and railroad tracks like margins around the town. Grimy, busy, it’s an area where no one
belongs but many people make their desperate homes. I wouldn’t want to be there anytime near sunset, especially after (though the view’s not bad overlooking the creek, if you can forget that someone was lynched along there once). Wading through knee-high, muddy weeds, I sidestepped piles of dog (or human?) crap and tossed cigarette butts, half-empty beer bottles, Styrofoam peanuts, syringes, condom wrappers, and a few things too foul to name into a big garbage bag.
My knees started hurting from the up and down motion, and my fingers were wet through the gloves
from digging in the dirt to get crumbling scraps of plastic. But it sure felt good to be on a service-
project high. When people driving by started honking and giving us thumbs-ups, it was hard not to
think (and try to quickly squash down), “Yeah, man, I am doing something really good right now. I’m
getting filthy in order to love my neighbors, and on top of it, I’m caring for God’s creation. Look at me
I thought about what I would say if people stopped beside the road or walked out onto their front
porches to ask why we were picking up garbage. “We’re part of a church,” I would say. Or “We believe
it’s good to serve our community.” Or “We love God.” None of those sounded right. I realized I wasn’t
even thinking about the neighbors–wondering about their stories, their needs, their reasons for using
the needles we threw away–but was focused on my own actions.
Then the phrase “The love of Christ compels me” started blinking in my subconscious. When I looked
it up later, it turned out to be 2 Corinthians 5:14: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are
convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.”
Oh. Right. So I guess I don’t serve because I’m a good person. I don’t even serve primarily because
I’m part of a church that chooses to or because I can naturally drum up wellsprings of love for my
neighbors or the environment. My motivation is God’s love. I serve because Christ got down in the
filth and served. Because one died for all, I can die for my neighbors. Because of an infinite gift I
don’t deserve, I have the freedom, privilege, and joy of gathering up the McDonald’s bags, the candy
wrappers, the old tee-shirts, and the light bulbs my neighbors tossed out their cars.