Make the Stranger Our Neighbor

Praying HandsAs chaplain of an Episcopal School with a long and storied history dating back to the American War for Independence, I appreciate the role of continuing the historical legacy of the Anglican ethos. I love the tension between the local and universal, the process and the end product, the conservative and liberal, the secular and spiritual. These tensions provide another avenue in which we can help develop our students’ cognitive ability to hold in balance two opposing views. The Episcopal Academy during its history has taken risk in terms of addressing social issues, relocating to new campuses, and transforming our mission. If anything has been consistent since 1785, then it is change.

Living out the Gospel through the Anglican ethos presents some challenges when it comes to inclusion and the celebration of diversity. We fail in the celebration of diversity when we view it strictly through the American political lens or landscape. When The Episcopal Academy made efforts to broaden our definition of neighbor, it was successful when approached through the prism of the Gospel, of the Good News of the Kingdom at hand for all people. This is not say, “Change is not difficult.” It is.

For some folks, change either comes too quickly or too slowly. Nevertheless, as a school, we have adapted to various changes such as becoming co-educational, advancing science and STEM programs, and creating a partnership with St. Marc’s School in Haiti. In addition to these changes in program, we have come to terms with various social issues. As a result, we now welcome students who represent different races, socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and, most recently, students in transition. It would be inauthentic of me to say that the changes came without any tension or without division. However, I can say that having the Anglican ethos to steer us through these changes has often granted proponents and opponents of these changes to take a breath and to allow dialogue to take place, a dialogue that has helped both parties empathize with and try to understand the other’s beliefs. Also, the Anglican Ethos of being open has helped us to adopt Jesus’ message that all people are loved by God.

One of the summations I have parsed from my own study of the Gospel is that Jesus expanded the definition of neighbor to become more universal. Therefore, the shift in the Biblical Injunction to love your neighbor as yourself becomes more inclusive. As a result, the conservative has learned in this context to love the liberal and vice versa. The Christian to love the Muslim and vice versa. The theist to love the non-theist and vice versa. In reality we are all called to make the stranger our neighbor.

Taking the teachings of Jesus Christ to embrace the other while promoting justice and mercy provide for us as chaplains the ability to explain, “Yes, even though we are a Christian School, we can welcome all people with radical hospitality just as Jesus welcomed the Samaritan woman to become an evangelist, allowed the Syrophoenician woman to dismantle the elitism of purity laws, and embraced the lepers when no one else would.” This idea of expanding the definition of neighbor to become more inclusive is played out in all four gospels. Therefore, as chaplains, we will continuously ask the question, “Am I being inclusive at anyone’s expense.” The ideal of inclusion comes from God; it is God’s gift to us. Sadly, the practice of inclusion is often short lived by humans. We can live out the ideal if we first listen to others. Perhaps, what if our first response is I never thought about it that way instead of I disagree with you when we find ourselves on opposite sides of an issue. In addition, what if we entertained the possibility of being wrong – even if just hypothetically?  Finally, what if we constantly reminded ourselves that God loves our opponents as much as he loves us, then would we be able to allow the image of God in us to acknowledge the image of God in others.

Our times, because of the political turmoil we face as a country, wreak havoc on unity and communion. The dissension and divisiveness in our country may easily be manifested in our schools and all other institutions. Perhaps if we remember the Gospel takes precedence over political party, social ideology and even the Constitution of the United States, then we can embrace all people, challenge all people, and accept all people in the name and practice of Jesus Christ. William Butler Yeats says, “Things fall apart/ the center does not hold.” As chaplains we are often at the center of things and with the Anglican ethos and the Gospel of Jesus Christ as our compass and love as our motive, we can embrace the polar ends and can make every stranger our neighbor.

In closing, loving our neighbor as ourselves may be the basic way to live out the Christian life and to live out the injunction of the Baptismal Covenant to respect the individual dignity of every human being. The Gospel as expressed through the Anglican Ethos presents us with a unique opportunity to serve all of God’s people. We may not find common ground on politics or social issues, but we may find a common spiritual horizon where we stand on the premise that God loves all people not just those who agree with us.

About the Author

Tim GavinNow Head Chaplain at The Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, PA, Tim directs the spiritual program and offers pastoral care to the community. He also leads the partnership program for St. Marc’s School in Haiti, and has developed a partnership between Episcopal Academy’s fifth grade and the fifth grade at St. James School (Philadelphia). In the past, he has held several positions at Episcopal Academy: Media specialist in the library, Dean of Students, Form Dean, English and religion teacher, and Lower School Chaplain.