Loving My Neighbour in Unequal Times

February is known for red hearts, chocolates and roses. In 2022 it’s also the month of little for many after the expenses of January are (not always) accounted for.  Just yesterday my 6 year old heard me organising lunch packs for an Arise group and in response to his asking why, I mentioned that it was to ensure that there weren’t hungry people.  His reply was, “Mama, you can make sandwiches until I am an adult and there will still not be enough food”.

There was a part of me that was amazed at his grasp of the lack of food security for many, but also a deep sadness at the fact that what he said was true.  How do we respond to this? The reality is that for too many people, food, housing and basic sanitation are challenges – that’s before we even consider things like a right to education and health care.

Wilhelm Verwoed defines responsibility as ‘what is the response we can choose within our ability.’  We would ask the question, who and where are your spheres or scopes of influence? 

The realisation that this problem is so much bigger than the handing out of coins or cans at a traffic light or at every knock on the door can feel overwhelming, or discouraging – so how do we respond within our ability?

What relationships do we have with organisations and groups who are addressing the various needs of the South African society? Who can you partner with who is working with vulnerable communities?  This doesn’t need to be sandwiches.  It can be a faithful (small or large) monthly donation, or offering to cover particular costs for a specific time frame.  It can be asking what resources are needed and following up – when we invest interest and get to know the people doing the work, we become part of the bigger response.

What relationships do we have with individuals and families?  Getting to know the people in your area, your neighbours who live in informal housing, or are in regular transit through your community seeking opportunities is another practical response.  This doesn’t mean always having something to share with them – sometimes it is a check in, a quick chat or a time of encouragement together.

Relationships, in whatever form, shift the challenges from a “their problem” to a collective “our problem” and change the way in which we compassionately respond. Compassion doesn’t mean “ag shame” in our South African context, but rather empathically and with dignity, responding to people as having worth, as worthy of being seen.

Relationships also require that we examine and reflect on our own biases and fears in response to the challenges of inequality. Is it a sense of helplessness or shame holding us back from a practical step?  Is it fear – of the other or that should we share or give that we won’t have enough? Perhaps it’s simply the unknown of how to respond without feeling like we need to be the rescuer.  In relationship we can step away from needing to rescue and towards collaboratively seeking understanding and solutions.

As parents, teachers or people working with children, we have the opportunity to equip children, from a young age with awareness and skills needed to respond with a healthy social conscience.  Too often we want to shield children from the harsh parts of the world we are in and yet, they surprise us with questions like: “why are there so many people on busses “when we never use the bus or “why is that man asking for things” at a traffic light or even “why are those people living under the bridge”?

These are all invitations to talk about the world we are in and to invite the children in our lives to consider what a response could be or to explore options together.  We will never be able to make enough sandwiches to feed everyone but we can choose to respond to that which is in our ability. Out of relationship and with dignity.

For more on this have a listen to Arise’s Lunch Time Talk in which Dani and Alexa dive a little deeper into this topic.

Written by Alexa Russell Matthews