Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor - My Literal Challenge

A few months after I became a Christian, God started testing me on this. Apparently He wanted to ensure that there was no way I’d miss it because he put it right in my front yard.

I live in a quiet, single-family neighborhood of mostly historic cottages. It’s the kind of place where all the neighbors are friends and take care of each other’s houses when they’re out of town. A couple years ago a developer decided that what our block needed was a 6,000 square foot, Italian renaissance McMansion. Not surprisingly it sat vacant for years until last winter when an extremist religious sect from Canada rented it out. Now the actual religion doesn’t matter but God decided to be ironic and our new neighbors began running a Hasidic synagogue out of the house. Almost overnight the streets were swarming with Jews (again, I’m only mentioning this because of the irony).

Approximately 30 people live in the house and at least another 50 rent nearby homes. The Grand Rebbe lives in the behemoth on my street so that’s where most all of the activity takes place. Apparently he’s world-famous and people from all around make pilgrimages to the house to be blessed by him (I think the going rate is $3,000 per blessing but I won’t even touch that aspect). Aside from the daily influx of people (and cars) from all over, the synagogue hosts huge parties with hundreds of guests about 3 times a week. The street becomes impassable to cars and our lawns and sprinkler systems were quickly torn up from the guests parking on our properties. 18-wheelers are not uncommon sights as they bring deliveries of beds, chairs, food and anything else necessary to accommodate the daily requirements of a such a facility (it stopped being a home a long time ago).

The worst part though, is that the neighborhood has become a campus. There are far too many people around for them to conduct business in the house and at all times of the day and night men are milling around, forever attached to their cell phones, in the middle of the street and on our properties. It seems our homes are a mere extension of their territory and they have no qualms about making use of them. On one occasion I found a woman plopped down on my front porch. I asked her what she was doing and she said she was waiting to see the Rebbe. She never offered an apology for using my porch as a waiting room. Another time a woman drove her car straight over the sidewalk and fully onto my front yard parking about 1 foot off my porch. She calmly got out of the car and walked over to the see the Rebbe as if she had done nothing wrong. Apparently I am here at her disposal. Cigarette butts litter the streets and the constant cell phone conversations make quiet evenings relaxing on our patios impossible. Spot lights on the house (kept on all night), headlights from cars (left on to provide more light for them), slamming car doors and hours of chanting (outside) keep us up through the night. This is the norm now.

Now you ask, how can this be legal? Well, thanks to a federal statute called RLUIPA, that I know far more about than I ever wanted to, groups are allowed to hold religious services at any home, in any zoning district that they want. Not to mention the fact that any other time this has happened (yes they’ve done this to many neighborhoods before) if residents put up a fuss, the group sued the city for millions – and won. Hence, our city doesn’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole. So we’re stuck with it.

As a Christian, it’s a daily struggle to love thy neighbor while they show such disrespect. My first method of dealing with it was to try to make friends. Despite the fact that they had never even returned my “hellos,” I agreed to help them on the Sabbath when they asked me to push two strollers up the street to another rental home. I figured this might be a good way to get to know them. It was quite a surprise when, during the walk, the men walked about 15 ahead of me and the women about 15 feet behind. Ignoring my attempts at conversation, I was astonished to be treated like hired help.

Now I try to look at it from a forgiveness perspective. Clearly their lack of respect is a violation of the command to love they neighbor since love and respect go hand in hand so I try to remember how much of a sinner I was (and still am) and how God has shown such grace in forgiving me. This one is easier though when you are dealing with people who have little understanding of, or feel a need to obey, God’s commands. What makes this situation different is that the very problem stems from their running an organization that's centered on the very concepts of following God’s commands. After all the Old Testament is what they’re all about. It’s hard not to see them as hypocrites especially with their apparent lack of repentance for their obvious violation of God’s command. They’ve made the comment that Gentiles are on the same order as dogs, thus warranting zero respect for us. It’s just so hard to forgive. How does God do it!?!?

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