How Do You Love Your Neighbors When They're 'Bad' People?

By Josh Harper 5-17-2013 | Series:
Woman in urban environment, Jose AS Reyes /
Woman in urban environment, Jose AS Reyes /

How do you love your neighbor when your neighbors sell drugs and exploit young women? I’m serious — this is a legitimate question that I am asking myself a lot lately and I am not sure I have the answer.

Nine years ago my wife and I moved into East Oakland to become a part of a small church community called New Hope and to direct InterVarsity’s Urban Project in the Bay Area. We’ve weathered some challenging experiences: stolen cars, physical assault, hearing a lot of shootings, witnessing a shooting, breaking up domestic violence, seeing a friend’s family torn apart by domestic violence, and endless amounts of trash on the streets. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to love about our neighborhood and community, but in recent months I think I’ve reached my limit.

The family that recently moved in across the street is friendly. The folks hanging out on the porch and the kids playing tetherball off the street sign honestly do contribute to the vibrant life of the block. But when I saw a total of 12 drug deals go down in broad daylight in the span of three days, loving my neighbor became a lot harder.

Similarly, the single mom neighbor next door was very sweet while she lived there; it’s her “boyfriend” with whom I have problems. Several months ago I broke up a fight between them that spilled out onto the sidewalk. Another neighbor saw her working the corner down the street. She moved out, he stayed. A police officer recently came by looking for a missing 12-year-old girl thought to be with this neighbor. This makes me sick.

Two weeks ago a woman was shot and killed on our block. She tried to drive away from an attempted robbery and the perpetrator shot her in the stomach. She drove past our house and continued for one more block before she stopped in the middle of a busy intersection. She died on the way to the hospital. This was the second homicide within two blocks of my house in the past six weeks.

Yes, I have definitely reached my limit.

My response to all of this is to be cold and devoid of compassion. I don’t like living here when this kind of stuff is happening all around me all of the time. I don’t care about these neighbors. I want them to leave. I want the ones breaking the law to be locked up for a long time. The fact that these situations are a shootout waiting to happen concerns me greatly in that I don’t want my family to be nearby when it happens. But if it did and these guys were to be killed, I probably would not care (before you judge, take note that most of America doesn’t care about young urban people of color killing each other either).

I took these feelings to God. I lamented.

God met me in my cold-hearted, compassionless place and gently reminded me that my neighbors are the face of a complicated web of oppression, brokenness, and poverty. Sin. I wept. I teach college students about systemic injustice and how God’s coming kingdom of Shalom will make all things new and right. I do this for a living, and I believe this most of the time, but all of that feels like a fairytale in light of these recent events. I am powerless and paralyzed in the shadow of a mountain of injustice.

Realizing and grieving my limitations is a good thing. Ultimately the task of making all things new is God’s work. I have a part to play and a responsibility, but it is not my burden to bear. This is so freeing.

In the freedom of our limitations, our community turned to prayer and coming together for mutual support. The stress and challenges of living here persist, but as we acknowledge our weakness and vulnerability we reaffirm our dependence on God and experience a renewal in our vision for living in and seeking the shalom of our neighborhood. 

Josh Harper is a husband, father, community member, urban chicken farmer. He contributes to the well-being of his family by working as the National Coordinator of Urban Projects for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Image: Woman in urban environment, Jose AS Reyes /

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