It’s easy in California to find a home, hide behind fences, cocoon in one’s abode, and come out only to travel the freeways to work. Finding community in many neighborhoods is rare. People are unlikely to know the names of more than two or three families on their street. Laughing along with sitcoms and crying at disturbing news seems to be our most common way of connecting, but it isn’t very satisfying.
I’m no different, having a distant relationship with most of my neighbors. I may wave, but I get my needs met for community at my church, through professional associations, and by serving in support of a number of local charities. But that changed recently.
Jennifer Pahlka said it well: “When one neighbor helps another, we strengthen our communities.” Our next-door neighbor, Marc Bennett, has ALS and needs the community’s support.
ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, progressively affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The death of motor neurons impacts the control of voluntary muscles. It is characterized by having stiff muscles, muscle twitching and gradually worsening weakness due to the failing of the body’s muscle system. There is currently no treatment or cure for this debilitating disease and ultimately leads to complete paralysis. Individuals diagnosed with ALS in Marc’s age group typically see a life expectancy of 2-5 years. Fortunately, Marc’s disease has progressed more slowly resulting in both blessings and challenges.
This was not my first time facing this dread disease. Years ago, my office assistant, Sharon Riding, contracted a fast-progressing familial strain of ALS. Her grandfather and father had died of the disease. I had no idea how fast I would lose her. She was committed to me and wanted to find a replacement. By the time she left my office, she tried to take a trip with her husband Ben. But she was too weak and had to come home. She died relatively quickly. Both her sons would succumb to ALS years later. We have contributed to defeat ALS in her honor, but it was learning of Marc’s diagnosis that has allowed us to serve him, honor her, and call on the community to help.
While helping with yard work at the Bennetts, another neighbor stopped to talk. When she learned about Marc’s diagnosis, Sandy suggested that we challenge the neighborhood to contribute to a GoFundMe campaign. We approached Marc and Allyson, and, after consideration, identified specific needs that they could not afford without help. Marc needed a converted van with a ramp that would allow him to travel with his family to places they still wanted to see together. They needed to remodel one bathroom to allow easy access. We worked together to craft and establish his campaign, www.gofundme.com/help-marc-fight-als. With the help of GoFundMe and Facebook, over 200 people have helped them reach well over half of their goal within two weeks. People were writing, emailing, calling, and stopping by to offer their support and encouragement.
In this challenging time with fires, mud slides, school shootings, and disasters of every variety, we need community and are seeing it from Montecito, California to Parkland, Florida. What’s exciting is that people find a way to get beyond the fences and the distance to be the neighbors we’re called to be. What’s even more revealing is that we are better for having done so.
Studies of national disasters documented in the U.S. Library of Medicine indicate that contrary to the assumption that major natural disasters and other crises trigger mass disruption, disorder, and social breakdown, there were many more reports of altruism, cooperativeness, and camaraderie among the affected populations. The rioting and looting get the headlines and become the focus of the evening news. But they found consistently that the greater the danger or disease people face, the more likely those involved strengthen their attachments with family, friends, and neighbors. Such common cause in support of one’s neighbor tends to override traditional differences and barriers among people such as race, age, and socioeconomic status.
In this age of division and polarization, we need to encourage and support neighbors looking for ways to truly be neighbors. As Hubert Humphrey, “The impersonal hand of government can never replace the helping hand of a neighbor.” Too many look to government when it’s our job to be good neighbors wherever we are.
There is a reward that comes with caring enough to make a difference as neighbors. Harold Kushner shares some practical, timeless wisdom: “The happiest people I know are people who don't even think about being happy. They just think about being good neighbors, good people. And then happiness sort of sneaks in the back window while they are busy doing good.”