Heart Your Hood | Thoughts On Serving Your Neighbor
The carnival was a bit of a novel idea in this city. Living in New York for the past two years, I have come to realize that things here are rarely free. When they are, there is usually a catch involved. Because of this, New Yorkers often have a reputation for being suspicious people, and perhaps there is some truth to that.
In a city where we are constantly bombarded by lights, sounds, and faces, all demanding our attention to various degrees, it’s not surprising that we become guarded and wary.
That being said, we knew how crazy we must have looked setting up a carnival in Central Park. In the thick heat of New York summer, sixty high school students took over a piece of Central Park. Their goal on that sunny Sunday afternoon was to give families a free way to have fun together in the heart of the city. They prepped face paints, hula-hoops, and water guns, and then waited to see if any real New Yorkers would actually show up.
In the pit of our stomachs was a buzz of excitement tempered by a queasy fear that people would not notice or even actively reject what we had to offer.
As the families began to trickle into our small section of the park, they were greeted by cheerful teens inviting them to make bracelets, toss beanbags, and even play Whack-a-Mole. All told, somewhere around 200 kids and their parents joined us for a few hours on the Central Park lawn. The kids were delighted by the number of stations and prizes they had to choose from (12 in all), and their parents were taken aback by the fact that we weren’t asking anything from them in return. The suspicion they initially felt was swept aside by the joy on their kids’ faces. Some of the parents even got in on the games themselves!
This experience made me think about how we approach love and grace as we serve in our neighborhoods.
Because we are all inherently suspicious of something for which we owe nothing in return, we constantly need to be reminded of the free love offered to us in Jesus Christ. Our guarded hearts are always in need of the refreshing freedom of Jesus’s grace, and without that reminder, we are unable to love our neighborhood as well. One of my favorite descriptions of this is in Galatians chapter 5, first verse 1:
"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."
Paul reminds us here first, and most importantly, that we have been set free, and that we did nothing to earn our own freedom. Christ saved us and set us free because of his great care for us. And because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we no longer have to feel trapped by and enslaved to our fears, our suspicions, or our need to put ourselves first. This is a huge factor in loving and serving our neighbors. We get to use that freedom to look outside ourselves and find people around us who need care. Paul goes on to say, in verses 13 and 14 that we “were called to freedom” and that we “should not use our freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love, serve one another.” Instead of returning to the slavery of sin, we should use our freedom as an opportunity to share the love that we have received from Jesus with others.
This is the heart of the gospel: the fact that Jesus has saved us, not because of what we did, but because of His grace and love for His people. In response we get to share His joy, peace, and love with those around us just as freely.
Those high school students knew the freedom that comes from the Gospel, and in their freedom they reached out to the city, hoping to bless its people. Watching these students serve my neighborhood was a true reflection of Christ’s love at work, and the New Yorkers we met during the carnival hopefully experienced just a small portion of the overwhelming, free love that Jesus offers to all people.
Submitted by Daniel O'Shoney, OSNY Midtown Parish Elder