Kinship and Embrace: Or Why My Neighborhood Isn't Sketchy

Scott and I recently moved to New Hampshire, what we fondly refer to as “the land of the free,” to the outskirts of a cute up-and-coming town. At some point in the process, I heard someone say that we were in a “sketchy” area. Why? Because down the road from us is a “club” which hosts meetings for people in addiction recovery.

Every day, a few minutes before noon, I see cars parking along our street, and I watch as women and men, some arriving in pairs, begin the walk down the hill. Apparently this person was convinced the recovery center would pull in “all sorts”—thus the “sketchy” label. But if you watch the people walking to their AA meetings, or returning to their cars, they look very normal. Some of them drive nice cars. Many are dressed in business attire, clearly slipping away from work on a lunch break. Just normal people, putting one foot in front of the other, profoundly aware of their weaknesses, fighting to put (or keep) their lives together. When I see them, I don’t think they’re “sketchy”—I think they’re brave.

I’m becoming increasingly skeptical of this term “sketchy” and the perspective which lies behind it, because I’m realizing that we typically employ it for things or people different than us or that we don’t understand.

In the case of the club, there was an assumption that people struggling with addiction are going to fit a particular profile, are going to be different than most of the middle-class white area. There’s an assumption they’ll be rough around the edges, dangerous. We like to picture alcoholics and drug addicts as scruffy, unshaved, unshowered middle-age men, much like the ones we see sitting with cardboard signs along our city streets. But point out that most of these addicts are going to look much more like the reflections we see when we look in the mirror, and we become uncomfortable. Point out that many of those homeless men, instead of “choosing to become homeless” as I recently heard someone quip, once had lives that looked very much like ours, and we squirm and offer our caveats for why it’s really their fault. It’s much easier to see them as markedly different, separate, other. Realizing that we’re very much the same—it hits a bit too close to home.

And this is when we see that we’ve lost sight of our basic kinship. In the words of Mother Teresa, “we have forgotten we belong to each other.” As soon as we can label someone or put them in an “other” category, we have shifted from seeing them as a fellow human being, beloved, made in the image of God, to something less-than.

It’s a basic part of human nature, this reaction. We’re more comfortable and trusting with people who are like us, and we find it incredibly easy to put those unlike us in a box, into a category, to keep them at arm’s length. We call something “sketchy” and then give ourselves permission to give into fear of those different than us, give ourselves permission to set up walls. We use safety as an excuse for prejudice and exclusion. We slap labels on other people, we cultivate fear at that which we do not understand, and we keep our distance.

This, I’m afraid, is something Jesus would have had little tolerance for. He broke the boundaries of “other”-ness. He went to those on the margin of his world; he didn’t stay away from them. He interacted and welcomed people from cultures, ethnicities, religions, walks of life, and professions that his culture despised. Jesus was one of embrace, not exclusion.

Scott likes to say that you can’t hate someone that you understand. You also can’t push someone to the margins or stereotype them if you see their basic humanity, their kinship, the ways they’re very much like you. A person can’t be an “other” when you see them as a brother, a mother, a sister, a friend. They can’t be an “other” or an outcast when you see your own weaknesses and recognize that but for a different sequence of events, you could be as they are.

Kinship. Embrace. This was the way of Jesus. As his children, we should strive to look like him.