Being a good neighbor
Old endings and new beginnings come together in our community all the time. This is how change happens.
For many of us, living the past year in the midst of a public health crisis, with the addition of civil unrest around the nation, has pushed the limits of our mental and physical health. For others, losing employment, healthcare and housing has changed the landscape of present and future for entire families.
While it’s certainly true that resources and programs exist to assist those who need assistance in our community. Despite differences of opinions and values on many other issues, the Oklahoma Gold Standard comes through in many ways. The need to dig deeper than that lofty idea of hospitality and service-mindedness was apparent before the pandemic, but now the need is far greater — not just for services and programs, but for a robust, responsive community-led effort to get to the root cause of the issues facing the most vulnerable among us.
Just last week, many Oklahomans shared in a day of service in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Honoring the work and memory of a world-changing leader like Dr. King is not a one-day-per-year commitment, though. As he prepared for the Montgomery bus protests in 1956, Dr. King gave a sermon titled “On Being a Good Neighbor.” In that sermon, he said our neighbors are “anyone who lies in need at life’s roadside.” For several years now, I have come to regard those in need, whether they’re unhoused, temporarily sheltered (at a domestic violence, homeless or children’s shelter or halfway house) or technically homeless but living with friends or family — as my neighbors.
His question and call to action is just as relevant today. Our neighbors need us — not our judgement or our condemnation or our ridicule. They need our love, our compassion, and the solidarity of community that has held our state together through terrorist actions, through tornadoes and ice and dust storms, and for some of our indigenous ancestors, through long walks to unfamiliar lands. Our neighbors past and present have built and rebuilt communities with far less than we have now. Together, we can do better for our neighbors now and work to create a community that will support their children and our own well into the future — whatever that looks like. Programs and services are but one facet of many — we need infrastructure, affordable housing, jobs, education and training opportunities, and room to grow.
None of those who are struggling got where they are by choice — as someone who has couch surfed and slept in my car I can vouch for that. The majority of our community is far closer to our unhoused neighbors, our community members with no access to medical or mental healthcare, housing, food and other necessities, than they will ever be to being millionaires or billionaires.
Yet, those who are struggling are often labeled lazy, undeserving and unwilling to try — when that could not be further from the truth. A good friend, Karlie Harper, works with our neighbors experiencing homelessness at the Grace Day Center in downtown Ardmore nearly every day. She told me recently that she has heard many, many stories of reasons people need their services, but not one whose reason for becoming homeless was “laziness.” “I wish people knew that our numbers are going to continue to grow as long as we just wish the problem away instead of seeking solutions that are compassionate as well as comprehensive,” Karlie said.
I think she’s right. Together, we can affect real change — but it will not happen overnight. It will take work, real effort, and time. Our neighbors are worth it. Our community is worth it.
So instead of ridicule and scorn, I challenge each of us who are able to join together in an all-hands-on-deck effort to eradicate the real menace here — poverty. Whether we do that at the ballot box, by voting for representatives who show up and enact policies and laws that reduce harm and create pathways to success, or by advocating for programs and initiatives that we believe in, like the homeless coalition to fulfill housing needs or a literacy collective to find those who’ve slipped through the cracks in our education system — we can do it. And we will.
— Ari James is the executive director of the Ardmore Literacy Leadership.