On April 13 in Kansas City, Mo., a tragedy happened. Andrew Lester, 84, who is white, shot Ralph Yarl, 16, who is Black. Yarl was going to pick up his brothers from a friend’s house but got the address wrong and showed up at Lester’s door. Lester shot Yarl twice — once in the head and, after he had already fallen to the ground, once in the arm. Lester did not give any warning. He just opened the inner door and fired through the locked glass door. Lester claimed he was “scared to death” and described Yarl as 6 feet tall. He is actually 5’8” and 140 pounds.
There’s a lot to talk about in this story. One conversation is about racial prejudice. Lester did not think twice about shooting this child, and he used common exaggerations to describe Yarl as a threat.
There is also the conversation about guns. Why would Lester think he needed to grab a gun before he answered the door and then pull the trigger immediately?
Something else about the story stands out to me. After Yarl was shot, reports say he ran to several neighbors’ houses for help, and no one opened the door. Eventually, the police arrived and found him lying in the street.
Fear is flowing throughout this tragic story. Lester’s fear led him to answer the door with a gun and shoot a teenager. The neighbors’ fear stopped them from opening their doors to a child bleeding from gunshot wounds.
In our collective fear, we are failing to be good neighbors. Fear makes us suspicious of people different from us. It makes us see the stranger as an enemy.
What makes Americans so fearful? Some of us consume biased media that lead us to think we are in constant danger. The threat is typically presented as someone different from us.
Some media portray people of color as dangerous and transgender people as threats to children. These fears have led to calls for oppressive laws and book bans. Fear leads us to imagine dangers that don’t exist.
I understand fear. As a Black man in the United States, I know what it means to be alert for danger. The feeling of not knowing whom I can trust, specifically in white spaces, is real.
Though I have navigated these spaces since my college days, when I first left my home in a diverse city in Texas, I still feel a heightened fear and nervousness when I engage with people different from me. I know that my fear is rooted in racism-based trauma. But this does not change the fact that fear has shaped the way I have interacted with others.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan addresses how fear impacts our interactions with others. Jesus tells the story to expand our definition of “neighbor.”
Neighbors are not only those we like or trust. Jesus challenges us to see our potential enemies as neighbors we are called to love. The Samaritan, who culturally would have been at odds with the Jewish people, puts aside all bias to help someone in need.
Jesus is asking us to be vulnerable. People generally are afraid to do this. It takes divine courage to put ourselves at risk. It is hard to open oneself to unknown possibilities.
When I started my position as pastor of Salem Mennonite Church in Oregon, I needed to be vulnerable. And I asked the congregation to be vulnerable with me. I knew that I would not be able to serve faithfully if I couldn’t set aside my fears.
Vulnerability makes us good neighbors. Yes, we do our best to keep ourselves and our families safe. But we have to let down our defenses to help those in need. Followers of Christ need to set aside our fears to fully embrace others.
I wonder how the case of a mistaken address in Kansas City would have turned out differently if Lester, instead of letting irrational fear overcome him, had simply told Yarl he was at the wrong house. Or, how would the story have changed if a neighbor had opened the door to help Yarl after Lester shot him?
We must not be so overcome with fear that we forget the two greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Let’s be vulnerable, not fearful, neighbors.