There is a saying in Spanish that my neighbors use when someone has not been around for awhile, 'Que Milagro!' or "What a miracle!' as if it's a miracle that you have shown up and graced them with your presence.
I hate it when they say this to me because I feel disconnected and hypocritical.
Sometimes I get invited to speak at events about community. I get to tell the story of how my neighbors have come together to care for one another and make positive changes in our city, and I get to hear about how other people are doing that in their cities.
It's fun. I like getting out and connecting.
But the irony is not lost on me that while I am out sharing about community building, I am away from my own community. Hearing "Que Milagro!" has become a point of accountability for me.
I try to see how long I can go without someone saying it. Like all good relationships, I have to be with my neighbors to stay grounded in what is real and focused on the priorities in my life — to love God and to love my neighbor.
This past week I was in Indianapolis for a conference on community development. I spoke about the pain we encounter when we engage in friendships with our neighbors. Their pain becomes our pain, and sometimes it feels inescapable.
I asked the audience, as well as myself, "How far are we willing to go for our friends? How much are we willing to risk? Jesus said that one who truly loves lays down their life for their friend."
I have been challenged by that as of late. What does my neighbor's pain compel me to do?
Right when I got home I met up with one of our neighbors. He had a letter from immigration and wanted help interpreting it. It was a letter stating that his request for employment authorization had been denied.
In that moment I was compelled to sit and have coffee, to not move on to the next thing or make some call to appeal the decision. In that moment, being a friend meant sitting in the pain together.
Last night I was catching up with another neighbor, and she shared with me that her employer knocked $3 an hour off her pay when he found out she does not have papers. She has been working in his home for eight months. She started at $12 an hour and now is making $9 an hour doing the same work.
Ugh! More pain!
She said he did not ask for any documentation when she started. She has been in Costa Mesa for 15 years, and her children study in local universities.
Then she told me, "My brothers have big houses and have offered for us to move in with them, but I feel happier working myself and caring for my family on my own. We have lived poor, but we share everything and we enjoy everything."
Even in her financial discouragement we sat and rejoiced in the things her children are accomplishing. And in that moment her pain compelled me to share the story with you.
I tell you this story so that you will believe it. Growing up in the circles I grew up in there was a sense that hard-luck stories were the extreme, the few and far between, the exceptions.
I think we wanted to believe this because if the stories are the exception, meaning the person is broken, not the system.
It is easier to dismiss individuals than entire systems. However, when we hear similar stories over and over, we have to begin to look at systems the shape our environments and ask critical questions of them.
I tell you these stories over and over so we will be grounded in the truth of what is going on around us. As we encounter pain in that truth may we have courage to feel the pain and insight to ask critical questions of our system. Displaying that kind of courage and insight would be the real miracle for me.
CRISSY BROOKS is co-founder and executive director of Mika Community Development Corp., a faith-based nonprofit in Costa Mesa.