Durham County

Loving thy neighbor is our moral imperative – Katie Mgongolwa

What does it mean to be a good neighbor?

That’s a question I found myself asking when a GoFundMe was posted in my neighborhood’s Nextdoor social network page. In it, the fundraising host shared the tragic story of a car accident that sent two sisters to the hospital.

I felt sickened reading it, and not just because the beautiful 5-year-old girl with a traumatic brain injury reminded me so much of my own daughter, but also because the accident happened around the corner from my house. There’s something about tragedy and grief staining your own streets that makes it personal and even more painful. It makes us responsible for each other.

The accident happened on Friday, June 30, which was also my 5-year-old daughter’s last day of pre-school. After dropping our daughter off, my husband texted me: “There’s a BAD accident at the railroad,” referencing the intersection near Allen & Son BBQ. When he arrived home, he lamented, “I wonder if anyone could have survived that.”

It didn’t matter that I didn’t actually know the sisters – they were, in a matter of speaking, my neighbors, and neighbors take care of each other. Their names are Melissa and Alina (Aly) Ramirez. Their parents, Violeta and Juan Ramirez, are hourly workers who have been unable to work since the accident, as they want to be with Aly in the hospital.

Not for the first time, I am struck by the impossible choice: work to earn money to support your family, or be with your injured child? We, as neighbors, have to lighten this burden. The question is: are we up for the challenge?

In Chapel Hill, where I live, we often pride ourselves on our open-mindedness. Yet any racial equity group will tell you that one of the biggest hindrances to actual equity in Chapel Hill is white liberalism. Why is that? Why do we wear “Resist!” pins but shut down affordable housing? Why do we attend women’s marches, yet slowly push out the black community in our town? That doesn’t seem very neighborly.

Local poet CJ Suitt said it well in his poem “My Little College Town”: “Chapel Hill: where the predominantly black and Latino parts of the city have been reduced to a quarter of the size they used to be and/or moved far away so as not to tarnish the image of the university.”

There are a lot of conversations we need to have, but we can begin with neighborly love.

Where we live

A few months ago, our neighbor, a nice white lady, complained she had almost called the cops on my husband, who happens to be both black and an immigrant. She complained he’d been driving too closely behind her on the road in our neighborhood. It was night time, so lord knows how she knew it was him, but she also didn’t hear the hypocrisy in her own words as she stated she’d been driving 10 or 15 mph under the speed limit because she was scared of deer.

I was so incensed at the violence of her threat – to call the police on my husband, when no crime was committed – that I couldn’t even hold up a mirror to show her that she was the one who’d been driving dangerously, and, consequently, made her own neighbors feel unsafe.

Where we live and whom we live next to is political, even here in Chapel Hill, where high-rises dot the Franklin Street skyline as affordable housing shrinks. As more and more apartment complexes stop taking federal Section 8 vouchers, our lower-income citizens move out, to Durham and Hillsborough, especially now that Chapel Hill’s rental market is among the most expensive in the state. Northside, Chapel Hill’s historically African American neighborhood, has suffered loss of home ownership as students move in. When our inclusionary zoning ordinances don’t include renters, we make a big statement about whom we want in Chapel Hill, which was a point of contention at May’s Town Council meeting.

It is a privilege to dictate who is “worth” being our neighbor. It is my hope (and hopefully not just a soapbox), as we seek to understand and even dismantle oppressive systems in our own neighborhoods, that we can exemplify the idea of neighborly love.

This love looks like meal trains for the Ramirez family, not rendering renters homeless or calling the cop on your black neighbor. This love looks like dignity, like wanting to learn about your neighbor, serve your neighbor, give to your neighbor, help your neighbor.

Sometimes our neighbors will be different, weird, inconvenient. Fortunately, we don’t have to like all our neighbors. But we have to see them. Without neighborly love, people feel like a stranger in their own community. Neighborly love – our moral imperative – transcends. There is no “unless.” We are all we’ve got.

If you would like to donate to Aly & Melissa’s Health and Healing Fund (organized by Holly Harding Baddour), please see gofundme.com/alymelissa.

Katie Mgongolwa is a high school English teacher in Durham.

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