Lessons from the Road

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Love flows firstly—and most truly—from a place of need. It’s our brokenness that makes neighbours out of us.

As a child, my Cantonese-speaking grandmother told me different variations of how my father left Hong Kong to attend university in the United States. I would sit on the floor in front of her while she braided my hair. “He didn’t tell me he was leaving until the day before!” she would exclaim, sounding as surprised as I imagined her to be on that day.

He ended up in Kansas City in 1973. Between washing dishes and bussing tables, he managed his tuition. As children, we grew up watching the University of Kansas Jayhawks’ NCAA basketball games on TSN, but I learned later that my dad never actually saw them as a student. “Tickets were too expensive,” he told me just a few years ago. He earned a full scholarship to complete his Master’s degree and only returned to Hong Kong to see his family six years after he had left.

My mother, on the other hand, is from a tiny, sweltering country in Southeast Asia—another British colony—but one that clawed its way from the bottom to become an economic powerhouse and now ranks third on the list of countries according to GDP per capita. She is the youngest of eight—the adored youngest child. But she, too, left her family behind when she traveled more than 13,000 km and immigrated to Canada. 

Growing up, my brother and I constantly observed our parents’ self-sacrificing generosity. They prepared the snacks after church almost weekly, the smell of sweet, Chinese buns accompanying our 45-minute commute home from the bakery in Markham. They often gave rides to people without cars, and we had a never-ending stream of people eating at our house.  

My parents also had a friend, who went to high school with my dad. We called him “Uncle Tony.” My father’s only remaining single friend, he loved tennis and sometimes played with the kids in the basement while the other adults drank Oolong tea upstairs. Between demonstrating tennis swings, he explained to me that he was patenting a special tennis methodology. “One day, people will know this is the best way to play,” he assured me, a twinkle in his eye.

Uncle Tony never did patent that tennis methodology. His friends, anchored by marriage and children, grew distant as the years passed. And with nothing to show for it, the tennis conversation grew stale, hanging around like decades-old air.

But my parents stayed close to him. When Uncle Tony’s father passed away, they drove across town to take his mother, living with Alzheimer’s, out for dim sum, and ordered extra so that there would be leftovers for her to take home. These days, my father golfs with Uncle Tony, taking pause between the holes to listen.

My parents know that neighbourliness is embedded in the rhythm of daily life, in the many moments and split-second decisions that make up a day, even a lifetime. And though they have come from need, they have found themselves, along the way, as neighbours with something to give.

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The Good Samaritan

Jesus once told a story about neighbourliness to a young lawyer, who wanted to know, “Who is my neighbour?”

A man is travelling the seventeen-mile road to Jericho from Jerusalem when he falls into the hands of robbers. They attack him and abandon him for dead as the midday sun beats down. Two men of stature pass by: a priest and a Levite. Though both might be expected to stop, neither do. Finally, a Samaritan, a cultural outcast, appears. Unexpectedly, he stops. The Samaritan carries the Jewish man on his donkey to an inn, where he tends to his wounds and settles the bill. 

I, too, am practical and action oriented. “Who am I obligated to and what must I do for them?” Like the lawyer, I do not want to get it wrong. After all, I am the daughter of two people who worked hard their entire lives to get it right. I listen in to Jesus’ story, mentally noting that neighbours are generous, attentive to need, and sacrificial. Check, check, check.  

Go and do likewise, Jesus says to the lawyer. I imagine he also says it to me.

Too Scared

Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. Luke 10:31

In Jesus’ story of neighbourliness, only one man chooses to offer help. Why, I wonder, does the priest refuse to stop and help the wounded man? Maybe he protects his reputation, his religious prestige. Maybe he feels unable to intervene. Or maybe he thinks the man is already dead. He knows that touching the corpse is strictly forbidden by Jewish Law and will make him unholy. 

The road to Jericho was well-known to be a hazardous journey, snaking between the mountains and offering cover for thieves. Frequent travelers, like the priest and the Levite, would have known this. Maybe the priest was simply afraid.

I know this fear. Despite my best intentions to discharge my moral obligations, I am afraid of entanglement. My fear paralyzes me from checking in with a coworker going through a messy divorce because I’m terrified of babbling nervously or not knowing what to say. I avoid her text messages, choosing instead to make polite eye contact at work. I “like” her Facebook posts rather than invite her to coffee. It’s easier to tell myself it isn’t my responsibilitywe’re just co-workers— than it is to hear her story. 

I hurry past.

Too Busy

So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. Luke 10:32.

The Jew, beaten and dazed, groggily catches a glimpse of the Levite’s robes as he appears along the dirt road. He watches them swish and sway. Suddenly he is full of hope as this second religious figure emerges from the dust.

But the Levite, like the priest, passes by. He is interrupted; a rushed traveler, hurrying on to his next appointment. “Not this time,” he reasons, rushing toward Jericho. He has important work to do.

I, too, am overstretched and emotionally weary. The notifications on my cell phone cause me so much anxiety that I turn them off completely. After work, I pick up groceries, my husband’s dry cleaning, and return library books. I follow up on emails for a few “extracurricular projects” while cooking dinner, then rush to yoga, arriving breathless and harried. In this frenzied pace of the everyday, the Levite’s “not now” feels reasonable, even human. I also have important work to do. I need some rest.

I walk toward safety—and away from the man in need. 

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At the end of the story, Jesus poses a question back to the lawyer: “Which of these proved to be a neighbour?” It is different from the lawyer’s original question, which Jesus has refused to answer. Jesus has avoided giving a list of religious obligations, which the lawyer might perfunctorily follow. 

This reversal of expectation shocks the young lawyer, who can’t even name the Samaritan in response to Jesus’ question. “The one who showed him mercy,” I imagine him croaking out, not liking the answer. The disparaged, unholy Samaritan, someone intimately familiar with marginalization: Jesus points to this man and calls him a neighbour.

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In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen writes, “Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in their own heart and even losing their precious peace of mind? . . . It is an illusion to think that a person can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”

Jesus knew that neighbourly love flows firstly—and most truly—from a place of need. Like the Samaritan, my parents knew this personally; they knew how to offer mercy because they had once needed it. And when the neighbourly call interrupted their lives and demanded sacrifice, they allowed the mess of our shared, human need to break in and make neighbours of them.

In our longing for human connection, perhaps the greatest gift we can offer is one we all have—the gift of woundedness. Each of us takes our turn as the Samaritan and the wounded man at the side of the road, and we become neighbours as we allow ourselves to carry, and be carried, to safety.

Text: Season Kam
Photography: Hang-Kit Wong and Wasim Hossain