Sometimes I get an idea, and I can’t let it go, and it ends up with me doing things like requesting to be friends with everyone on Facebook who has the same name that I do. There are about 20 of us Matt/Matthew/Mateo Ybañeze’s on Facebook. It’s my own name and I still don’t know how to pluralize it in English. Sidenote: the surname Ybañez is a variant of Ibañez. It literally means “Son of Iban.” Iban is a variant of Ivan and Ivan is a variant of Juan, which in English is John. My name in English is Matt Johnson….
Anyway, I decided that I wanted to know more about the 0.0000002% of the world’s population who share my name, so I requested to be friends with all the Matt Ybañezes. I was even a little bit surprised when the first one accepted my friend request and sent me a message. We started talking and learning about each other’s lives. He’s 21 and lives in the Philippines. He told me that the Philippines were colonized by Spain in the 1500’s and that Ybañez’ are very common there. He works as a vendor in a fish market and he’s saving money for a vocational school that would allow him to get a job in the tourism industry on a cruise ship. His father is a bus driver. I don’t know that we’ll ever meet each other in person, but we’ve definitely made an impression on each other. So much so that after our conversation he copied it and shared it for all his friends and family to see and I expect that I’ll check in on him to see how his education is coming along. It’s the formation of a friendship that really has no agenda other than for the sake of relationship.
I was invited to read a chapter from a book called What We Need is Here, by L. Roger Owens and in it, the author elaborates on the importance of being with our neighbors. In the church, we tend to think about building relationships outside of our congregation as service or outreach ministries. Other churches with more urgent theological emphases might define that work as evangelistic. Typically, we’d talk about all of that work as ministry ‘to,’ ‘with,’ or ‘for’ someone else. The challenge with that kind of language is that it perpetuates an “us” and “them” dynamic and maintains an imbalance in the relationship. We have the knowledge, willingness and the resources (Us) to solve the problems of those who are poor and in need of problem solving (Them). These models at their core serve an agenda that makes us feel better about ourselves and may or may not have the lasting impact on a family’s life that we envision. Roger Owens suggests that “being with” our neighbors is a fundamental model of building community because it’s not about finding solutions, “but about companionship amid struggle and distress.” Sometimes our need to problem solve gets in the way of creating the real and profound connections of blessing that bind us with God’s people: relationships of mutual understanding, relationships that are more significant than the solutions we might propose.
For example, in my conversation with my new friend, he mentioned that he was working to save money to go to school–22,000 pesos he still needed to pay his tuition. I did the conversion–$430. Immediately I began to wonder how I could get him the money. How easy it would be to cross that problem off of the list. Then, remembering what I’d read, I stepped back and just enjoyed being present in the conversation. He never said he needed help getting it. He didn’t even ask for my help. He was sharing about his life and his hopes and dreams.
What does all that mean? Do we need to continue to serve and offer help where we can? Absolutely. yet, to better serve our community and our neighborhood, we need to know our neighbors better. We need to pursue those relationships not for the sake of serving, but for the sake of connecting. Our God is a God of connection and relationships. Jesus met people where they were and entered into life with them. Sure he healed the blind, and fed the hungry, etc, but that was never his purpose. His purpose was to be the love of God, in flesh, with humanity. It’s a fundamental challenge to our own concept of mission and ministry. How might we seek deeper relationships with our neighbors that have no agenda (specifically the ones within walking distance of our church)? How might we build relationships that exist for the sake of a sacred connection? How might a deeper, more profound sense of community lead to a transformed neighborhood?
These are questions we must wrestle with as our congregational identity continues to diverge from our neighborhood’s identity, and I’m the first to admit how awkward and uncomfortable it can be to begin a relationship with someone who is very different from myself (Hi, my name is Matt and I’m an introvert). Yet, I believe that when we challenge ourselves to cross that bridge, we’ll find blessing, and even more importantly, encounter the grace of God, so I challenge you: Go make a sacred connection today!