With God There Are No Bad Neighborhoods
During my lifetime, like many of you, I have had the privilege of meeting remarkable people. As I have mentioned on occasion, one influential person in my life stands out: former Indiana First Lady Judy O’Bannon. Her husband, the late Frank O’Bannon, was governor of Indiana from 1997–2003.
She made one transformative comment to me that I have never forgotten. But before I get to that, allow me to relate how it came about.
I first met with her together with a noted Ukrainian pediatrician. The physician was engaged with helping children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and, as a noted humanitarian herself, Mrs. O’Bannon wanted to meet him. As the meeting unfolded, she became intensely interested in what was being accomplished. Our tightly scheduled 20-minute private meeting in the Governor’s Mansion quickly and unexpectedly stretched into a two-hour animated discussion.
As the meeting concluded, I received an unanticipated pleasant surprise. On the spot, she invited me to join her on a delegation of Indianapolis university educators, business professionals and religious and non-profit leaders. She was organizing this group to visit emerging Russian non-profits.
I quickly agreed, as I was already going to be in nearby Estonia for the Feast when they arrived.
I can rapidly translate Russian into English, so Mrs. O’Bannon kept me close by on the trip. Always inquisitive, she liked to break away and explore. So, together with her bodyguard, I often accompanied her to open-air markets, walks inside crowded local post offices and in informal talks with people on the street, and even beggars. She would ask many insightful questions, always engaging and caring.
After we returned, Mrs. O’Bannon asked me to help her with service projects. One was a wheelchair matching program that continues today as an ongoing LifeNets service. We also worked with orphans in Moldova. She brought children with severe medical hardships to Indianapolis to be treated at top local hospitals. She hosted a weekly local PBS television program called Communities Building Community, including one episode about LifeNets. Even though I am now living in the Cincinnati area, I still have contact with her to this day.
So, what did she say to me that I have never forgotten?
Once, while visiting her, I made an unthoughtful, even brash, comment. I inadvertently referred to some neighborhoods in Indianapolis as “bad.”
Mrs. O’Bannon quickly and sharply reacted.
“In this house, you will never call any neighborhoods in this city ‘bad,’” she scolded. “If people knew that that’s the way I felt about where and how they live, that community would have absolutely no hope.”
Her main point? “People need to look to leaders as those who hold out hope.”
This encounter has stuck with me. Why? Because I know that God created humanity. I know that God is fully aware of how people in unfortunate circumstances live—and suffer—on this planet. My wife Bev and I have visited and worked with such people on multiple continents. But, like you, I also know that He has a marvelously positive plan, one of powerful spiritual and physical redemption for all.
God never thinks of his creation as “bad.” He knows what the actual incredible human potential is for all!
God’s intentions represent far more than wishful thinking. But, as some look at humankind, it can appear that the majority do not have a chance and are doomed. Thanks be to God that they are not!
You and I can rejoice in the fact that we understand and know the answers to these titanic questions. We annually celebrate the final climactic Holy Day that pictures salvation for the vast majority of humanity that has lived through the ages. The good news, which I hope we never take for granted, is that all the people who have never heard or rejected Christ are not lost!
We know why there is so much suffering, inequity and injustice in the world. Like some of our young people, I had wondered about such things when I was a teen. When I first read the reprint article Is This the Only Day of Salvation? (first published in 1958), it was an epiphany! It was one of the most beautiful and profound things I had ever read.
This was a personal tipping point of understanding. I knew then for certain that all the present suffering and evil that we see around us will be removed. A new world, a new heart, a new mindset for all is coming when Jesus Christ returns to the earth. This is the good news that we proclaim!
We must remember and understand that John 3:15-16 is indeed inclusive of the whole world: “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (emphasis added throughout).
Far from thinking that people are “bad,” in chapter four of John, Jesus demonstrates how God assesses people and their potential.
Jesus was on His way from Judea to Galilee. Remarkably, He deliberately chose to travel through Samaria, the former capital of Israel, but now considered a “bad neighborhood” by the first century Jews.
Samaritans and Jews hated each other. As Jews traveled north, they would bypass Samaria to avoid contact. Centuries before, as a conquered people, ancient Israel absorbed Assyrian culture. They corrupted the worship of God with pagan sacrifices and noxious idolatry. The Samaritans also regularly and bitterly challenged the returning Jews from Babylon. There was certainly no love lost there.
Amazingly, in this emotionally charged environment, Jesus Christ chose to reveal Himself as the prophesied Messiah.
Resting at an ancient well in the city, Jesus engaged a woman in discussion. This was not just a Samaritan, but one who had a checkered family life, having been married five times. Of course, even talking to a strange woman was taboo. Jesus then asked her for a drink of water, contrasting it with spiritual water that would give her eternal life.
Astonishingly, Christ then revealed Himself as the Messiah to this woman: “The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am He’" (John 4:25-26).
Our Savior and soon-coming King obviously didn’t consider this environment “a bad neighborhood.”
In Luke 10, we read the familiar story of a man who was robbed and beaten almost to death. Severely wounded and unconscious, he lay in a broken heap on the roadside. Jewish religious people walked by, purposely ignoring the injured man. The people who were supposed to be righteous did nothing.
After all, this was a “bad neighborhood.”
However, the story takes a different turn. A hated Samaritan took action, carrying this man to a place where he could recover. As Jesus explained, the Samaritan reached into his own pocket to pay expenses for the injured man. Did Jesus mention a “bad neighborhood”? No, Jesus taught that this lowly Samaritan loved his neighbor as himself, the second great commandment.
Let’s take a look at other biblical figures in this potentially “bad neighborhood” category:
In the list of the faithful in Hebrews 11, Rahab the harlot—formerly a practicing prostitute—is listed with Abraham, the father of the faithful. In fact, Rahab is related to Boaz, the husband of Ruth. She advanced from harlot to heroine and ended up in the direct lineage of Jesus Christ, the very Savior of humanity.
The evil people of Sodom are given hope by none other than Jesus Himself. Severely criticizing the people in Capernaum, Jesus declared: “I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you” (Matthew 11:23-24).
The apostle Paul regularly lamented that he, of all people, was not worthy to be an apostle, as he was formerly a persecutor and even a murderer of Christians. Paul ended up performing mighty works and became the most prolific author of the New Testament.
Far from discarding people from so-called “bad neighborhoods,” God will eventually equip all people with a new spirit, a new heart and a new mindset (Ezekiel 36:26).
In the days to come, all people will hold God’s marvelous promise: “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).
This is indeed the gospel we preach, the good news. It manifests God’s love for humanity.
As we interact with the world, let us profoundly remember: from God’s perspective, there are no bad neighborhoods. And with our lights shining brightly, let us all hold out hope to this suffering world!