Who is thy neighbor?

A Speech By
Larry H. Spruill

January 14, 1998
Mamaroneck/Larchmont
Emelin Theater

I give honor to the communities of Mamaroneck and Larchmont for inviting me to your neighborhoods. Tonight pre-faces the birthday of one of the most effective Americans of all times…Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King…

What is the function of the annual King Holiday and its celebrations…It is to bring our nation into a moment of reflection about the success of our people in the journey toward the realization of our basic creeds…Are we living and governing our individual, family, local, state, and national affairs as if all men…all of humanity are really, really created equal. Are we handling our personal, business, and government affairs as if all of humanity is really, really, entitled to life, liberty and the right to purse happiness.

During this time…we get to a chance to take a look at our values and beliefs…we get a chance to ask ourselves how faithful were we to the religious and multicultural slogans on our currency: you know…In God We Trust…and E Pluribus Unum…out of many one…

The holiday stirs our conscience…we look at ourselves again…deeper than the day and week before…we ask ourselves questions like…Who is my neighbor? I submit to you that we have a generation that do not know who Dr. King really was and represents…I submit to you that we have a generation that still do not know their neighbors.

We think that to hate means to spew racist doctrines, commit racial violence or burn swastikas in the lawns of golf courses. But hate can be a vicious and continuous assault of benign neglect of humanity not of your kin…klan…or kolor.

How does Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. get the privilege of representing the best of what is believed about American social and political culture?

18th century belonged to George Washington…
19th century belonged to Abraham Lincoln..
20th century belonged to Martin Luther King, Jr…

I submit to you tonight…that Dr. King was not a slain civil rights leader but a gospel preacher whose ministry was the civil rights movement. He was murdered because of his beliefs…

Murdered because of his belief in the power and unifying ability of unconditional brotherly love…He was murdered because he really believed that no other nation in the history of humanity had the opportunity and capacity that America had to create the beloved community on earth. How problematic this has become for us living in this salad bowl full of differences, colors, and textures…called the United States of America.

Rev. King preached about being a drum major for justice…he preached about leading us to stride toward freedom…He preached about the power of love and how we as a nation must develop the strength to love. Dr. King was not impatient. Nor was he a gradualist. But his life…cut short at the age of 39 was a testimony to his commitment to freedom now and why we can’t wait…In one of his final books he asked the question, where do we go from here: chaos or community? Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?

I read the verse in Luke 10:27,36 Love thy neighbor as thyself…Who is thy neighbor…? I could hear the Hebrew, translated Greek, and Arabic text say…

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad

Our Father who art in heaven, Holy is thy name…

Qul hu wa La Hu Ahad
Al La Hu Samad
Lam Ya Lid Wa Lam Yu Lad
Wa Lam Ya Kul La Hu Ku Fu Wan Ahad

I open my address through this ecumenical footnote from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic prayers declaring the oneness of God. There is this eternal desire among men to declare the unity and oneness of God and then desire to have individual communion and intimacy and relations with Him.

I would venture to guess that most of us profess the oneness of God Almighty..and that we think it good and worthwhile to seek oneness with God…But it is the desire of our merciful God that we seek oneness in love among the diversity of His creation…that is…among all of humanity.

This has been and remains the greatest challenge to humanity. How difficult it seems to be to create what Dr. M. L. King declared as the “beloved community on earth.”

It is easy to profess and seek a one-on-one relationship with our great God… Relations are the essence of Communion…Good relations are intimate…full of trust…full of compassion…full of healthy communication…full of caring…So many of us seek this kind of relation with the great God whom we have not seen…and hate our brother…The bible says that for he that loveth not his brother… whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from God, that he who loveth God love his brother also.

He that loveth not his brother… whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? I believe we ask the question Who is my neighbor because we have lost the ability to see…that is to really…really see…one another…

I live in the quintessential village
Westchester County…
the land of splendor
above the Hudson and by the Sea
As we fly over the good and the plenty
As we look down on the material dreams fulfilled
From a hawk’s eye view..
We can glimpse the Harlem and New Haven lines
twisting through our neighborhoods…
I know you can envision from above the…
manicured lawns, golf courses, country clubs…
range rovers, fur coats, convertible beemers…
IBM, Texaco, Pepsico…
strung along the Gold Coast…
in the core of the Golden Apple…
neighborhoods beaded along the waterway highways…
Sawmill, Bronx, Hucthinson, Route 22, Post Road
Tuckahoe, Scarsdale, Hartsdale, White Plains, Pocantico
Valhalla, Pleasantville, Mount Kisco, Bedford Hills
Katona, Somers, Chappaqua, Thornwood, Greenburgh
Mamaroneck, Larchmont, New Rochelle, Pelham
Yes there is a
Yonkers and Mount Vernon
I live on the block called
Mount Vernon
You know…down by Bronx County
The street still exorcising
Its schizophrenic demon…
Are we the Bronx or Bronxville?
Every villager wants prosperity and peace
But there is poverty and pathology in our village
I am here on your block tonight
To meet my neighbors…
I knock on your doors…

Knock…knock…
Who is it?
It’s me.
Who are you?
I am Roberto from the
candle-lit restaurant overlooking the sound…
you don’t know me…I live in Port Chester
I was in the kitchen…
You never saw my face…
I come to find out if you enjoyed your dinner last night…
I come to introduce myself…I am Puerto Rican…

Knock…knock…
Whose there?
It’s me.
Who are you?
I am Jim…Jimmy O’Brian…
I saw you yesterday…
You looked at me and turned your head quickly…
as in fear or offense…I am not sure which…
Don’t you remember???… at the park bench…
near the fountain and pool…
lunch time…downtown…White Plains…
you know…near Macy’s…
Yeah… the homeless guy…the derelect…
Yeah…I had been drinking…
But I really was hungry…when I asked you for the coins…
I know I was not dressed for
a salad and tuna-filled pita lunch…
But I saw you…
You looked at me…
and you quickly turned away…
erasing me from your life that day…
You can find me…
I live at the shelter…at the county airport…
You know…near Arrowwood…
You know…near the Greenwich line…
I thought I would just pay you a visit.

Knock…knock…
Who is it?
It’s me.
Who are you?
I am Dinesh…
I saw you at the Metro North depot…
You gave me a dollar bill for a newspaper…
I put fifty cents change in your hands
for the New York Post…
Oh believe me…I won’t tell your
Wall Street Journal friends
about your reading habits…
I come to tell you that you never said good morning…
You never looked up from the headlines…
You turned and walked away…
I was offended…It was a bad day for me…
There were kids who made fun of me…
They called me a “towel head.”
My skin is chocolate and my hair raven black…
but my heart is Ellis Island
and the lower East Side…
I am not the “immigrant problem.”
My name is not “foreigner.”
Can’t you see your grandparents when you see me…
I am a ribbon in the rainbow of humanity…
I am a thread in the Scottish Kilt
a colored pattern in the Kente cloth
a special patch in the quilt called America…
I live in Hartsdale…

Knock…knock…
Who is it?
It’s me.
Who are you?
I am Ethel…
I ride the #40 bus with
hundreds of other West Indian women…
We take turns getting off along Route 22…
all the way to White Plains…
I polished the brass railings on your spiral staircase…
I even did the door knobs the other day…
I meticulously cleaned the corners…
along the baseboards…
Don’t you remember???
the smell pine from my pail and mop…(smmmm)
can’t you smell it???…of course you do…
But my face and voice are unfamiliar to your
selectively blind and deaf eyes and ears…
Just remember the squeaky clean floors…
and the scent of pine in your nostrils.
See and hear me. I am Ethel…
By the way…I am not the “Jamaican girl…”
I am Ethel from Barbados…

Knock…knock…
Who is it?
It’s me.
Who are you?
I am Rakim…
You know from New Rochelle…
now residing in the palatial penitentiary in Valhalla
I could hardly read in your tenth grade English class…
You remember me…remember…
rear of the room…near the poster of Shakespeare…
You though I was angry…with a perpetual attitude…
All you had to do…was look a little closer…
and look a little longer…
I couldn’t read…I just couldn’t read…
You were afraid of me…
I needed you to see all of me…
slam…clanck…bam…
Now the bars…strip my face…
as the birds fly past my window…
making mockery of my failure…
But I remember you…
unable to look at me…

Knock…knock…
Who is it?
It’s me.
Who are you?
I am Hector…
From Oaxaca…in Mexico…
I live in Mount Vernon…
Every Monday…
I pull my Chevy truck into your yard…
I cut your grass…
I trim the hedges…and bushes so meticulously
placed around your Tudor house…
I am the one…noisly blowing the leaves…
and the twigs into circular patterns
until they are neatly piled into black plastic bags…
And I take them away…
I bill you…I dare not come to the door for payment…
You don’t know me…
By the way…
Soy Chicano…no soy Puerto Riqeuno…

Knock…knock…
Who is it?
It’s me.
Who are you?
I am Lin Su…
My sister knows your voice…
But I know your face…
I live above my restaurant…in Port Chester…
We deliver…
Two or three times a week…
you call my sister for Chinese food…
Chicken and Broccoli…
in the brown sauce…no MSG…
Hot and Sour soup…
no duck sauce but lots of hot mustard…
My sister knows your voice…
We are grateful for your patronage…
I am Lin Su…
I deliver…I ring your bell…
I stand at the door…
I know your face…
You do not look at me…
I am the one with the plastic bag…
filled with the white boxes of food…
I give you change…you give me a dollar tip…
You don’t know me…
I am the faceless one…
I can hear your children yell…
The Chinese guy is here…
I am not sure
if they are talking about the food or Lin Su…
I am not Chinese…I am from Korea…

Who is my neighbor…?
Anthony…the Italian…working with his hands…
blue collar…from Eastchester…
now living in Yorktown…

Who else is our neighbor? This is an intriguing question?

In fact, on March 25, 1968, about one week before the brutal assassination of Dr. King, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at the sixth-eighth annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly introduced Dr. King to those distinguished holy men of the Jewish faith with these powerful and challenging words…

Where does moral religious leadership in America come from today?…Where does God dwell in America today?…Where in America do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us. The situation of the poor in America is our plight, our sickness. To be deaf to their cry is to condemn ourselves. Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision and a way. I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King. May everyone present give of his strength to the great spiritual leader, Martin Luther King.

Dr. King was a great spiritual leader because he challenged us to love one another in ways that were unconventional. He required us to look one another in the eyes and compelled us to say, “You are my neighbor and I love you simply for your humanity.” Establishing Beloved Communities is our obligation. It is the American Dream.
Thank you.