Friday, June 13, 2014


My garage faces an alley, and across that alley is another house. Its residents are kind, generous people. This past winter, without my asking, the father snowblowed our driveway several times. They’ve closed our fence when it was open, to keep our dog safe inside. We wave and smile regularly. Tabitha ensured we gave them a Christmas Card last year. They seemed grateful. It’s a developing neighborly relationship.

But I don’t know them well, for good reason: I don’t speak great Spanish. And the homeowners- Alex and Lupe- don’t speak great English, although their children are impressively bilingual. Tabitha does better with conversing than I do. Nevertheless, we haven’t had many opportunities to chat. Even when we try, it doesn’t get very far, since I don’t know the words to say.

Then, several weeks back, I arrived home one evening to their teenage daughter in my driveway, surrounded by seven young men holding lace parasols, moving together in practiced choreography. That my garage was blocked wasn’t surprising. Alex sometimes parks his minivan there when they have people over. I honk. He comes running to move it, always apologizing, though I always say “It’s fine!” Rather, I was shocked by this unexpected dance routine (they moved quickly to let me inside, of course). The daughter- Gysel- saw my inquisitive look. She said, “It’s my Quinceañera.”

For those unaware, a Quinceañera is a coming-of-age ritual for young women, common in Latino communities. Like a bar/bat mitzvah for Jewish youth, or a Sweet Sixteen, Quinceañeras provide 15-year-old girls a chance to say, “I’m growing up!” I’ve heard of these events before, but had never seen one. Frankly, I’m conflicted about the practice. On the one hand, rituals of maturation are wonderful things, usually. On the other hand, Quinceañeras seem like mini-weddings, reinforcing gender norms I typically avoid. But most important, they’re not part of my cultural heritage, so I have no right to judge. I saw Gysel’s beaming smile upon announcing this, so enthusiastically responded, “Congratulations!”

Soon after, as Tabitha and I ate bratwurst outside, she returned to our backyard gate, handed us a formal invitation and asked if we’d attend her Quinceañera. That was unexpected too! For starters, we like the family, but- as I said- don’t know them well. Plus, we’re white, and at least I worried about imposing on their hospitality. But last Friday, Alex saw me outside and said, “My daughter’s Quince tomorrow. You come?” With that endorsement (and the fact we saw the youngsters practice outside another few times and were curious), we said, “Alright.”

It was a lovely event, at a local hotel ballroom. People dressed nice. The food tasted wonderful. The young men and Gysel performed three formal different dance routines of varying difficulties. As an announcer emceed the festivities, I kept asking Tabitha to translate. “What’s he saying?!” We left before too long, and I was glad we’d attended. Apparently, they danced until 1 AM!

Truth be told, as often as I preach about us needing to be “good neighbors,” I struggle with that occasionally. I’m an introvert. When I’m at home, I like relaxing alone, keeping to myself. I’m not mean or standoffish, but small talk is rarely energizing to me. Add that to language barriers, and it can be tough for me to translate a desire to be a good neighbor into proactive behavior that makes a good neighbor.

Which is why I’m so glad Tabitha nudged me to dress up for our neighbor’s Quinceañera. Besides cultural curiosity, we wanted to show Alex and Lupe that we thought well of their family. Indeed, it taught me that “knowing the right thing to say” or sharing the intimate details of our personal stories aren’t the most important ingredients of neighborliness. Simply showing up is powerful stuff. In like manner, both Alex and Gysel were incredibly neighborly when they extended hospitality. Therefore, just as crucial to being a good neighbor is accepting hospitality. I doubt that tomorrow, I’ll become fast friends with Alex. But we’re better neighbors now. Words often matter less than we think (says the preacher!). Kindness and acceptance are transformative enough.

Grace and Peace,

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