Proximity. It is not a word I have pondered upon. It also doesn’t typically make its way into my everyday vocabulary. If you look up this word in the Oxford dictionary, the definition is somewhat short. It simply says nearness in time, space, or relationships.
Recently, I read the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a well-known civil rights attorney. He says that when he visited his grandmother, she used to say, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.” His grandmother’s words profoundly impacted his life as he committed his life to help the most vulnerable in society. Later in the book, after recounting much of his work with death row inmates, he reflects on some of the lessons he learned.
“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”
Proximity. Nearness. Closeness. There is something powerful that hides within those words. Something we connect with but maybe can’t fully explain. Perhaps it is because we have experienced the warm hugs of someone close to us. Maybe it is because we intuitively know that understanding one another doesn’t come through distant observation but through our shared experiences. Perhaps we connect with them because they remind us of an important truth. They remind us of a story from long ago—a story of a God and King who refused to remain far off but came close instead.
I have served in the Dominican Republic with Students International for ten years now. They have been some of the most challenging AND best years of my life. During that time, my proximity to people in under-resourced communities where we serve has taught me some of God’s most valuable lessons. Things that riches and comfort are incapable of teaching. Similar to Stevenson, I have learned that the opposite of poverty is not material wealth, but it is God’s justice, grace, and goodness. I have learned to more quickly celebrate the image of God stamped on every face I encounter instead of simply jumping in to “fix” the problems. But even more remarkable than those lessons, I have learned that there is something powerful hidden in what we do at SI. It is more potent than the educational, medical, and social work services that are most visible. It is proximity, choosing to come close when it is needed most. It is the gift of God’s presence. It is Jesus. God’s nearness to the world.