Several years ago our normally quiet Suburban street was transformed into a street that was cordoned off, guarded by police vehicles at each end, and made into the staging area for a SWAT team. Imagine our surprise when our house guest at the time told us what was happening in the early morning hours! Initially we thought she must be in an extended dream state but then we went to look for ourselves. Sure enough, the street was cordoned off, the SWAT team was gearing up and police officers were telling all of us to stay inside.
Being good, obedient, American citizens, we all opened our front doors, sat on our stoops and watched the action. We heard the commands given to the SWAT team and then watched as they burst through the door with a battering ram. In fewer than 5 minutes, the situation was under control and the SWAT team began to disperse. We heard from one of the police officers that they were responding to a 911 call from the man in the home who told the 911 operator that he had just killed his wife and dog and was preparing to kill himself. By the time the SWAT team broke down the door, the man had already killed himself. We were shocked and horrified. He seemed like such a gentle man! They were both quiet and he frequently walked their beautiful dog.
As time went on that day, we learned the full story. The woman had been suffering from terminal cancer for a couple of years. We had no idea. We had noticed that she wasn’t out in her front yard as much working, but we had no idea she had cancer. The man was always nice enough when we saw him, but not much of a talker. He never mentioned his wife was ill. We never asked. Apparently, they talked about it and made a pact that when the time got very close he would kill her and the dog and then himself. He did it just like they had agreed.
Our neighbors on our block were stunned. No one had any idea his grief and pain and no one knew she was suffering so horribly. We all gathered in small circles and talked about how we wish we had known so we could have supported them differently. We talked about being too busy to check in on each other and sometimes to even notice when someone hasn’t appeared in a while. I stood in the circle with them and thought about how I care for so many people as a pastor but somehow wasn’t able to care for my down the street neighbor.
A similar, although far more tragic in many ways, scenario has been playing out in Cleveland, Ohio. I understand the guilt and sorrow and regret the neighbors feel who were not aware of the 3 girls being held captive. The rest of the world cannot imagine how it could be that 3 girls could be captive for 10 years without anyone noticing. I understand how that could happen. I also understand the desire to not get involved in other people’s business. What I don’t understand is how any of us can go on from here without making changes. We have heard countless times that human traffickers are hiding people in our neighborhoods, sometimes 20-30 in a house. The time is over for us to give people their space. The time is over for us to stay uninvolved in our neighbors‘ lives. The time is over for being too busy to pay attention. Maybe, just maybe, the redeeming aspect of all of this will be that we will all pay more attention to our neighbors.