The phrase “Not in My Backyard,” also called Nimby, signifies one’s opposition to the location of something that is considered undesirable in one’s own neighborhood. The phrase seems to have first appeared in the mid-1970’s in the context of a major effort of utility companies to construct nuclear-powered generating stations in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods located in Seabrook, NH and Midland, MI. The first instance of the “Not in My Backyard” phenomenon were to decry the environmental impacts of major construction projects in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. I surmise that behind its use was a fear for the public health of the population in these neighborhoods. Today, this phrase is being used by those who oppose locating group homes for people with developmental disabilities, drug-treatment facilities, and homeless shelters in their neighborhoods.
It is the implications of this second use of the “Not in My Backyard” phenomenon that I want to speak to today. I believe that fear for public safety and fear about devaluing property value is behind those that oppose locating group homes, drug-treatment facilities, and homeless shelters in their neighborhoods. Fear, whether perceived or actual, is a powerful emotion. Fear of unknown circumstances that could be dangerous, painful, or threatening is a primary motivating factor in neighborhoods opposing social services facilities being located in their communities.
In fearful situations it is paramount to move past rhetoric and into conversations that focus on statistics. Fact based conversations between neighborhood leaders, city officials, and social service providers can build the type of collegiality necessary to solve systemic problems. Many places find themselves in the same situation Southern Indiana does, with not enough drug-treatment facilities or group homes to satisfy the number of people that need them. This leads to elongated stays in homeless shelters and to an elevated number of people living on the streets. This is occurring because every neighborhood is brandishing the “Not in My Backyard” banner. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to surmise that we are on a cataclysmic trajectory that only exacerbates the problems.
When neighborhood leaders and city officials do not champion the solutions to systemic problems it leaves the people in the trenches to fight the battle for their clients alone. When leaders don’t lead, it sets up an us-against-them mentality that hurts the most vulnerable members of our society. In order to serve the common good, every elected official must strive to keep the greatest good in play. Good cannot be only that which is good for those who have resources, for those who have power, and for those who have a voice. True leaders lead in pursuit of that which is good for everyone and not just for those who voted them into their position. On November 1, 1977; former vice president Humphrey spoke about the treatment of the weakest members of society as a reflection of their government: “The moral test of a government is how the government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”
In addition to following appropriate leadership by our leaders, we must think clearly about the claims of the “Not in My Backyard” agenda. Is having a secured locked down drug treatment facility worse than having drug addicts that can’t receive the proper treatment on the streets? Is having a group home worse than allowing disabled mentally ill folks to languish in homeless shelter or on city streets? Does having a drug-treatment facility lead to more threats to public safety than having people who need treatment walking the streets? Does having group homes lead to more public safety threats than having the disabled mentally ill folks languishing on the streets or in homeless shelters? The simplest answer to these questions is that to leave people untreated in their addiction and without hope of secure housing in the midst of their disabilities places more of a threat on public safety than to provide them the social services that stabilize their lives. More conversations are necessary to answer these questions, but this blog cannot hope to replace conversations that must be held face to face between groups who share concern for the problems of our community.
I would also like to address the spiritual implications of this conversation. First, I’d like to say that I have no right, nor am I attempting to force my religious convictions on people who do not follow Jesus Christ. I am speaking strictly to those who would call themselves a follower of Christ and who have a church that they call home. Jesus’s existence as the Messiah was intended to “bring good news to the poor” (Is. 61:1). Jesus would never utter the mantra “Not in My Backyard” out of his mouth. The idea that any group of Christians would say, “We don’t want them here,” in reference to any group of vulnerable people indicates the group might not know what it means to be a follower of Christ. Matthew 25:31-46 should be one of the most informative parables to our Christian conscience. This passage speaks to the way the King will recognize his followers when he returns to take them to be with him where he is. The King will recognize his followers by the way they feed the hungry, the way they give water to the thirsty, the way they invite strangers into their homes, the way they clothe the naked, the way they look after the sick, and the way they visit those who are in prison. The bottom line is that the way the King will recognize his followers is by the way they treat the “least of these.”
John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Ever since God gave us the context of the whole world in which to work, Christians have been trying to limit its scope. They think to themselves, “God cannot mean that he wants me to reach the person I don’t like. God cannot mean that he wants me to broker forgiveness for the murderer, for the drug addicts, or even for people that don’t look like me, smell like me, and act like me.” Exclusion of people is not a Christian concept. If you have made it your mission to exclude others, then the question that Jesus asked Peter applies to you, “Do you love me?” If you know of Jesus’ love for you, then you know Jesus’ love has no bounds (John 21:15-17). Jesus is always invitational. Jesus would be inviting people into his neighborhood because he values people more than property. Jesus would minister to the needs of the vulnerable and do everything in his power to protect public safety at the same time. Jesus always invites the stranger into his presence. If our faith isn’t in alignment with Christ’s teachings in this matter, then we need to question whether we are really the disciples we think we are.
Solutions to systemic problems can be found through fostering conversation between theological, sociological, psychological, and political minds that are based in fact and not in rhetoric. My prayer for us is to consider the values of Christ over our own self-preservation. May we become the good news to the poor that Jesus intends us to be.