ZIP codes are on my mind. My husband and I are in the beginning stages of house-hunting. With all three kids in one bedroom (sharing a closet), things in our current home are feeling a bit tight. Since right now, our lives center around the kids’ school, we want to buy a house within a reasonable radius of that school. Four different suburbs surround St. Monica, but they share one ZIP code, so when I search one of the Realty Web sites for houses, I enter that ZIP code as a way of narrowing the search.
Entering the ZIP code makes me a little uncomfortable because of a homily I heard a few years ago. The homily was so right on and true that it has stayed with me. I attended Mass that day with some friends, so we all heard it, and to this day, we refer to the homily as “Luck of the ZIP code.”
The priest’s point was that many of the successes we congratulate ourselves for, are not really ours alone, but are ours by virtue of being born into the “right” ZIP code. Strong school systems, crime-free neighborhoods and intact families are all more common in some ZIP codes than others. People who grow up in these ZIP codes have an immediate advantage over their counterparts who are born into poor, crime-ridden ZIP codes. Fr. John Horan cautioned us against being judgmental toward others or puffing up with pride at our own accomplishments — had we been born into a different ZIP code, our lives could be very different.
Sometimes I think of that homily as I key in the ZIP code for the area we’re interested in. No one would argue that it’s not a fine ZIP code to buy a home. Houses are well-maintained, streets are quiet, children are generally well-cared for and well-educated. Property values go up each year. What bothers me is not that our family has the opportunity to purchase a home in this ZIP code; it’s that other families do not have this chance. The very people who could most benefit from the quiet neighborhoods and excellent school systems of our ZIP code cannot afford to live here. Once you’re born into a very poor ZIP code, your chances of ever living in a wealthy one are very slim.
And that’s where the second part of the priest’s homily comes in. He challenged the congregation to see the inherent injustice in the luck of the ZIP code. He called us to use our own resources, talents and time to work to make things better for those whose roll of the ZIP code dice was not as fortunate as our own.
I don’t know what the Gospel was the day of that homily, but it could very well have been the parable of the Good Samaritan. When Jesus tells his followers to love their neighbor, they ask him what “neighbor” means. Jesus replies with the story of the Samaritan man. Samaria was certainly in another ZIP code, and the parable shows us how Jesus calls us to reach beyond human-made borders as a response to his command to love one another.
As Bill and I continue our house hunt, I know the message of Fr. John’s homily will stick with me, like an itch that won’t go away. And that’s okay. If the role of Jesus is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, I’ll admit that in my search for more closet space and another bedroom, I can use a little afflicting — especially on those days when I start thinking about a first-floor laundry room. And while originally, becoming a foster parent was a way of reaching out to those from other ZIP codes, we will adopt our current foster daughter this Thursday. In four days, we won’t have a foster child; we will have a daughter. And as a new family of five, we will need to find another way to reach out across the ZIP code line.