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Like many compelling ideas, Love Your Neighbor revealed itself in a vision. In January 1994, Jim Ward and six long-time friends made a pilgrimage to the Super Bowl, as they had done each of the previous thirteen years. In his Atlanta hotel room sometime during the wee hours after the Dallas Cowboys hogtied the Buffalo Bills and the postgame revelry had petered out, Ward had an epiphany.
"I woke up in the middle of the night with the phrase Love your neighbor going through my head," recalls Ward, director of Dade County's Department of Human Services. "The thing kept pounding at me. I could see it everywhere. I had visions of the president closing the State of the Union address with 'God bless America and love your neighbor.' I saw the blimp going over the Super Bowl spelling out 'Love Your Neighbor.' I saw the Pope saying his homily at the Vatican and concluding with 'Love your neighbor.' CEOs saying 'Love your neighbor' at the end of corporate meetings. I thought: This is wonderful. I wonder why nobody thought of it before. Wait'll I get back to Miami. I thought the whole city would change overnight and everyone would grab it and run with it."
The next morning, as Ward and his slightly groggy buddies nursed their coffees in the restaurant of the Quality Inn, the topic wasn't Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas's two embarrassing fumbles or then-Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson's second consecutive Super Bowl win. Instead the men sat and listened to Ward enthuse about his plans to transform the world with a three-word slogan. "They thought it was a little hokey," Ward admits. Later that evening, though, after Ward had regaled their server at the Outback Steakhouse with his new idea, he received his first positive feedback: The waitress bade them farewell with a hearty "Y'all come back and see us -- and love your neighbor!"
Barely two years later, Ward's wee-hours inspiration has sprouted from a conceptual seed into a creeping vine whose tendrils reach to the very corners of Dade County, and beyond. Seemingly everyone -- from political and entertainment heavyweights to unwitting county taxpayers -- is doing something to promote it.
There are the ubiquitous red bumper stickers emblazoned with the three magic words, the signs and banners festooning Miami International Airport and Bayside. The three bright red Metrobuses that ply their routes bearing no identification other than "Love Your Neighbor" painted in English, Spanish, and Creole on their sides.
But those are mere hints, the first tiny inroads into the public consciousness. "This is everybody's campaign!" exclaims Claudia Becerra. The media coordinator for the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Community, Becerra donates several hours of her time each week to promote the slogan. She is one of the leaders of the 50-member Love Your Neighbor Steering Committee, formed by Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin in mid-1994 in order to come up with the ways and means to "saturate our community with the thought, phrase and spirit of 'Love Your Neighbor,'" in the words of a memo written by Sister O'Laughlin.
While no public money is allotted for the campaign, its pervasiveness is due in part to Dade officials' enthusiastic use of county resources to boost visibility. And that doesn't sit too well with some county employees who face cutbacks or increased workloads owing to recent budget tightening.
James A. Ward truly believes that loving your neighbor can make a difference in his community's well-being. So why shouldn't the campaign be considered just as important as any of the other social services -- everything from drug treatment and battered women's shelters to services for the elderly and mentally retarded -- that his department provides?
"You've got to sense this and feel it," says the 67-year-old former Jacksonville police officer, who has worked in the Department of Human Services for 21 years, the past three as director. Tanned and trim in a starched white shirt and tie, he has a vaguely mournful expression reminiscent of the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. "If you're in traffic on I-95 and someone cuts you off and you see 'Love Your Neighbor' on a bumper sticker, you can put your mind on that and feel a little less stress. If you could get the criminal element to read Love Your Neighbor bumper stickers ten minutes of the day, that's ten minutes he wouldn't be figuring out how to rob you. If we can develop in this community a Love Your Neighbor spirit, every nook and cranny will prosper."
Such was the level of certainty that inspired Ward to press his neighborly agenda when he returned from Atlanta back in the winter of 1994. He didn't have a clear idea of exactly how it should be done, but he knew he wanted the words on everyone's lips and the feeling in everyone's heart.
A friend who knew a printer ordered up a thousand bumper stickers. On his office computer, Ward created his own Love Your Neighbor stationery. He wrote letters seeking support from the Pope, the president, Attorney General Janet Reno, and the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters ("I thought it would be great if we could have bumper stickers on all those trucks"). Hillary Rodham Clinton sent back a boilerplate response thanking him for "taking the time to make your voice count." Neither His Holiness nor the Teamsters boss replied, but Ward says Reno, a Miami native, called from Washington to pat him on the back. (A spokeswoman at the Attorney General's office says she can't confirm that Reno called Ward; her boss shies away from endorsing specific citizens' initiatives, the aide adds.)