“Our church believes we put our faith into action the best when we love our actual neighbors. These are everyday stories from our journey to being better neighbors.”
I signed up for a small group study at Grace this summer because I have enjoyed other study groups and because the topic, Neighboring, sounded intriguing. I had no idea that this group and the whole concept of Neighboring would change how I view the world around me. Neither did anyone else in the group. But all of us have ended our small group study time as different people than when we began.
The Neighboring movement sprang from a simple, but radical, question: What if when Jesus said “Love your neighbor” he meant your literal neighbor, the people who live closest to you? It’s a whole new way to look at Jesus’ commandments. I have spent my whole life loving my church “neighbors”, being a “good neighbor” to my community, and supporting causes to help “neighbors” around the world, but my actual neighbors? I don’t even know most of their names.
This was where our group started. We had a book to read, assignments to do, and lists of suggestions to follow but whether any of it made an impact depended totally on whether we were willing to set aside our doubts and fears and take the first baby steps toward neighboring. Most of us decided to make that jump. And we will not be going back.
One of the first things we had to do was meet our neighbors, to learn their names. This was challenging for all of us. For me, it meant embracing the awkwardness of knocking on doors and saying, “I know I’ve lived across the alley from you for 16 years, but I’ve never met you and I’d like to know more about you.” It was hard and weird to introduce myself and start conversations with people I only knew as that guy across the street who drives the black pickup. But people have been remarkably nice. No one has slammed the door in my face and everyone has been willing to introduce themselves and chat a little. I now know at least the names of the people living in the eight doors closest to mine and several other doors on down the street. And they know my name. We greet each other with smiles and waves, now. Just taking the time to learn each other’s names has changed us. We are no longer strangers, we are acquaintances. Someday, we might even be friends.
When I’ve told my neighbors that I am trying to get to know the people on my block better, several have spoken fondly of the neighborhoods where they grew up, places where everyone knew each other and looked out for each other. They have commented, “Wouldn’t it be great to live in a place like that now?” It would. That sense of community is something everyone longs for. And that is what Neighboring can create. My neighborhood isn’t there yet, but we are taking th first steps in that direction. I have raised my own awareness and sparked the idea in others and I can see so much possibility.
One of the steps I have taken toward neighboring is to spend more time outside. I walk the neighborhood early in the morning. I sit on my porch in the evening. I pay attention to what’s happening around me while I water plants or weed my flower beds. I smile and wave at everyone who passes, whether I know them or not. When I see a neighbor outside, I go over and chat. I have just been intentional. None of this has been difficult or time consuming or awkward. I’ve just been present in ways that I had not been and this has made me more open, more interested. And that has made my neighborhood friendlier.
I have also been just observing. Who comes and goes from houses? Who has pets? I haven’t seen the man down the block for a long time – did something happen to him? Did that neighbor get a new car? I’ve walked up and down the street and alley and just noticed. Who has a swing set in the backyard? Who has a garden? The flowers in front of that house are really beautiful right now. Which house is for sale? I’ve learned new information about my neighbors this way and I have become more interested in their lives. Knowing even a little about them has made me curious to know more. What are their stories? What are their lives like? What could they teach me? I am more invested in my neighborhood now and genuinely want to know the people who live here better.
My neighbors and I have taken the first steps to build community on our block. We’re talking to each other more and finding ways to reach out. My family hosted a bubble party for neighborhood kids and met children and parents we we had not known. Plans are in the works for an ice cream social. A family down the street is talking about having an outdoor movie night when the weather cools down. People are excited about getting to know one another. A few simple steps toward neighboring have already changed my street, which gives me such hope.
My new found interest in my neighborhood has taught me to look at my neighbors differently. I truly care about them now, in more than just a General I-hope-everything-is-okay way. I find myself looking for ways to help them and am keeping an eye out for ways they could help me. When a neighbor friend was in a minor car accident, I listened to her story of the incident and offered support. We parted with hugs, which had never happened before. When my neighbor who tends to talk far too much stops to chat, I take time to listen instead of trying to extricate myself from the conversation. Instead of rolling my eyes at the number of cars parked across the street and the chaos of people coming and going, I’ve asked what’s happening and have learned to view the family’s situation with compassion. I still have neighbors who are challenging to love – the guy with yard signs for political candidates that make me cringe, the neighbors who let their grass grow two feet high, the family whose children have been unkind to mine. But they are still my neighbors. I know I don’t know the whole story of their choices and that there will be areas where we will probably just need to agree to disagree, but I am determined to find a way to connect to them, too. Jesus didn’t say I could just skip over loving the neighbors who make me uncomfortable. And learning to know and love the people who are most different from me will make my neighborhood stronger.
I am not the only one in my study group who has been changed by neighboring. Everyone in the group has taken steps to know their neighbors. The Neighboring updates have become a highlight of our week. We’ve heard stories of neighbors sharing asparagus and mowing each other’s lawns, of a neighbor who moved extra chairs to his yard so that people could sit and chat, of drawing chalk murals on the driveway with neighborhood kids. We’ve cheered when one of our quietest members met five new neighbors in a week and we’ve reminded another member that, despite her reluctance, the unconventional guy next door is worth getting to know. The members of this group have supported each other and held one another accountable and in the process, have come to know each other better. Our book study is over now, but we are still committed to one another and to what we have learned. Neighboring has changed all of our lives, in tangible and spiritual ways. We are all better people than when we started and our neighborhoods are better for it.
The concept of Neighboring has changed me. It has made me kinder, more patient, more aware. It has spilled out of my neighborhood into the rest of my life. I view other people and situations with more openness and compassion. I’ve become less hard on myself, more accepting of my imperfections and more willing to lean in and embrace the imperfections of others. Neighboring has given me purpose. In all of the chaos and division in our state and country, learning to love my neighbors is a way to bring kindness and unity to my little corner of the world. I have been deeply moved by the thought that these people, my neighbors, are who God has put into my life and that my job, my purpose, is to get to know them. Neighboring has become a sort of spiritual discipline, a way to live out my faith. My neighboring efforts, small as they may be, are a way of carrying out Jesus’s instructions. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. It’s so simple. And so radical. And all I have to do is open my door and step outside and meet my neighbors.