I haven’t been a good neighbor.
Let me explain. I abide by our neighborhood covenants. I say “hello” when I pass a neighbor while walking to get the mail. I even occasionally take in the neighbor’s trash can along with my own. I suppose I am a model neighbor, but that doesn’t make me a good one.
Near the start of summer, a new family moved in across the street. J.P., the mom, is around my age, and we were both born in Columbus, Ohio. J.P. is an extrovert and loves spending time in her front yard chatting with neighbors. She knows everyone’s name, including significant others who come and go. She loves Jesus and has already had me over three times for homemade sodas on her back patio.
I don’t think I realized what a mediocre neighbor I was until I met J.P. Clearly, she has the gift of hospitality and is more extroverted than I. However, her simple kindnesses to those around her revealed to me how little effort I have been making.
Who is my neighbor?
If you’ve been around Christianity for any length of time, you have probably heard the saying, “Love your neighbor.” You have probably also heard the story of a lawyer asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Scripture says the man wanted to justify himself. Jesus went on to tell the story of the Good Samaritan, illustrating that everyone — including our enemies and those who are different from us — is our neighbor. We are called to love all people.
Here’s the rub. Living in modern times, we can drive miles from home to participate in activities, connect with friends and attend church. The concept of an actual physical neighbor has been displaced. I may think, I’m loving my neighbor because I’m showing love to those I encounter “out there.” But what about my actual neighbor? Do I drive my car into the garage and shut the door without giving my physical neighbors a second thought?
Alan Briggs stated this well in his article, “The Mission Field Next Door.”
There are cracks right here in the places we live among the people we see every day. After putting on missionary lenses, I noticed the crack of disconnection spidering through my neighborhood. Next-door-neighbors who were once close had grown apart. Front porches were empty. I began to think, What if that friendly neighbor is actually dying of loneliness? What if that mom walking her child to school is going through a divorce?
Once we identify cracks, God invites us to start filling them with the redemptive mortar of the Gospel. We all see massive cracks in this broken world, but the place where we already live is the most obvious place to make an impact. As followers of Jesus, we need to learn how to not just occupy places, but to become faithfully present in them.
How can we be faithfully present in our neighborhoods? Here are three ideas:
Make time. My biggest hurdle to loving my neighbors is a full (and often too-full) schedule. However, I can choose to intentionally spend time in my driveway or walking around my neighborhood each week. The times I have done this, my visible presence often leads to spontaneous interactions with those who share my street.
Learn names. J.P.’s initiative in learning her neighbors’ names (and having our phone numbers!) is inspiring. This makes people in the neighborhood feel seen and known, which was obvious in how they meander over for a friendly chat. When I think about what Jesus would do if He lived in my neighborhood, I believe He would notice the people who live there. He would know their names (obviously). And He would seek to meet their needs — a couple of those being loneliness and a need for connection.
Initiate conversations. I recently heard a man at my church share that after many years, he had never gotten to know his mailman. One day they randomly struck up a conversation. A few conversations later they were discussing their faith backgrounds and the man was able to share the gospel. To be good neighbors, we must talk to those who live nearby. We need to ask them questions and listen to their answers.
Connecting at the cross
A few days ago, J.P. texted me after dinner and told me to come out front if I could. She, her husband and two daughters were using masking tape and chalk to create a large stained-glass cross on their driveway. For close to an hour, I knelt beside the cross, filling in the colorful sections and talking to my neighbors.
The single mom who lives next door came out and chatted with us for a few minutes. Soon, her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend came out and lingered for a bit. And the neighbors across the street waved and said hello before climbing into their car. J.P. invited everyone to join us and sign his or her name by the cross. When the project was completed the following day, J.P. signed off with Joshua 24:15, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Part of serving God where you live is the act, and art, of loving your neighbors. I’m thankful God brought J.P. into my life to show me how it’s done.
Copyright 2021, Suzanne Gosselin. All Rights Reserved