We moved into our 1973 side-split home eight years ago. We prayed throughout the whole buying process, knowing that God knew best where to plant us. Of course, we were starry-eyed with certain characteristics: the quiet cul-de-sac, the proximity to greenspace, schools for the future. But while the external features were shaping our choice, God could see the people and the brokenness, pain or joy found in each home in our neighbourhood. He could see our desire to move in among them, wanting to be the fragrance of Christ. And He could see the changes—the heart renovations—that He has planned for us as we dwell here.
One by one, we met our neighbours. At first we were a bit disappointed because there were so few young families like ours (they were mainly retirees who had bought their homes when the subdivision was established forty years ago). But neighbours are more like families than friends—you don’t get to hand pick the ones who seem similar to you!
Since my husband and I both work from home, we have always considered our neighbourhood to be our primary mission field. So we began to pray. And we tried to be intentional to stop and chat when a neighbour was outside. Being home-based allows us to be out on the street or yard for a few moments at various hours of the day—lunch on the front porch, raking at 3pm, playing with the kids at 6pm, so we’ve had many opportunities for curb-side conversations. We’ve tried to spend more time in the front yard than the back. We’ve organized a street party every summer that is always well-attended. I’ve planned nights out for the women from our court.
We have carefully observed the neighbourhood culture and rhythms and determined to structure our days and weeks so that we would be more available for neighbourhood relationships. I often cook supper mid-afternoon so that I can be outside when the neighbourhood kids came to play at 5pm. A few summers ago we decided to stay home on long weekends—that seemed to the time when everyone was relaxed, working unhurriedly in their yards, and responsive to a spontaneous invitation for drinks or a BBQ.
Even so, we desperately wanted to feel community and affection for our neighbours. The honest truth was, however, that most of the time it felt more like a duty and “the right thing to do.” But we hung on to an idea from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest: “We cannot think our way into a new kind of living. We must live our way into a new kind of thinking.” We hoped that our hearts would eventually catch up.
There were some good conversations, but I can remember some painfully awkward ones too. The time I bolstered courage and wandered further down the street to talk to two moms whom I barely knew who were out watching the kids. The conversation was stilted and uncomfortable, reminiscent of those strained interactions where you’re aware that these acquaintances really would just rather talk to each other. Or the time my neighbour three doors down, a mother in her 70s living with her gay son, told me that her son thought my husband was very hot and “why were all the cute ones taken?” I stuttered something incoherent, face hot and red.
In fact, very little of this neighbourhood ministry has come naturally to me. I am more introverted than extroverted. I am more task-oriented than people-oriented. For many years I lived with a scarcity mentality about time—there was never enough time and the little of it that I did have needed to be spent on being productive, not frittered away in aimless conversation with a neighbour. Loving and serving others takes up so. much. time. But I have been challenged by Mark Buchanan’s view of God’s upside-down economy as it relates to time: “Generous people have more time. That’s the irony: those who sanctify time and who give time away—who treat time as gift and not possession—have time in abundance. Contrariwise, those who guard every minute, resent every interruption, ration every moment, never have enough. They’re always late, always behind, always scrambling, always driven. There is, of course, a place for wise management of our days and weeks and years. But management can quickly turn into rigidity. We hold time so tight we crush it, like a flower closed in the fist. We thought we were protecting it, but all we did was destroy it.”
Fortunately for me, God saw fit to give me three children who have become my best instructors in this ministry. In the neighbourhood, they are bold, friendly and naturally curious about others. They will stop and chat to neighbours young and old, lingering in the conversation, engaged and interested. Their ability to accept others, to get involved and to innocently disregard social conventions astounds me. They don’t really care what others think and so they behave presumptuously, inviting themselves into our neighbours’ homes, and now, I can see, their hearts. They give and receive abundantly.
This past year, I felt God renewing my commitment to my neighbourhood even more. I felt Him say, “Don’t look elsewhere to do your ministry. Your main ministry is right here, in your home and in your neighbourhood. Be my faithful servant here.” God reminded me that at the end of my life, He isn’t going to say, “Well done, my radical earth-shaker!” but rather, “Well done my faithful servant.” So this year, we have chosen to slow down our lives even more with fewer outside commitments, responsibilities and children’s activities so that we might have more time to listen and more time to serve. In these last couple of months our conversations with our neighbours have gotten longer, more intimate. Before the summer, I asked God to open my eyes so that I might see the needs. And He did. I haven’t responded to every prompting, but I have to many and it has given me purpose and joy.
Perhaps the biggest change for us this year has been that we’ve learned to receive. Where once we were the initiators, our neighbours are opening their homes to us and welcoming us. And as we’ve learned to humbly receive, our relationships have become authentic and deeper. Our neighbour two doors down, a woman in her 60s who played sports at a national level when she was younger, took a special interest in my soccer-loving son. She coached him many hours this summer with drills she learned back in her European home country. Another retired couple invited us to use their pool every day this summer, thrilled with the boisterous play of my kids. Many summer afternoons were spent in their perfectly manicured backyard while the kids splashed around, chatting about what we were making for dinner or who was dealing with skunks. It was during the dinner that we invited them to as a thank you, that I thought to myself, “I really like these two. This is not duty, this is pure joy.” I wanted to spend time with them. They have become friends.
But two memories stand out above the rest. One afternoon a few weeks ago, my friend Audrey who lives across the street and two doors down, stopped to chat. I hadn’t seen her in months, but had suspected something was up. We talked for an hour and she told me about the pain and struggle of the last year. She had finally asked her husband—a man whom we knew and had had over many times—to leave. His dependency on alcohol and drugs was tearing her family apart. She had decided to board some foreign students as a way to pay help pay her mortgage. Later that evening the Columbian mother of one of the students walked by with Audrey and all the children. While we chatted outside on our front lawn, the air fragrant with that end-of-summer scent, the Columbian teenager demonstrated soccer moves and shared with my kids what his life is like in South America. We were in no hurry. I enjoyed listening to these two strong women, trying to raise their kids as best as they could. We promised the Columbian mother that we would watch out for her son this year and help outfit him in some appropriate winter clothes.
Just last weekend, as we peeled carrots and trimmed tails from the green beans, my children excitedly chatted about our Thanksgiving plans. We had invited Audrey and her children, the Columbian student, Audrey’s cousin from the Caribbean and another couple down the street over for Thanksgiving dinner. On the big day, we played soccer in the park, and then returned to our home for dinner. Hour after hour passed, with neighbours telling stories, pouring wine, passing turkey and mashed potatoes. I felt a warmth deep inside, affection for each person gathered around the table. My feelings had finally caught up. I didn’t want to be anywhere else or with anyone else. This was community gathered around our table, supporting each other, living life together. These people had become our friends.
God has begun a good work in our hearts and in our neighbourhood. And Lord willing, we’ll live here until we are the retirees delighting in the neighbourhood children.