I grew up in a village in southern Pennsylvania—a literal, that’s-the-notation-on-the-map village. There were more cows than people on the population list, and when a new family moved in it was big news in the newspaper. (I know it was because my sister figured we needed a newspaper one year and she started scouring the village for enough news to fill two whole pages every month.)

Living in a village had its ups and downs. Sure you don’t have to worry about traffic, but you also had to drive fifteen miles to mail a letter or buy a gallon of milk. There wasn’t a lot to do in the village, especially for a kid. That is, unless there were neighbor kids. Twice during the years I called that tiny village home did I have the joy of truly experiencing and understanding neighbors.

The first time happened when I was about ten. A large homeschooling family moved in just down the road from my house, taking over a large farm house complete with barn and pasturelands. They had a bunch of kids the same age as my sister and brother and I, and we got along famously. Every afternoon after we finished our schoolwork (we were homeschooled too), we’d hop on our bikes and pedal down the gravel shoulder, through the solitary stop sign and up their driveway.

The girls would play frontier and the boys—well we boys did boy things. We built forts and blew up rocks and dammed creeks and generally jeopardized our lives whenever and however we could. There’s something about knowing that there is someone nearby that you can call up to share life’s varied experiences with. As a kid, I thought of it simply as “the neighbors.” But as an adult, it took on a far warmer—if more sober—tone.

Thanks to the community interaction that started to crop up around my sister’s monthly newspaper, the tiny village we called home started connecting. Different farmers took turns hosting summer picnics fueled with Pennsylvania-Dutch baked macaroni and cheese and a sugary concoction called “meadow tea.” Neighbors started meeting neighbors—and not just the kids this time. People who’d lived within a cow’s moo from each other and never spoke started to share their lives. A big-town newspaper editor would sit across the plastic checkered tablecloth from a leathery-skinned farmer and simply be neighbors.

As the years crept by—well, “crept” for me, since, as a kid, time moves at an altogether unfair crawl—the community started to do more together. The centerpiece of the village was an old, historic Presbyterian church whose cemetery housed contemporaries of George Washington. It had no formal congregation and sat doors-closed as a testimony to a bygone era. But as the people in the village grew closer, the caretakers began to open the doors of the church for special occasions, including Christmas Eve.

Every winter, the village would line the cemetery wall with luminaries made from milk jugs and squeeze into the ancient wooden pews for a Christmas Eve service. We’d sing hymns as old as the church, accompanied on the pedal organ and the clang of the church bell.

It was neighborliness distilled, and even as a kid I knew something special was happening inside those clapboard walls. A village of people—some very different to the rest—gathered together for no other reason than they were neighbors. Even the people who weren’t Christians came and sang about Jesus because that’s what we did. That’s what neighbors do.

Shortly after I graduated from college, my mom died from brain cancer. She’d been the organizer of much of the village’s community get-togethers, so much so that in the ten years she’s been gone the picnics have struggled to continue. But while she was sick, I saw the impact a neighbor can have. What mattered as a kid—the forts and the explosions—didn’t matter then, but I loved the neighbors just the same.

Before she died, farmers and dentists and machinists all knocked on our door and brought their baked macaroni and, more importantly, their presence and made us feel loved. I saw first-hand the value of physicality—neighbors being neighbors simply by being there. My mom is still in that village, buried alongside four centuries’ worth of neighbors.

When Jesus answered the question, “Who is my neighbor,” he turned it around on the asker—challenging him to be a neighbor. Now that I’m grown and have my own kids who want to jeopardize their own lives at regular intervals, I’ve found that it’s the being an actual share-the-property-line neighbor that’s difficult. Walking down the street and knocking on a door with baked macaroni and cheese in-hand means meeting someone completely different than me. After all, the only thing we have in common is that our homes share geographic proximity.

But if my years in the sleepy little village in rural Pennsylvania are any indication, being a neighbor to my neighbors is, perhaps, the most Christ-like thing I can do. By being part of their lives, even if it’s just in the early morning ritual of sweeping snow off our cars, I have the chance to show them the love I received. I’ve been the neighbor who needed a Samaritan. And maybe I don’t need to go to Samaria to be a neighbor too.

Jed Ostoich

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