Jesus knew his culture and the norms and peculiarities of living under Roman occupation. Whenever he taught his own people, he used parables and object lessons they were familiar with. Likewise, in order to love our closest neighbors and local community well, we have to be familiar with them. We have to participate in the experiences and details of local community life. We can’t live holed up in our homes or hidden behind picket fences. After all, our neighbors’ welfare and our own are intimately connected.
Just Who Is Our Neighbor?
Currently I teach courses at a local seminary. One of the classes is called “Discipleship Ministries.” An early assignment I give my students is to “walk their local neighborhood.” If they live in a rural area, they drive around their local community. Their assignment is to figure out what they can learn about their neighborhood and its culture so that they and their churches can love their local neighbors. I ask questions like: “What kinds of people live there?” “What is the ethnic makeup?” “What kinds of businesses dot the landscape?” and “Who are the invisible people?”
People who often are “invisible” in a community are the homebound elderly, those who live in trailer parks, refugees, and immigrants. I find that some students have never walked or driven their neighborhood with such intentionality and admit that they don’t really know their neighbors or what their neighborhood is like because they usually drive past it. Others have relationships with their neighbors but are trying to figure out how to better love and serve them.
We moved into our apartment complex on New Year’s Eve, in the dead of winter. Immediately I began praying for my neighbors, asking God to bless them and to draw them to himself. I knew it would take a while to build relationships. My desire was to be a blessing to them while knowing they would be a blessing to me, too—most of the time.
I decided to do what I ask my students to do: find out who are my neighbors. I limited my exploration to a half-mile radius. From our apartment manager Stacey I learned there are 215 units in this complex. I had yet to meet our upstairs neighbor, but I hear her climb the stairs at midnight when we are in bed. It jolts me awake. In the morning, we’re off to the races before she is. So far, on the weekends, it appears she is seldom around. I’m waiting for a chance to meet her and to apologize for whatever ruckus our three girls are causing.
The other day, I did meet one of our next-door neighbors. Her name is Debbie, and she introduced us to her white Chihuahua, Lucy. My guess is that Debbie is in her fifties. She told me and my five-year-old daughter that her two-year-old granddaughter would love our three girls. Now I hope to meet the neighbors on the other side of us—if indeed that apartment is occupied. I plan to have a cookout when warmer weather comes. I need to learn the lay of this new land and the culture here if I am to love my closest neighbors.
Part of familiarizing ourselves with our neighborhood is coming to terms with the reality that loving our neighbors is not always easy. For example, I have neighbors who allow their dogs to soil the little postage-stamp size of grass otherwise known as our front lawn. They don’t clean up after their dogs. I must confess that it is a major pet peeve of mine (no pun intended). In fact, as I was driving through town the other day, I saw a sign that read: “Your dog poops, you scoop.” Although the message is a little crass, it gets to the point. I’ve been wondering if I should put a similar sign in our front lawn. It would certainly communicate my sentiments. On the other hand, maybe I should just get out there and scoop it up myself—hoping that the offenders catch me in the act of cleaning up after their dog’s mess. Maybe they’d feel bad about it and change their ways.
But what if they don’t? It’ll take some work for me to figure out the most loving response—especially when my neighbors and their dogs have transgressed my sensibilities and standards for cleanliness. Part of loving our neighbors means loving them in the good, the bad, and the ugly. Love takes creativity, work, and wisdom. Often we can’t do it alone. At times we’ll have to think through what it means to love, and seek out advice.
If I turn left out of our complex there is a neighborhood with houses in the $300,000-plus range. If I turn right, I approach State Route 795. Across 795 are homes and Woodland Elementary along with Woodland Park. The park has a fun playground and a jogging path. Sometimes I see people playing disk golf. If I turn right there’s the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Discovery Children’s Center, Jerl machine shop, and Lucky Farmers Garden Center. Continuing in that direction, I head toward the downtown section of Perrysburg, Ohio. If I turn left on 795, I pass big box stores like Target and Walmart along with a string of chain restaurants.
Right now, my heart is drawn to Woodland Elementary. Next fall, my middle daughter will start the first-grade there. In a few years, my youngest daughter will start kindergarten at Woodland. And although my oldest daughter will go to school a few miles away, Woodland is right across the street from our complex. It will be easy for me to get involved.
If we are going to love our local neighborhood well, we need to become familiar with the people and places in it. What are the community’s strengths? What are its weaknesses? What are its needs? Are there single mothers we can love and support, or people exiting prison that we can serve by helping them re-enter society? Could we play a role in providing fair and affordable housing? What can we do to beautify our local community? Might we love our neighbors by running for the school board or tutoring students? It takes intentionality from us and our churches to figure out how to seek the welfare of our communities. It takes intentionality to show our face to our neighbors and be the face of Christ to them.