Last week a neighbor popped over to give my children the toys she had earned through her grocery store purchases.
That gesture, entirely mundane and unremarkable in my home context, has filled me with pleasure every time I’ve thought about it since.
Our home in the U.S. was a small town, tight-knit and friendly. Many residents, including us, worked for or had graduated from the local college. Within a short time of moving in, I knew all my neighbors in a one-block radius, and many, many more scattered throughout the neighborhood. I would wander outside with my littles with no other purpose than to find someone to chat to. My front porch was my favorite spot — the comfort of my own home, yet in easy reach of a smile and a wave from a neighbor.
And then we moved to Melbourne, the second-largest city in Australia, home to millions of people, many of whom are transient. The tall fence replaces the front porch as the most common feature of houses in our neighborhood. After two and a half years in our house, most of our neighbors are strangers to me — I wouldn’t even recognize them if I passed them at the shops.
The stark contrast between these two opposites often stirs up a biting homesickness in my heart.
So, when a petite woman with graying hair stood at the end of my driveway and introduced herself to me as my neighbor, I could have hugged her. I probably would have scared her off if she’d known what I was thinking: “I’ve been waiting two years to meet you!”
Neighboring looks different here. While not universally true, life in a large, transient city tends to make people private and unconcerned about their neighbors’ affairs. Life feels accelerated: my newly-introduced neighbor said that she’d seen me and my kids, but didn’t want to bother a busy mother. Bother me? I could have wept, but I wasn’t surprised. Our next-door neighbor — the one couple on our street that we do know well — almost always begins or ends our conversation with, “I know you’re busy…I don’t want to keep you.” I know the horde of children running laps around our house gives the appearance of chaos, but for me chaos does not equal busyness, especially when it comes to a chat with the neighbors.
Aside from general homesickness and missing small town life, I’ve also had to confront another hurdle: guilt. Recently, many American Christian writers are encouraging others to use their home as their base for ministry, loving their literal neighbors, and working to see God’s kingdom grow in their neighborhood. The challenge is laid: how many of your neighbors do you know, and how are you showing them the love of Jesus?
So, a new family moves in next door to us, and I bake cookies. It takes me weeks to build up the courage to do this, as I haven’t even seen any of them yet, even though it’s the middle of summer. Still, I go at last, determined not to fail to love my literal next-door neighbor.
My gift is met with surprise, thanks, and introductions, followed by an awkward good-bye. That was eight months ago. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen them since, and none of them were opportunities to chat.
Perhaps I should keep pushing — to knock again, create an excuse to get to know them, show hospitality. I feel guilty. Where is my courage? Why haven’t I gone around to each house within a stone’s throw of ours, introducing ourselves and opening the door for friendship? Isn’t this part of the reason we moved here in the first place?!
Or perhaps I shouldn’t expect my Australian context to be like my American context. Neighborhoods and people are not all the same. Neighboring well is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Love requires knowledge of the one you are loving — but I can’t force that knowledge, insisting on knowing someone and being known myself.
So I’m trying to learn from others here, rather than depending on American models. What does neighboring look like in their communities? What has worked? What hasn’t? How do my expectations and methods need to shift even as my context has shifted?
I don’t have very clear answers at the moment, and I still wrestle with guilt over not knowing many of my neighbors — is it a result of my own weakness? Or a feature of culture that I need to adjust to?
Regardless of that struggle, I can move forward in prayer. In prayer, I have someone who is always ready to chat, always ready to offer the warmth of his friendship. He also knows my neighbors better than anyone else, and he knows just how they need to be loved. So for now, I’ll take them — unnamed and unseen — to him, asking for his kingdom to come and his will be done in their hearts and in our neighborhood.
What does neighboring look like in your current context? If it is different from your home context, how have you learned to adjust and love the people around you?