Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

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? 

Photo by Wolfgang Rottmann on Unsplash

11 Comments

  1. Michele November 12, 2019

    I lived for ten years in a South East Asian city where neighbors were like family. The last five of those years I was in one neighborhood very much a part of it. My house was one of the few that had a nice sized front room and a shady veranda. It was a constant gathering space and was borrowed for things like the bride’s dressing area for a wedding and political party meetings (neither of which I took part in, but was happy to give space for). Older people slept on my veranda in the afternoon and kids played in my house in the evening. And in that culture you never came or went without at least greetings.

    I’ve been in my current country in South Asia for seven years. I’v, moving to a new neighborhood last year. With the a couple of exceptions, I didn’t really have opportunity to talk with neighbors at the first place, and even my greetings in passing got suspicious looks, until a major earthquake had us all outside together in 2015. It was a bit friendlier after that, but still a far cry from my previous home. I’ve met and had some good chats with the residents of my current building, but they still are unresponsive to a smile and nod or good morning as we pass in the stairway.

    All the this to say I think it IS different and I’m not sure either how to handle those differences, especially as a guest in the culture.

    1. Laura November 13, 2019

      Michele,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I think your word “guest” is really fitting and names my own experience/feelings well. I want to act like a gracious guest in my host country, and that often means not being exactly sure whether to do things the way I’m used to or not.

  2. Jane November 12, 2019

    Hi Laura,

    I had to respond because I’m an Aussie and have done the delivering-cookies thing several times as a good way of getting to know neighbours several times. Don’t give up! And please don’t write off all of Melbourne… I know several Melbourne families who have over time developed great relationships with their neighbours!

    In the Aussie cities I’ve lived in, knocking on someone’s door as a neighbour is culturally ok as long as it’s clear you’re not pushing any other kind of agenda rather than being friendly (if you call yourself a m* worker to Australia, that would likely be a turn-off, sorry to say) Other ways to get to know neighbours that are ok at least in my Aussie context:
    -Ask for help for small things.. if you are going away for a week, would your neighbour mind bringing your rubbish bin in?
    -If you grow veggies in your garden, share when you have extra. You can also share a bunch of flowers from your garden that are in season
    -If your kids are artists and want to draw pictures for your neighbours that would probably be welcome
    -If your kids play in a nearby playground or go to your local library story-time, go to a local school or play a sport, that would probably be an easier (and more natural in an Aussie context) way to get to know other mums who live nearby

    If you don’t want any advice right now, and wrote what you wrote just to vent/lament that’s ok too, feel free to ignore this post.

    Blessings

    1. Laura November 13, 2019

      Thanks for your response, Jane!! Good to hear from an Aussie 🙂 I hope it didn’t come across that I was writing off Melbourne…other friends of ours have really great relationships with many of their neighbours, so I certainly don’t think my experience is the universal one. Which goes to show that even within the same culture, neighbouring may look different!

      1. Camila November 14, 2019

        Hi! I’m currently in Melbourne too, (between fields.) Would love to catch up if that’s possible at all.

        1. Laura November 14, 2019

          I’d love to! Are you on FB? Feel free to message me if so…if not we’ll figure something else out 🙂

  3. Jenny November 13, 2019

    Loved reading this! Thank you for sharing so honestly and openly. In the city in Iceland where I live I have often struggled with the same. Wanting to be neighborly, working up the courage to step out. Sometimes It’s rewarded, sometimes it’s awkward but mostly I’m working on not carrying guilt around and tossing that to Jesus whenever I can. I’m doing my best to lean in to his leading, walk through whatever doors he opens and cultivate a home that is an oasis for my husband, kids and hopefully whoever may drop by.

  4. MRS DAVEEN WILSON November 14, 2019

    I think that not only are neighbourhoods different, but we are as well! No use trying to be something you’re not. In Brazil, we knew everyone, and were known by everyone, it was a small rural community. Here in a small town in rural Portugal, it’s much harder, but I persevere and keep saying hello, even when folk look shocked at being spoken to… Eventually they’ve mostly responded and even started conversations, presumably once they’ve got used to me (or as my kids say, know they can’t escape!). For my husband, it’s different, so we’ve deliberately chosen to live in a ruin that he’s doing up, because that will give him reasons to have to interact with folk, as he has to find out how to do things or where to buy materials. Here, as well, the place to meet is in the cafes, so we try to make ourselves go regularly to one or two, and that has worked as well. But, definitely, no guilt! Relax, the Master Neighbour will give us opportunities that are right for us, as we keep ourselves open to people. Everyone needs good neighbours!

  5. Daveen November 14, 2019

    Sorry, that MRS DAVEEN WILSON looks so formal, no sure how to work this!

  6. NancyMauger November 16, 2019

    Laura, We have lived in the same house in the capitol city of Costa Rica for 24 years, and we too are surrounded by bars and walls. I am a neighborhood gal too and to my dismay, I have hardly been able to get to know any neighbors in these 24 years….until now……About a month ago a car was stolen out of a neighbors garage while the entire family and dog were asleep inside. That caused a stir in the neighborhood and someone started a neighborhood chat so we could talk about the security issue. We had a meeting one night: “Meet under the lamppost in front of the apartments.” Heaven forbid that we actually enter someone’s home. So under the moonlit sky we introduced ourselves to each other. I was astounded when I heard how long people had lived here: 17 years, 40 years, 30 years. How come I had never seen these people before? We had a meeting the other night to talk about security cameras and I didn’t understand a thing about the cameras but I began finding out about my neighbors, who they were, which house they lived in and if they had kids. I was bursting with excitement. I finally am getting to know my neighborhood. In a few hours we have a security class with the police. I’ve baked cookies! Can’t wait to keep meeting people.

  7. Theresa November 17, 2019

    The biting homesickness results in tears around here sometimes, and I so miss poking my head out our upstairs window to determine if you guys were out playing, or shooting a quick text to the many neighbor-friend options we shared, sigh. In our new context (especially in the new house we moved into this summer) we’ve struggled with getting to know the neighbors—the only other mom in our row always seems so unfriendly and just COLD to me!!—but we’re trying to do our faithful best and have invited everyone for a Thanksgiving feast, although I probably would rather not even try. (With other immigrants we are careful to not export American culture, but native Germans are fascinated enough for it to be a great barrier-breaker… we’ll see what happens this year!)

    With some afterthought, it’s not like most American neighborhoods are like our little idyllic storybook small-town either. But it is a special place, and we miss it too.

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