Life’s trajectory seems designed to move us further and further apart from one another. First you live in a 12×12 dorm room that you share with another human being. Then you move to an apartment. Then you move to a house. Then you move to a bigger house. Each one of these things comes with more space for stuff, but moves you farther away from people. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with big beautiful houses in the suburbs. But when we’re told to love our neighbors, I think that meant our metaphorical all-of-human-kind neighbors and our literal-across-the-street-neighbors. We’re called to get down in the messy trench that is human connection and work to see the kingdom come there.
David and I have talked a lot about the nitty gritty of how to do this over the past couple of years. Here are five (pretty practical) things we have been attempting to practice as we learn how to be good neighbors.
1. Walk up and introduce yourself. It sounds simple, but lots of people never do it. The key factor here is to do this absolutely as quickly as possible. If you’re new, introduce yourself to everyone you see. If someone else just moves, make it a point to meet them the first time you see them outside. This helps remove the awkward barrier of “we see each other all the time but never talk so why would we today?” If you’ve lived in a neighborhood for awhile but are just now beginning to be intentional with your neighbors, you’re going to have to suck it up and push pass the awkwardness. Acknowledge the situation (“I see you all the time, but I don’t think we’ve actually met. I’m Ruth Ann.”). It won’t be that bad, promise.
2. Think through the specific demographics and needs of your neighbors. Our block is mostly grad students and older people, with only a few couples or kids. We’ve found that the older people who live on our street love to visit with us outside, while the grad students tend to be more open to attending functions we’ve hosted in our home. I have a friend who lives a few streets over with her husband and two kids. Their street has tons of kids living on it. Lots of times when I walk or run by the moms on that street are together in one yard playing with their kids. We were all made to connect, but people often want to do that in different ways. A swanky Friday night no kids allowed appetizer party that starts at 8pm might not work well on my friend’s street, but my grad school neighbors would probably love it. My across the street neighbor in my old house is in her 80s. She isn’t looking to be invited to a party (I tried), but she loves it when I would walk across the street and visit with her on her porch. Be intentional in thinking about exactly how your neighbors might want to connect, not just what you’re most comfortable doing.
3. Feed people. This could be on basically any list you write. How to be a better teacher? Feed your students. How to have a great first year of marriage? Feed your spouse. How to win friends and influence people? Feed them. People love food. It’s a gift that doesn’t demand reciprocation. Once I tried inviting all the neighbors to dinner at my house and I think they thought that was kind of weird. I’ve had a lot more luck baking cookies or biscuits or whatever and dropping them off places. Sometimes we’d do that purposefully–before a test we know a neighbor has, or after a death in the family. Other times we’ve just ended up with half a pan of biscuits left on a Saturday morning and walked them over to someone.
4. Hang out in your front yard. I really think this one has helped us get to know our neighbors more than anything else. We pretty much set up our yards in reverse. We have a picnic table, twinkle lights, and a swing in the front yard and (almost) nothing in the backyard. If we eat outside, we do it in the front yard. If I read outside, I do it in the front yard. We also don’t have a garage, so between hanging out in the front yard and then just walking back and forth to the house, this makes for a significant amount of visibility. Our friends a couple of streets over that I mentioned with kids have toys and (now that it’s summer) water stuff in their front yard. Sometimes people will wonder what the heck you’re doing and wander over to chat. It also gives you good visibility to engage with people who are walking around. In the same vein, we take lots of walks.
5. Commit to the long haul. I thought I would deliver homemade banana bread and have all my neighbors over for dinner the first month I was in my first house. Then I found out it takes about a month just to get out of boxes. Connections with your neighbors won’t always happen in the first weeks or even months of making an effort. But don’t lose heart. Keep taking walks and waving to everyone you see. Keep dropping off food when someone has a baby or loses a grandparent. Keep volunteering to get mail, to water plants, to watch kids. Community is sometimes built quickly, through intense experiences… but I’ve found that far more often, it’s built quietly, through acts of love and service. Through “just showing up,” over and over again. Be the neighbor that keeps showing up.
A word on demographics and location: We live in an urban neighborhood. It’s a place where lots of destinations are walkable, many of people don’t have cars, and few people have garages. This is a lot different than more traditional subdivisions with privacy fences and two car garages. But on the other hand, more traditional neighborhoods tend to be less transient than our neighborhood, giving you opportunities to forge more long-term relationships. Community can be created anywhere. Build it and they’ll come… as long as you build it in the front yard, anyway.
We’re very much still learning how to love and connect with our neighbors and we love hearing what works for others… if you have any words of wisdom, please leave a comment! And enjoy this weekend! Halloween is one of the only nights a year that your neighbors might come to you. Make the most of it. (We’ll be giving Snickers bars out all night long–costume or no costume, 5, 15, or 50… we do not discriminate. Come on by.)
p.s. most of this blog post is almost verbatim what I wrote in a message
to a sweet friend who asked what we do in our neighborhood…
much love to you, Jenn!