I have lived in my present home for 16 years but it’s only in the last three or four years that I have begun getting to know my neighbours. When we first moved into this street I was the Senior Pastor of a busy church that took up virtually all of my discretionary time. When I left that position I became an itinerant mentor and speaker, constantly leaving my neighbourhood to meet with people or attend a conference some distance away. In a sense, I didn’t live in my street; I lived elsewhere and just came home to sleep.
Once a year, one of the longer-term residents would host a street Christmas party. I didn’t attend every year because sometimes it clashed with a church event, but I made an effort to get along when I could. I tried to engage people in spiritual conversations, looking for opportunities to share my faith. I got nowhere; they completely stone-walled any attempt to introduce God into the conversation. There was a superficial friendliness but I felt quite disconnected relationally.
Things started to change about four years ago. One of the few positive impacts of the pandemic that took off in early 2020 was that it forced me to stay home. Energy that I put into building community in the congregations I used to lead was redirected into building community in the neighbourhood. I knocked on doors and got the names and contact details of all the nearby residents so we could connect in case of emergency. Not one person opted out, although they were given the choice. I established a WhatsApp group and set up guidelines for how it should be used. That is still going today and is actually quite fun.
I had long been an early-morning walker around my neighbourhood. Changed circumstances during the lockdown phase of the pandemic meant that I was greeting many more of my neighbours than usual. People starved of social connection were keen to chat, at a safe distance of course. To my shame, I have to admit I wasn’t very open to these conversations at first. Life was still busy as online meetings and seminars ramped up and I was keen to get my exercise out of the way as quickly as possible and get home to jump on the laptop.
However, being at home more I noticed the glaring difference between my front garden and those of my neighbours. The neglect was on show for all to see. Once I took a bit more interest in looking after it, the improvements drew an amazing number of comments. I had stumbled on something that was valued by my neighbours. As bizarre as it sounds, looking back I can see that my non-presence and especially the neglect of my garden had undermined my credibility in the street. Why would anyone listen to a guy who was never there and didn’t even mow his lawn?
In the last year I’ve really started to embrace the idea of slowing down, travelling less, stepping out of organisational leadership roles, paying greater attention to what’s happening locally, listening to people. I thought I would see if I could do more to build community in the neighbourhood. My impression was that, in spite of the WhatsApp chat group, people up and down the street were pretty isolated from one another. Instead of engaging in conversations in order to witness I thought I’d try getting to know my ‘audience’ a bit better first.
To my surprise, I discovered that there’s actually quite a lot of community in my neighbourhood. I didn’t know because I wasn’t part of it. These neighbours of mine knew a lot about each other because they had worked to establish points of connection and discover common interests. I had effectively excluded myself by being neither present nor interested in what was important to others.
What a difference this year has made. We have invited neighbours into our home and been invited into their homes too. These days I stop and chat as much as possible. With one neighbour I have found a mutual interest in wine, another has had trouble with back pain like I have, another likes to travel and wants to know about places I’ve been as he plans his next holiday, yet another has a friend dying of cancer and just needs to unload. Each connection has a multiplier effect as I discover that I am the subject of conversations; not as that religious guy at number 10 who’s never here, but as that early morning walker who likes to listen. And I’ve had more spiritual conversations in the past year than in the previous fifteen. I’m learning.