Knock, Knock. Who's There? Your Neighbors.

communityChildren“I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Matthew 25:35

In the wake of last month’s shooting in Sandy Hook, N.Y., there was much talk about community. Have we lost it? Do we know our neighbors any more? Do we even care to know them, let alone care about them? Are we connected at all?

With online social networks like Facebook, we choose the people we want to connect with. We decide whom to “friend” and whose invitations to ignore. We even select churches where people are most “like us.” As a result, we rarely take the time or energy to know those right next door.

Yet a recent poll reveals that the majority of people questioned believe that cultural breakdown is a more important factor in episodes of senseless violence than guns. The implication is that, when we don’t know those around us—know them to the point of building bonds of trust, connection, and care—we and our children are less healthy, and ultimately, less safe. Does not our “selective association” of spending time only with those most like us contribute to this breakdown of community and cultural bonds?

In his book “Liquid Modernity,” social scientist Zymunt Bauman describes this loss of solid, permanent structures that hold human beings together as a liquidation of our society. Christian sociologist Dr. Os Guinness uses the term “the ungluing of America.” These metaphors leave us with a disturbing picture of isolated people and families floating in a sea, largely unanchored to any place or group.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

What Community Looks Like

“Do you have a magnet in your house?” my neighbor asked. “All the kids are always there.”

Well, I thought, perhaps it’s simply because my door is open.

It wasn’t always that way. As a single working mother of a seven year old and a nine year old, and a person who’s naturally goal-driven, the idea of hanging out with a bunch of neighborhood kids after school was not, let’s say, in my five-year plan.

But that was before a family moved next door with four children, two of whom were alone after school while their mom worked. Soon they were regulars at our house. I remember the first time I asked if they’d like to stay for dinner: “We’re having spaghetti,” I said. The little boy grimaced and replied, “Don’t you have any chicken?”

Those children taught me to open my heart and home, and they filled it with more love than I can express. Now, most days find me laying out snacks for children who start arriving about 4 p.m., teaching them “chopsticks” on the piano, setting out mounds of PlayDoh, or shooing everyone out to the backyard to play volleyball. God indeed has a sense of humor.

What Can Be Done?

While the government addresses issues such as gun control, violence in the media, and improved mental health care as possible solutions to tragedies, the idea of community building has largely been ignored. It’s an abstract concept, elusive and hard to pin down. But does that mean it’s impossible to do?

I don’t think so. And that’s because I’m witnessing it happen where I live.

What began as some children next door having nowhere to go has blossomed into moms and dads, older couples and new neighbors (of many different ethnicities) beginning to know and care about each other. We are slowly becoming a community. Our children play together. We borrow ingredients for recipes. We invite each other to events, including church, and we look out for each other. It isn’t perfect. Children squabble and feelings get hurt. But we work together to resolve these issues and stay connected.

And God is deepening those connections. One neighbor and I have cried together over the loss of her mom, a group gathered to pray for the needs of our community, and some have even celebrated Thanksgiving together. And for last Friday’s game night, one little girl asked if she could bring her 26-year old autistic brother. Hesitantly, I said yes. Though a bit uncomfortable at first, the young man gradually warmed up, learned to play Uno, and happily won every game! When we clapped for his success, and I saw the smile spread across his face, I knew this marvelous moment was something God had done.

How To Do It

If you want to try to build a greater sense of community where you live:

Get out and about. Spend time gardening, walking your dog or just sitting outside your home. Wave and say hello to the people you see. Take your children outside to play. Bring bubbles or toys to share. Children draw children. Let your teenagers know their friends are welcome for snacks, to do homework, or just to hang out.

Be available. A mentor of mine once said, “I am purposely not busy.” She wanted to be available to people who might need her. Let people know you are available to listen when someone stops to say hello or a child wants to tell you a story. Listening is one of the strongest forms of caring and building trust.

Take the initiative. Welcome new neighbors with a plate of cookies or a gift card to a local coffee shop. Host an informal get-together for your block, your cul-de-sac, or your apartment’s common area. Invite neighbors over for pizza and games. People are longing to connect and often just need an invitation.

Be transparent. For acquaintances to deepen into caring community, someone has to be willing to open up. Gradually discern when it’s time to share a concern or problem, which invites others to reciprocate. Children who come to my home have heard me raise my voice, get frustrated, and have to apologize. They aren’t looking for perfection, just to feel the love of God, however flawed the vehicle.

Set boundaries. Don’t be afraid to say no. There are days when my own children need downtime or we have plans as a family. We invite people to come another day. Ask others to help provide snacks for get-togethers or supervise play times.

Pray. Hospitality is a Christian virtue and one of the callings of the church. Therefore, our Lord is deeply invested in our efforts. Ask for His guidance and wisdom as you begin to open your heart and home to those around you.

After all, He was the one who said that whatever we do for the least of these, we are doing unto Him.

Image courtesy of Innolance.

Ginny Mooney is a freelance writer and Emmy Award-winning television producer.

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