Text: “The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside your Door,” by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon
“In our culture, we have a fascination with celebrities and talent. We are riveted by movies about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things because we want to be inspired and wowed by the lives of others. So imagine watching a movie about a man who goes to work every day, has dinner with his family five nights a week, and reads books to his kids before they go to bed at night. He also is a great neighbor. He makes time to invite his neighbors over for a meal a few times a month. Instead of watching football games by himself, he watches them with the people who live around him. He lets his neighbors borrow his tools and helps them work on their cars. Occasionally he grabs a drink with a few of his neighbors and they talk about their jobs and what they think their kids will grow up to be. When one of his neighbors is going through a hard time, he’s available. When a neighbor needs him to watch her kids because something unexpected comes up, he is always willing. Imagine in scene after scene of this film, we watch a man who is consistently faithful to love those who live nearest to him.
This would be a terribly boring movie. No one would pay to see it. The movies we watch tell us a lot about what we value in our culture. We don’t value consistency. On the whole, we are convinced that we need to make a big splash to make a difference, just being a good neighbor isn’t that big a deal…This simple truth can change everything: small things matter. They really do. It doesn’t take a superhero to be a great neighbor. We all wish we were a bit more of something—smarter, funnier, or wealthier. Often we have a hard time recognizing what we do have to offer. When it comes to neighboring, it’s important to figure out how we can make a difference in the lives of our neighbors. It may not seem that we have much, but when we give from what we have, something sacred happens.”
Sermon: The People in Your Neighborhood
In the past couple of years I’ve taken up a practice where I listen to podcasts while I run.
It’s a really interesting practice because later when I am back in a spot I suddenly have a flash – an association I didn’t know my brain had made – of the podcast I listened to when I was last there.
Which means – for example – that the relatively isolated trail at the Environmental Learning Center is forever going to remind me of some of the spookiest parts of the podcast Serial which is about a murder investigation.
There are pros and cons to this practice.
Lately, I’ve been listening to the podcasts from Krista Tippett, from her program On Being. Tippett will be the featured speaker at next June’s General Assembly, and in my opinion is up there with Terry Gross and Bill Moyer as one of the world’s great interviewers.
One of her interviews is so good, I’ve listened to at least 3 times, it is the one from Sister Simone Campbell, perhaps most well known as one of the “Nuns on the Bus” that traveled the country calling attention to economic injustice and compassionate immigration reform.
It’s relatively late in the interview when Tippett asks Sister Simone why she believes Americans aren’t able to respond to some of the most challenging problems going on in our county. Tippett says it isn’t that Americans don’t care, she thinks it’s that we don’t know what do do with that care, how to put it into action.
In response, Sister Simone says this: “I sometimes think we, in the United States, think we ought to do something about everything and that it’s my job to fix everything. Well it’s not. That’s way beyond us. It’s more important, I think, that we listen deeply to our stories and then see where it leads. If we all do our part. Whatever our part is. Just do one thing. Community is just about doing my part.”
I stopped running, and hit pause, and rewind, and heard her say it again. I returned to running, this time kind of nodding as I ran – like yeah. Exactly.
Her simple analysis resonated with me for two reasons.
First, it struck me as such a relief – it was one of those statements that feels simultaneously like the best piece of good news – totally revolutionary – but that is also old news – something we already knew and believed and just need to hear said aloud. We know we cannot do everything,
and it isn’t our job to fix everything – and yet somehow there’s something in us that often forgets, and tries anyway.
Sister Simone calls the journey of faith a journey of “walking toward trouble,” but she reminds us that we cannot walk toward every trouble, we have to figure out first where we are meant to walk – which of all the possible parts and paths is our part. To do this, she says we must start with listening. Listening to our own stories, and to the stories that live in our community – listen with an open and accepting heart no matter what those stories may be.
When we let ourselves really hear these stories, take them in, and even let ourselves be changed by these stories, then, and only then we will know where to walk, how to act- what trouble to walk towards – the stories literally propel us forward.
Listening like this allows us to act from what Parker Palmer would call a heart that has been broken – open. This is where simply getting to know someone becomes a spiritual practice. And, where listening becomes an act of justice.
Which brings me to the second reason this statement in her interview struck me.
Let me just start by acknowledging that I blame my father for this one.
According to family lore, when I was a baby, my dad was often too tired to wake up with me for his early morning shift. And so his creative solution was to helpfully place me in an infant seat tilted up towards the television and then turn on that television, and then go back to bed.
This was before DVR or netflix – let alone video cassette players – so he was stuck with whatever was on. Luckily for both of us, in one of those 12 or so channels available in 1976, the sixth season of Sesame Street was a constant program.
Apparently this suited me fine, as the lore also goes I watched with rapt attention, and my dad was able to catch a couple extra hours of sleep on a regular basis.
By that point in the show’s run, Bob McGrath -the music teacher who lives on Sesame Street
had sung “The People in Your Neighborhood” on at least 5 different episodes, over the course of which such “neighbors” as a postman, a fireman, a garbage man, a barber, a “newsdealer,”
teachers, a librarian, and a plumber had all been featured -guess which of those were female muppets by the way?
Actually 1976, when my little infant brain was absorbing all kinds of subconscious messages,
was the first time that someone other than Bob was featured singing the song itself – Maria Figueroa, the Puerto Rican young adult who eventually became a repair-person in the Street’s Fix It Shop offered her rendition likely about the same time my dad was plopping me in front of the tv.
I suppose lots of things might be blamed on my father.
But for the purposes of today’s sermon, and the second reason Sister Simone’s statement got me – my father is responsible for my strong orientation to what I call – the local. Which is the orientation Sister Simone is encouraging in her statement: Start where you are, in the every day with the people you meet, when you’re walking down the street….
Who knew so much power was contained in a little song about getting to know your neighbors?
In truth, my dad’s influence on me as a localist went far beyond Sesame Street. Even more important was the way my dad has lived his life.
As an architect, he is always attuned to the layout of neighborhoods, and housing, schools and shopping complexes. Growing up, he would often point out to my sisters and I how the shape of a given building or the landscape around it was influencing how people interacted.
My dad was also very active in the local business association, always trying to revitalize the local downtown, and our waterfront, and I swear he was at every Kiwanis meeting and church planning meeting, and in all of this he kept an eye on building a sense of community across our whole town.
In our actual neighborhood, both my parents knew well all of our surrounding neighbors – they took care of the older ones, sent us to play with the younger ones, got their mail and watered their lawn and took care of their pets when they were out of town, and caught up regularly on front porches and back lawns about all the latest news.
In many ways my dad has lived his life as the epitome of that “boring movie” that consists of simple and small acts of being a good neighbor – and as our reading says, there is something sacred about this simple neighborly orientation.
Just over a year ago, when we first moved in to our home, our next door neighbor greeted us with a plate of cookies and introduced himself. He said he went to Timberline Church, and – we braced ourselves a little. I remember I was wearing my running clothes that day, and as he asked me what I did for a living, I told him I was a minister. He managed at least 3 double takes in 5 seconds.
After that awkward moment, he said he wanted to tell us about things he’d observed about our house, and that we should be aware of. He also told us some stuff he’d observed in the other nearby neighbors. When he left I think I said something like, “well I guess we’ve met the neighborhood gossip.”
But why did I say that? Because he was paying attention to his neighbors? Because he gave us advice? The stuff he’d “observed” about our house was genuinely helpful. And double-takes notwithstanding, he generally seemed to be fine with these “nice lesbians and their two kids” moving in next door, even wanting to get to know us a little – I mean isn’t all that what we used to call “being neighborly?”
While I am always skeptical of locating the “simpler days” in the past – since I usually find that times always have their own challenges –
I have to believe that making real connections with the people who literally live in your neighborhood is less common today than it has been in the past. Bigger and more temperature controlled houses make us more inclined to stay indoors when we are home, and longer work hours and increased extra-curricular activities mean we aren’t actually home all that often.
And, as last Sunday’s message explored – we are getting more and more accustomed to talking only to those people who we know agree with us, who can affirm the story we already have in our heads, the judgments we’ve made about how the world should work. And when it comes to your neighbors, there is no guarantee about whether they agree with these preconceived ideas. They are just….people. So getting to know them could be – uncomfortable. …
How many of your neighbors do you talk to regularly? about something other than the broncos, or the Rams, other than the weather? Do you know their names? Their stories? Do you know when something happens in their life? Do you think of them as someone who you would turn to? Do they think the same of you?
At a personal level, imagine with me what it would mean to seriously step up your game in being a good neighbor – both with your literal neighbors, and also your neighbors all across Northern Colorado.
Now, returning to Sister Simone, this isn’t about doing everything we could do for all our neighbors. It’s just about doing our part. And to figure out that part, you might consider – whose story you need to hear, or what stories are you already hearing?
The stories that are breaking your heart wide open and propelling you to act in small or maybe big ways. Not news stories. Not facebook comments. Personal stories of real relationship that are seeping into your soul – inviting you to grow and change, in the every day.
Maybe it’s a story you heard from a co-worker, or one of your friends?
Or a journey you are on with your parent, or your children? Something you are aware of in your own heart, or in a friend’s? Where in your real-life every day community is your heart breaking wide open, and then what small act of response does that encourage? And where does the story lead? This is your part – in small and sometimes big ways, this is your own personal trouble to walk walk towards.
And as you’re walking towards that trouble, you might appreciate some company.
So I want to recommend to you, the good folks on either side of you – and in front, and behind.
More than just a collection of individual neighborly acts, it makes sense for us to think of ourselves – our whole congregation as a good neighbor, and to use this idea of neighboring
as a way to help us know where and how we are called to act.
As a local congregation, situated in a particular community, a particular time and place, we have a unique opportunity to have a significant impact on and relationship with this particular community – our neighbors. And we can learn what impact and relationship is uniquely ours to have through this same kind of listening.
This is exactly what’s happened this past year in our ministry to address homelessness.
For the past few years, as a part of our Faith Family hosting of homeless families, we have been convening reflection circles where we share stories about the experience, how greeting, meeting and hosting these families had impacted us.
In these circles, we realized a persistent desire to address homelessness more deeply, to have an even greater impact than simply hosting families at our church, and to learn more about the systems and cycles that lead to and keep people in poverty in Northern Colorado.
This awareness led to a training this past January where nearly 40 church members gathered to learn and reflect on the cycles of poverty.
It was there that we learned about the One Village One Family program, and someone suggested that we start a village – a group of 4-6 who companion a family as they move from homelessness into housing.
Feeling the energy in the room, I could tell, we’d have way more capacity than just 1 village. I thought 3.
Within a couple of months, with help from longtime church member Jim Smith and new member Anne Fisher, we actually had 5 villages worth of people committed to walking with families in this way – or maybe we’d say now – wanting to simply be good neighbors.
We call our villages a county. Since April, our County has received in depth training, and 3 of the villages have been matched with families. The other 2 should have families in the next few weeks. As a whole congregation, we have supported this ministry by raising about $9,000 – money goes to help with the initial costs of housing – deposit, first/last month’s rent, etc.
Through it all, our villagers are hearing the stories of their families, getting to know them, feeling their frustrations and the crazy barriers to affordable housing that exist in our city. It hasn’t always been easy. I know their hearts are being broken sometimes in small and sometimes big ways. And it is from this risky yet real walking together – this good neighboring that we will learn where we as a congregation will go next.
Friends, religious and spiritual life only makes sense to me when it impacts us in our real lives – every day – with the real people we meet when we are walking down the street. When we are better people – kinder, nicer, better listeners, and better neighbors as a result of our faith – that’s when our faith really starts to matter. We don’t need to do something about everything.
But we can listen to our stories, and we can do our part.
These small things may not always make a great movie, but they do make for a great life – a better life, for all the people in our big, beautiful neighborhood.