I’ve lived in my current neighborhood for over four years, which honestly is a little scary when I think about it. It seems like just yesterday my beloved and I moved into our tiny, poorly ventilated, poorly lit studio apartment, with sticky kitchen drawers that drove us nuts and a wee oven I nicknamed “the Barbie stove.” We moved here quickly and didn’t plan to stay more than a few months, yet here we still are.Why? Above all else, we have stayed for the neighborhood. Within comfortable walking distance, we have a branch of the library, at least three parks, three supermarkets and a food co-op, amazing restaurants and coffee shops, and a discount movie theater. Incredibly, considering our city’s abysmal job market at the time, I scored a job within walking distance after we moved here. My partner decided to go back to school a few years later, and we discovered a free shuttle to the college with a stop just blocks away. And of course, my wonderful church is close as well – I actually live within the official parish boundary. Aside from the apartment itself, what’s not to love?
Yes, I love my neighborhood. But do I love my neighbors?
Well, with a few notable exceptions I don’t really know them. I have a chronic case of crippling shyness, even in cases when connection should be easy, and also, genuine connection with strangers is something pretty countercultural in many parts of this country. I was just reading a compilation of international students’ first impressions of Americans, and I was struck by a quote from a Colombian student to the effect of “I was shocked to see all the young people here who live alone, eat alone, walk the streets alone. The United States must be the loneliest country in the world.” Many of the students responded similarly, many of them commenting that Americans seem outgoing and friendly, but their connections with others rarely go beyond social niceties.
I more or less fit this stereotype. I see a lot of people when I’m out and about, and I smile and say hello, and often I see them so often that I know them by sight, but rarely do I put in the time to learn their names, much less get to know them. Recently I decided to stop being such a chicken and make an effort to learn people’s names and a little bit about them. So now I know the first name of that guy who’s always sitting on the patio of the pizza place near my house. I finally frequented the restaurant of the young man I pass in his uniform going to work while I’m on my way home from my office job. And I’m working my way up to having a conversation with that amazing violinist whose music I catch an earful of on my weekly trip to the grocery store.
The neighbors who live even closer than that, in our building? With a few exceptions, most of them seem to be stopping by on their way somewhere else… an apartment with better ventilation, if nothing else. It’s hard to establish contact when things seem so transitory. Yet there are relationships I could build on here too, like with our next-door neighbor who always gives us first dibs on clothes that would otherwise go to goodwill, or our neighbor on the other side who let me use her cellphone when I’d locked myself out of the apartment first thing in the morning (don’t ask).
I feel Jesus gently nudging me toward forging a deeper connection with all of these people. In the bigger picture, I feel he’s calling me to continually evaluate my life in terms of whether or not it’s blessing my neighbors, to ask myself how I can bless those around me. Tutoring at the local high school? Cleaning up public spaces? Becoming really engaged with local issues? Seeking to understand, listen, and care more and more about the most vulnerable of us? There is so much more I can do than just passively enjoy the neighborhood.
On a certain level, it’s truer than ever that physical proximity is not what makes us neighbors, at least in the sense Jesus meant. We also have global neighbors, anyone whose common interest we share, which really includes everybody. However, I need to make sure I direct a certain amount of attention to my literal neighbors, not in order to limit the scope of those whom I care about, but to practice caring in a concrete way. To quote Mother Theresa, “Help one person at a time and always start with the one nearest you.” When I choose to care for those near to me physically, I can draw the whole world near to me spiritually.