In the last week of term 1 we were entering into April and adjusting to a new world following an avalanche of imposed changes into the way we live along with a daily never ending news reel of information telling us how to adjust and what that meant for us. By this time my wife, Verity and I were now working from home full time but our children were still attending school based on advice from the government.
I remember walking my kids to school during that final week before the school was closed for 3 weeks. It was such an eerie feeling. There were no cars on the road, the usual line up of cars stacking up from the school entrance right down the road non-existent. The many families who would usually walk to school, kids on bikes and others out for morning walks were nowhere to be seen. We were the only ones. As I began to observe my neighbourhood a little more closely, playgrounds were empty, the train station carpark was empty during work hours and the usual bustle around our local shopping area was quiet. Things had certainly changed.
I am very privileged to live where I do. I live on a corner block in a leafy Adelaide hills suburb on the edge of suburbia. At the end of our street are acreages that host hobby farms. It’s not unusual to hear sheep or rosters in the morning. Within 200 metres of our home we have a bakery, butcher, pharmacy, pub, bottle shop, landscaping supplies, take away food options and a liner walking trail by the river. Within a 1 kilometre range is a school, bike track, orchard that sells fruit direct to the community and a whole lot of neighbours we call friends. Within a very short walk we have nearly everything we need. Add to that a deep sense of community. I often see the butcher or baker foraging for herbs that grow wild across the road from our house. There is also a great culture of local business supporting local business and produce.
When things began to change it was sad to see the pub go dark, businesses go quiet and the rise of anxiety in our community for those who were still operating wondering how long they were going to stay open.
Just prior to this I started a Facebook group inspired by my friend Jessica who started the group in Melbourne first. It’s called ‘Love Your Neighbour South Australia’. One of the initiatives suggested by someone in the group was to do a letterbox drop in your neighbourhood with a contact card. At the time it looked as if people would be isolated for a very long time so the purpose of the exercise was to provide your contact details to your neighbour and offer to do one of a number of things listed on the card. These included, a friendly phone call, pick up essential supplies or even walk the dog. I felt compelled to participate out of my own concern for a different kind of pandemic I anticipated was on the rise – social isolation.
Two things out of this exercise surprised me. Firstly, the amount of people who were out in their yards gardening. In some instances, we hardly made it to letterboxes before our neighbours wanted to strike up a conversation to talk about their struggles with restrictions, the impact it was having, or the life giving activities they had now discovered. For those we didn’t already know we learned new names and met new faces. Secondly, for those we didn’t encounter I began receiving text messages from other neighbours thanking me for the letter box drop and deeply moved by the intent to stay connected. We have had more contact with our neighbour in the few weeks since doing this than ever before and feel more connected with our street.
I like to run on the walking track to the local National Park and back. I have noticed over the weeks the atmosphere change from the eerie silence of when restrictions were first announced to a reasonably busy thoroughfare on the track. There has been a growing number of family groups, walking or on bikes, couples walking dogs and more people taking up running than I’ve noticed before. The main differences I noticed in the neighbourhood now since restrictions started were a couple of things…
Firstly, everyone I saw were locals. With all the usual activities cancelled and people working from home, everyone was staying local to the neighbourhood for family outings and exercise. I know this because while running or walking the dog, I have caught up with more of my friends and neighbours who live locally than ever before. Some I hadn’t seen in a very long time, from old high school friends to friends I just hadn’t had time to see because my usual work rhythms take me away from my neighbourhood.
Secondly, everyone I encountered, whether friend or stranger, wanted to engage in some way. People are lifting their heads and making eye contact, waving and saying hello. I’ve made it a practice of mine to 1. Make eye contact 2. Smile 3. Wave 4. Say hello 5. Keep a good distance of 2-3 metres (it’s the new social expectation – if you don’t do it they will). I have been pleasantly surprised by the response to this and I often get stopped on my run, for a chat.
I could tell you many, many stories of the conversations I’ve had with my neighbours, some of whom I’ve only just met and others I haven’t seen for a while. We go deep into things I never expected we’d talk about. What I have learned is how much my neighbours crave connection and relationship. Verity and I have done what many others have and had Zoom parties and FaceTime chats with our friends, family and neighbours, but these don’t come close to real human connection.
For Verity and I our favourite Friday evening activity is to set up a table and chairs on our front lawn, put out a platter of nibbles, grab a bottle of wine from the local and share a ‘happy hour’ on our front lawn. We live on a corner block close to the shops so we encounter all the neighbours walking by either walking their dogs or grabbing take away dinner for the night. We often have long conversations with neighbours over the fence from where we are sitting. It’s a great physically distant way for us to connect meaningfully with our neighbours. Recently Verity grabbed her guitar and started to play out on our front lawn. Our neighbours across the road saw us so they grabbed their own chairs, brought their own wine and glasses and a guitar, then came over and jammed with us on the front lawn (appropriate physical distance of course). All our kids were busy doing their own thing in their own homes so the 4 of us made the most of it. Neighbours walked past, smiled and danced.
In my experience we and those in our community have rediscovered the neighbourhood and neighbourliness. This gift we have discovered is something I for one do not want to let go of. I wonder if the experience is similar for others? If so, what have you learned about your neighbourhood? What rhythms and practices have you discovered that you want to continue once restrictions are fully lifted and life draws you back out of the neighbourhood to the other places you were invested in? How has connecting deeply with your neighbourhood changed you?
I wrote my Masters thesis on neighbourhood engagement in a context based on the assumption that God is present and active always doing a new thing in the world and is inviting us to join – play even – with the Spirit breathing new life into the neighbourhood. God is up to something and if we pay attention we might even discover it. If these questions are helpful for you, I invite you to put them into practice as you get to know your neighbourhood and respond to what you are being invited into. How are you listening for what is going on in the neighbourhood rather than imposing your own agenda? What can you learn and how can you respond?
Where are the places of life, hope, beauty, joy and community in the neighbourhood?
What evidence of struggle, despair, neglect and alienation do you see? Who is suffering and why?
What sense of connection do you feel to the neighbourhood? What are the physical observations you make about the environment and surroundings in your neighbourhood?
What sorts of partnerships exist for the good of the neighbourhood?
In what ways are local people participating in neighbourhood life?
What motivates the work of the community in a time of need in your neighbourhood? Do you believe the resources exist among you to address neighbourhood needs? How are the gifts of local people mobilised?
What topics of conversation concerning the neighbourhood keep coming up?
Where has God been present? What new thing does it look like God is doing? How might God be inviting you to participate?
Who are you reflecting on these questions with? Who is joining you in responding to them?
I hope you are able to discover the gift of joy, beauty, connection, hope within your neighbourhood. For me it’s been an ongoing discovery of Gods presence and playfulness in the world and I’ve been comforted in accepting the invitation to join in and continue to discover what God might be up to in my life and the lives of my neighbours.