Magazines 2020 May - Jun Our neighbourhood is our church

Our neighbourhood is our church

18 May 2020 , 2020 May - Jun By Preston Pouteaux

God’s call to human connection

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“I’m going down the street,” I said to my six-year-old girl as I slipped on my boots and went for the front door. We had been talking about our neighbours and wondering how they were getting on in the opening days of the COVID-19 virus as it hit our community. We had made up little encouragement cards for our neighbours with reminders of our contact numbers in case they needed anything.

I was off to slide them into the doors of a dozen neighbours, some who we see at our block parties and at the mailbox, some less so.

I remember as a boy – along with a scruffy group of other kids – all the ways we intruded on our neighbours. We could knock on a door and be warmly welcomed in, snacks would be shared, and we would recount all our epic adventures catching bugs and building forts. Neighbours were like aunties and uncles. They always seemed to have time for each other. To linger, laugh and gossip was the ordinary fare of teenagers on my street.

We were never too busy being busy and never too removed to be unknown.

Today those kinds of neighbourhoods seem like a fairy tale. Things have changed. We’ve become occupied by some unseen forces, a synthesized routine or app that has rendered others into avatars and updates. We know our neighbours, but really, we don’t at all. They have become almost imaginary to us, without bearing on our day-to-day lives let alone our faith.

Our neighbours became no longer needed, known, necessary or even loved by us anymore – a loss we barely knew we endured.

The opening days of the COVID-19 virus held a double whammy where we live. We had this surreal pandemic turn rapidly into a full-on emergency on the same weekend a snowstorm landed heavily on our city. So with those cards in hand I stepped into my neighbourhood, crunched over piles of ice and navigated carefully down my street. New snow underfoot and lungs alert to brisk-bright air has a way of making all things real.

Sometimes very real and ordinary moments feel holy.

And this is all so real. This unprecedented, unseen virus no one can sense is now more real to us than almost anything we’ve encountered. Our lives are oriented around a new reality. It has changed us.

What if something else that used to be virtual has suddenly become real to us again? In this great exchange of priorities we have also experienced an uprighting of relationships we did not know we had lost. We are in the great and beautiful process of meeting, knowing and actually loving our neighbours again. Our reorientation to what is real is transforming how we see and relate to our neighbours. Store clerks, nurses, children and teachers who live on our street are suddenly so real.

We love them. We thank them. Their work matters, their story matters, they matter.

Harry Overstreet, an American author wrote, "To the immature, other people are not real" (The Mature Mind, WW Norton, 1949). This has a tremendous implication to our faith as followers of Jesus. We do, in fact, need others in our lives if we are to mature. We need those strange and wonderful people we barely know, those living just feet from our front door.

Jesus geo-located our faith right in the middle of our neighbourhoods. He said we are to love God and love our neighbours, and Paul said to the Romans and Galatians that if we love our neighbours we fulfill the whole law.

helga khorimarko
Illustration: Helga Khorimarko

Our maturity and our very growth as followers of Jesus has always been centred around our neighbours, whether we forgot it along the way or not. Their well-being is of great interest to God, and in these strange and surprising times our neighbours have suddenly become of great interest to us too. In this pandemic they became real. And their presence, we are discovering anew, is the cornerstone of the faith we share.

When I turn again to Church history, I am awed to discover it is this simple gesture of love for neighbours, especially during epidemics, that played a vital role in the maturity of early Christians. Their love made them stand out in society as odd and wonderful.

"It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving-kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say. ‘Look how they love one another," wrote Tertullian in the 3rd century AD. Even the emperor Julian took notice and wrote his own pagan high priest asking why those Christians "support not only their poor, but ours as well?"

The early Christians grew together in maturity because they loved their neighbours.

In a world of striving, it might be that we are in the midst of discovering we already have what we need. The things that ought to have had our attention all along are much closer than we knew. In the very real lives of neighbours we are being offered a moment in history to meet Jesus in our neighbourhoods. We are finding an invitation to discover our God is not neighbourless, separate and aloof, but present in the lives of real people He dearly loves.

Challenges like these make us grow. Who would have guessed our maturity in Christ has come not from the sorrow of a virus, but in the rediscovery of the very real and dearly beloved neighbours waiting next door?

Preston Pouteaux is pastor at Lake Ridge Community Church in Chestermere, Alta., and author of The Bees of Rainbow Falls: Finding Faith, Imagination, and Delight in Your Neighbourhood (www.IntoTheNeighbourhood.ca).

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