The Art of Neighboring

Today’s post is a guest post from Elizabeth McKinney – someone who “neighbors” well.

A year after settling into our new home, we had the idea to have a little, informal block party and just invite the neighbors around us that we knew – about 15-20 people. One of the neighbors had several fryers, so we did a potluck fish fry and had fish tacos. There were a few kids who played on someone’s swing-set and later, we did a fire pit for the adults after our kids went down. At the time, I had no grandiose visions of what God could do with that small step; I just thought it would be fun to get some neighbors together.blockparty

Four years later, I’m amazed at the community that has grown in our little village of ~200 homes. We now have a Facebook group, a Neighborhood Watch, ongoing Poker Nights, Running Groups, a Wine Club and tons of fun annual events: an Easter Egg Hunt, Neighborhood Clean Up Columbia, an Arbor Day Event, the Block Party, 4th of July Bike Parade, a Drive-In Movie, Tailgates, a Christmas Party with Santa (along with Christmas lights competition) and welcome baskets for people when they move in. It’s kind of blowing my mind. This year, we did a huge Halloween extravaganza where kids picked up treasure maps at our Clubhouse and followed them around to 12 different stations including: hot chocolate, s’mores, cider, a Haunted Garage, Hayrides, movies & popcorn. We encouraged neighbors to stay outside, get a fire pit if they didn’t already have one and organized people as station teams with the few houses around them or on their cul-de-sac. Not only was the night exceedingly fun for all the kids and adults, it was a huge community builder!

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Obviously these events themselves are not the heart of a neighborhood nor are they what make a neighborhood special; but they are the symptom of something special happening. What’s made planning a lot of these events feel so rewarding are moments like sitting at a Ladies Night Out at D’Rowes and a middle aged, newly divorced woman who just moved to the neighborhood, sharing that this is her first time being on her own and literally turning to look each woman at the table in the eyes & thank them for being an open, welcoming community for her to join. It’s being there for your neighbor when she needs someone to take her to the hospital for an unexpected surgery and staying the whole time… or watching someone’s kid for the day if needed. It’s having someone to get your mail while you’re gone or that you can ask for sugar and flour when you’ve run out. It’s watching your kids run around with 10 other kids behind your house and hearing them all laugh and yell from your kitchen window. It’s having impromptu get togethers around the fire-pits at night and knowing our kids will get to be a part of a walking school bus and knowing that help is right next door – literally – when (not if) you need it.

Along the way, we’ve adapted a few principles that have shaped how we’ve gone about things. I hope you find them helpful:

  1. Ask, “What’s in my hand?” Everyone has unique giftings as well as limitations. Meeting neighbors can feel overwhelming and intimidating and you can’t do it all, but what canyou do? I have 4 small children, so ongoing weekly commitments aren’t realistic for me, but I can plan a few parties for the year on my computer with Facebook and Sign Up Genius.
  1. Try a Block Party and start small. In our experience, the Block Party was a crucial entry point. And it’s something you can build upon and do again the next year. Some friends of ours wanted to try a version of the block party, but a little simpler, so they set up a few folding tables & chairs and invited the few houses around them for a little ice cream party- it was a great hit!
  1. Remember people & their names. That sounds so simple, but it goes a long way.  And write them down if you have to. I keep a note on my phone for neighborhood stuff so that when I meet someone at the pool, I have a quick way to jot down names because I know I’ll forget later (it’s not creepy, it’s intentional!). Name tags are a must. And we like to have people write their address below their names so people can make connections as to how many doors down someone else might be from them. See it as a gift you can give people – to listen when they’re talking and remember them. It communicates that you see & value them.
  1. Put yourself out there. There’s a vulnerability in taking the first step because no one wants to be thatperson who is large and in charge, especially when you have no idea what you’re doing. But often, people are just waiting for someone else to take initiative.
  1. Be generous. When we were first starting, we didn’t have a budget from the HOA (we do now and that has been a game changer). But we used to buy all the food for the Easter Egg hunt as well as the eggs & candy. Other neighbors would pitch in and help cover costs and bring utensils, tablecloths, etc. A few of us even went in on a snow cone machine together for the Block Party. We saw all of it as an investment in the neighborhood and it really helped in the initial stages to build momentum.
  1. Be available and say, “Yes.” The current M.O. for most of us as neighbors is the following: Open garage door. Pull car out. Close garage door…. Open garage door. Pull car in. Close garage door. Try being outside more – take walks, make a fire, wave & say hi to people. All these things say, “I’m available, I’m here.” And when your neighbor asks for help (it takes time and trust to get here), say yes if you can. Also, ask for help yourself- see #9.
  1. Get others involved! This is a big deal. People will feel way more connected to the neighborhood if they’re personally invested and have served even in a small way.
  1. Be Resourceful. I was laying in bed one night on my phone and google’d Block Party City of Columbia grant. Within 10 minutes, I had filled out a simple few questions and applied for $250 for a popcorn machine- all from my iPhone. A few weeks later, we were approved! We also make use of the Century 21 Bounce House, which they offer free as an advertisement. You just reserve it in advance and need a truck with a hitch to go pick it up.
  1. *Have ultimate motives, not ulterior motives. I’m talking about hosting the neighborhood Easter Egg Hunt without feeling the need to surprise them with hidden Bible verses in the eggs because that’s what it means to “reach your neighbors for Christ.” It might not go over so well. “Ulterior means that something is intentionally kept concealed… (and) manipulative. It’s when we do or say one thing out in the open but intend or mean another thing in private.” Ultimate motives are the larger hopes, dreams and desires you have that shape who you are. My husband & I have talked about our ultimate desire to see an umbrella of God’s common grace extend over our neighborhood – to bring some shade and relief from the heat of hard things in this life – along with our desire for our neighbors to know Jesus Christ as their friend and savior. Yes, we have larger hopes & dreams for our neighbors to know Christ in a transforming way… but we also care about their gardens and jobs and kids and the bachelors programs they’re finishing and their aged parents. When you’re freed up to value the ordinary parts of peoples’ lives as important without feeling like you’ve got to somehow make the conversation “get to church stuff,” small talk takes on new meaning and isn’t so small. You’re open to spiritual conversations but aren’t forcing them… and sometimes they’ll come and sometimes they won’t. But you can’t measure the significance you’re making in a neighbor’s life just by serving them in some small way or taking an interest in them. Some of the best spiritual conversations have been unexpected, like hearing two of our neighbors’ life stories and spiritual journey while sitting in their hot tub late one night.
  1. *Practice the Art of Receiving. “If we don’t allow people to meet any of our needs, we limit what God wants to do in our neighborhood and in our life. Allowing ourselves to be on the receiving end can be harder than it looks. Our tendency is to put ourselves in positions of power – in this case, always being the one to give. We want to be seen as the capable one with all the resources and answers. But being in a relationship where we allow others to meet our needs is always a good thing… When giving is one-sided, it robs the “needy” one of his dignity, because it makes him dependent. But when giving is two-sided, everyone feels a sense of worth… Receiving… takes humility, it may feel wrong to impose on someone else, and it requires vulnerability.”

If reading this has peaked your interest at all, go ahead & do it – just set a date for that Block Party and see what happens. Knowing our neighbors has enriched our lives in more ways than I can express. And trust me, if God can use this tired, busy mama with four little ones to build community in our neighborhood, He can use you!

*The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door by: Dave Runyon & Jay Pathak. Baker Books. 2012.

One Comment

  1. jpinok3 said:

    We live at the end of a cul-de-sac, so we have about six neighboring houses of people that we see regularly and know by name. A few years ago, we decided to have our neighbors in for a small gathering during the Christmas season. First we started with two neighbor couple, added another two the next year, and so on. Last year, we had eight families for our “small” gathering, and had a wonderful visit. Most everyone brought snack foods, so it was no more difficult for me than when it was two. Just connecting with neighbors has been a greater blessing to us than I would have imagined. Our small group on this street has become closer, we look out for one another, pick up mail, return garbage bins, etc, simply because we feel we know each other a little better now. I encourage everyone who is able to reach out and try to make your street or your neighborhood a little more friendly.

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