At some point, I guess, the concept of neighborhood was formed around some confines of place that included homes, businesses, third place locales, churches, etc. Our neighbors were defined as those people who lived, worked, and served in one of those readily identifiable places. In other words, at least in my own mind, neighborhood, whether rural, suburban, or urban, was comprised of buildings and individuals within them. Jesus question of “who then is my neighbor?” usually gave us mental images of the same. I will confess that for most of my existence, this would have been true. Neighbor to me implied a potential reciprocal relationship … I could do for you and in turn it might be reasonable to expect you might do for me.
If you aren’t already aware, homelessness is at crisis level in my city. Some would say, and I would agree, we are advancing precariously close to a tipping point here. There was a day when, at least within my selective memory, it was represented primarily in the doorways and alleys of downtown. My interaction, although fairly regular, was almost completely comprised of serving meals to those who streamed from those same doorways and alleys to the mission where, if fortunate, we were able to eat and share stories with a human experience that I couldn’t easily identify with but had great compassion towards. I never really considered them “neighbors” in the literal sense … at least they didn’t fit my previous mold of inhabiting a home or business within my tidy definition of neighborhood.
Then my wife and I moved, literally to a downtown neighborhood, where my definition was upended. For the first time, in my 50 years of existence, neighborhood was not comprised of houses… literally not one. It was all apartments, primarily new and exceedingly, exhaustingly expensive apartments. I began to experience neighborhood as a place that lay at the extremes of either six figure incomes or little to no income at all. You could not be middle class and survive in my neighborhood. Neighbors lived in “luxury” apartments, low income housing, or in the park. To say that this created internal conflict would be an understatement. It was here that I began to experience those without homes as neighbors … some even more so than those who lived in the apartments overlooking their camps. Many of them were some of the longer term residents. They may not have had walls but many were more invested and concerned with the quality and conditions of the neighborhood because it was more home to them than those who just used the neighborhood as an overpriced dorm room and then moved on. Don’t misunderstand, most were either addicted, conflicted or just clinically crazy… but they were undeniably neighbors.
As my wife and I sought to establish a “neighborhood” church, I would say that we woefully underestimated the dynamic. We did many things well along the journey, and some not so well. A new paradigm of neighborhood, revealed to us in all of its messiness, meant walking a continual tightrope, attempting to balance the personality of our group which swung precariously at times from well meaning entitled to outright crazy and chaotic. I still remember our first night in a new location on the edge of the park. A place known for gathering around food was very appealing to those whose primary concern was their next meal. Our attendance doubled that night, but it nearly permanently swung us to crazy. Ultimately we failed, not because of intentions or methods, but out of exhaustion and an inability to really embrace the neighbors as they were, not as I wished them to be. We just weren’t prepared or equipped for this revelation of neighbor and neighborhood. You may want to judge me but, if I’m totally honest, I’d tell you that I didn’t want to be. In the end, I had imagined that we would have had a base of people who could financially, physically, and emotionally contribute to this new expression … along with just the right balance of “characters” to make things interesting and keep us invested in serving those on the margins. We meant well. It was certainly a nice goal, one that could be proudly put before those who would be happy to invest in a pioneering work in the name of Jesus. It just wasn’t reality.
Months later, still in processing mode, I’m asking the “what if?” questions. What if we could do it all over again? Simply put, we wouldn’t… not in this neighborhood at least. We are doing other ministry, still here in this neighborhood, but not necessarily church centric. I’d like to think though that I’m continually learning from this experience the idea of “Jesus centric”. If I learned one incredibly valuable lesson it would be simply this: It’s one thing to imagine yourself piously as the good Samaritan tending to the beaten mans wounds and putting him up at the inn, its another thing entirely to incorporate him into the life of your community.