How far was the shooting from your house?”
My pastor’s text caught me off-guard. “What shooting?” I typed back, and waited.
The next text was a link, under the headline, “Shooting leaves one dead, another injured; police search for suspect.”
The picture that accompanied the article stopped my heart. The street and buildings were in my neighborhood, less than a mile from my house. My wife and I felt first confused, and then a little frightened. The more we talked, we felt our fear increasing, as we wondered what the violence meant for our neighborhood and for our family. We considered putting our house on the market right away and finding a safer place to raise our kids.
But as we thought through the implications, the all-too-common fear and escapism gave way to more trust and a sense of solidarity. As a family, we were captured by Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves, especially since His parable of the good Samaritan turns our innate ideas of neighborliness upside down. In talking with our neighbors about how to build something redemptive from the tragic and frightening situation, we realized that the Lord had already laid the foundation for our work in the concrete of our driveways.
In the introduction to his book The Safest Place on Earth, author Larry Crabb writes of visiting Miami Beach with his wife. During the trip, they walked down a side street, away from all the luxury, and found dozens of retirees sitting on their porches, “looking straight ahead, never into another person’s eyes, never knowing anyone, and known by no one.” They had arrived, so to speak, but their destination had turned out to be a friendless, lifeless one.
Loving our neighbors begins with presence. But in today’s world, too many live in the same kind of isolation as those Miami residents. In our case, our three children pack the family calendar with school events, sports, and birthday parties. We’d pull into the driveway and walk into our house, sometimes waving to a neighbor. But in recent years, we’ve been making slow yet significant effort to be present to those living nearby. The biggest help in this came from our neighbor, Meg.
We realized that the Lord had already laid the foundation for our work in the concrete of our driveways.
We live in the South, so warm weather starts early, and Meg took advantage of every nice day to be outside. But she didn’t stay in her driveway. As neighbors arrived home, she’d walk over and talk for a few minutes, engage them in casual conversation. The time was open-ended, and even more so in the summer. We talked, and our kids disappeared and reappeared—playing kickball in the street or basketball in a driveway, or running and hiding through several yards. Sometimes even dinner didn’t interrupt, as a family decided to throw something on the grill, or roast hot dogs over the fire pit, or order a pizza.
We had been with each other, spent not only fragments of time together but whole evenings. Then one year Meg turned our casual evenings into an event. She planned dinner for Halloween, and for everyone from our street to gather in her driveway to give out candy. It has become a tradition now, one that has helped us not only love our neighbors but also persevere with them. And even though she has since moved, Meg and her family often come back for the evening.
Our fall dinner has worked because we connect in a variety of ways. The food certainly helps. Everyone pitches in to make a taco bar, and we get our food buffet-style. We also have longer to talk. As we eat, and after, we sit around a fire and talk. Sitting down means the conversations tend to last longer and range more widely than they normally do. And as night falls, our children clamber onto a neighbor’s trailer for a hayride through our neighborhood. We’ve had hot years, when kids wearing shorts returned itchy from the hay. We’ve had wet years, when our umbrellas formed an impromptu roof. We’ve had cold years, with hayrides cut short because of the wind. One year a neighbor extended the evening by projecting a movie onto the side of his house. But every year has given us additional time to get to know one another.
When it comes to new friendships, if we don’t hit it off immediately, we tend to think that a relationship might not be worth the effort.
As we dispense candy and conversation to the neighborhood kids and adults who happen by, it’s here that our efforts at building community pay even bigger dividends. The night wears on, and neighbors from other streets bring their children by and sometimes stick around; teenagers grab a taco to go; and even neighbors without children decide to join in. Through the evening, we learn new names and new faces, all of which has cultivated a greater sense of community.
The annual get-together has helped us build some good friendships on Meg’s early foundation. As the children have gotten older, we’ve been able to stay out a little later, and since our house isn’t far, putting the kids to bed hasn’t been hard either.
In the aftermath of the shooting, which faded quickly to background noise in today’s nonstop-news world, my wife and I had spent a few days indulging our fears. We’d looked at house listings, talked with a realtor friend about selling. But the love we had cultivated at our annual driveway dinner made it possible to move away from being afraid and back toward a sense of belonging—toward a sense of peace.
All too often, when it comes to new friendships, if we don’t hit it off immediately, we tend to think that a relationship might not be worth the effort. But in our case, we realized that connections with our neighbors, though a little tenuous at first, have grown into real community—community that will continue to grow. Real friendship, real neighborliness, takes time and effort.
And sometimes tacos.