The other night, I got home, and the neighbors were all out on their front porches. I walked over to one woman who was sitting on rocking chairs with her grandson, and we talked about how fast kids grow up. I walked across the street and told Mike and Vivian that it was Aaron’s first day of kindergarten the next day. I told them how he had asked Bridge earlier in the day where babies came from and we joked that we’d have him ask his new teacher. I walked down to see R.L. a couple doors down and asked him how things were going.
All of this took about 6 minutes total, and I went inside to read stories and tuck the boys into bed.
It’s not a very remarkable thing, is it? But it’s a very intentional effort on my part to connect more with people on my street, in my city, at my work, at my church, at the grocery store, and on and on.
This is part of my journey along the other trail. After hearing Judith Snow and John McKnight speak, I began looking up some of their writings and learning more about them. The first stop was to get The Careless Society by John McKnight. In it, McKnight talks about the effects of social services on our communities and how service workers, in particular, have displaced neighbors and even families as caregivers and offered an inadequate and temporary alternative.
I remember the conversation Bridget and I had after reading it: “Well, what about Bellevue? There’s not one single service agency in Bellevue, and no one welcomed us to the neighborhood. No one baked us cookies. Our neighbors hardly talk to us!” It felt like there was something deeper that could not be blamed on the “counterfeits of community.”
Those questions sat with us for a minute until we realized that, for the eight years we’d been living in this house, we had never baked anyone cookies, or welcomed them to the neighborhood! It was an embarrassing epiphany, and it’s hard to admit even today, but it’s true that we were not very good neighbors.
In our work at Starfire, both of us were extremely energized, active connectors. We greeted everyone, made special efforts to reach out to others, and were completely engaged in building a vibrant and inclusive community. But when we got home, it was like the switch was turned off.
Don’t get me wrong here, we weren’t cooking meth or egging our neighbors houses or anything, but we were not helping our street or our city be a more welcoming place for anyone. We immediately went to work in small, but intentional ways. We started taking more walks with the boys, and we purposefully stopped and found reasons to chat with people out in their yards or on their front porch. We would offer to help with the man two doors down who had to have his leg amputated. We waved to people and crossed the street more often. We would intentionally go the checkout line at the grocery store that the lady down the street (who dresses a little “marginally” at times and has some wild parties) was managing, instead of avoiding it like we used to.
In short, we made simple efforts at being better neighbors. And yes, despite the recent housing market troubles, someone moved in on our street about 3 months ago. We made two plates of chocolate chip cookies. We took one to our friends a few streets up who had just had their first baby, and we took the other to Dave and Gretchen, who moved in four doors down.
And when we took Dave and Gretchen’s cookies to them, we used one of our best plates, with the hope that they would bring it back and we could have a second conversation with our new neighbors. This was a technique we learned from Whitney Kays down at Realizations in Louisville. She was helping someone she supported be a good neighbor, and they decided to forgo the paper plates, which would be thrown away, and instead used a good plate, which would create the opportunities for future conversations. Simple, but brilliant. Dave brought our plate back a few weeks later and we talked about recycling and how he can get a bin.
About six months after we started all of this, I had an opportunity to meet with John McKnight and heard him say something about how we’ve become “rusty citizens” in this country. It stuck with me. That was who I was. We’ve tried to figure out what the opposite of a “rusty citizen” is and I think “awakened citizen” seems best. That’s how I feel at least.
Why does all of this even matter? Because it’s a step along the other trail of building a more welcoming community for everyone, which naturally means a more welcoming community for people who are marginalized by the labels we’ve put on them. I have lots more stories and learnings from this trail, but you’ll have to excuse me…I need to change my shoes and put on my cardigan.