I came across a striking quote recently: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” C.S. Lewis wrote those words in The Weight of Glory, and, no matter one’s religious persuasion, it would be difficult to deny that his statement has zing. What would it look like if we lived as if this were true?
I found this and many other fascinating passages about loving our neighbor as I was preparing for a conversation with my friend Ben Katt of Thresholds. He interviewed me for a podcast on building community in rural neighborhoods, and I dug into the idea of what it means to love your neighbor and invest in place.
In The New Parish, authors Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen discuss the importance of place and of joining hands with neighbors “to seek the flourishing of all—not just people like you, and not just people you like, but all your neighbors…standing in solidarity with your neighbors who have a shared desire to see your place be a good place to live.” This happens with a commitment to “dynamic relationality” and “radical locatedness.” “The only way to become faithfully present is to intentionally narrow the footprint of your life together” and root deeply in place.
I imagine there are communities that do this naturally, places that don’t have a lot of outward mobility or have never been bisected by the construction of freeways, where families have lived for generations and have shared joys and sorrows for decades. For many of us, though, myself included, the idea of buying a piece of land and settling in for the long haul is somewhat foreign. When we still lived in Seattle, I watched as friends of mine moved into the north Aurora neighborhood, known for transience, drugs, and sex work. They started a community garden and invited people from the neighborhood to eat together. From these humble (and revolutionary) beginnings the Aurora Commons was formed, which has come to be known as the neighborhood living room and which is a stable, loving presence in a gritty part of town.
When we moved to the Snoqualmie Valley two and a half years ago, we were inspired by our friends at the Aurora Commons to intentionally delve into the life of the community here, both in our rural neighborhood and in town. Studies have shown that relationships are formed through frequent spontaneous contact, which I can confirm through experience: We patronize our little family-owned grocery store so often that clerk Brandi knows us and will stop to chat with me and the kids; a visit to the Main Street antique store will find the owner, Vicky, and I asking each other about business and writing, our respective domains of expertise; and popping into the coffee shop will garner a hug and the best latte this side of Seattle from barista extraordinaire Maggie.
By spending our money in the place that we live, we are contributing to the health of our community, but even beyond that, the benefits of walking down the street in our town and seeing familiar faces, having friendly exchanges, even small talk, are invaluable. I know I am blessed by knowing and being known by the people with whom I live, work, and shop.
In our immediate neighborhood, the connections are even more profound. The keys are presence and relationship. We met all of our neighbors by hanging out in our front yard and taking walks, which led to a book club, invitations to dinner, tree maintenance, sharing extra garden produce, borrowing cars and cups of milk, babysitting each other’s children, buying Girl Scout cookies, sitting around the fire pit, attending weddings, keeping a stock of each other’s favorite beer and gluten-free snacks. It’s in the mundane, everyday interactions with people over an extended period of time that loving our neighbor becomes a reality. These relationships and interactions are so precious.
Not everyone in our neighborhoods is easy to love, though. In her essay “Hell Is Other People,” Margaret Manning said, “The ‘neighbor’ is other people—not an abstraction, but a living, breathing person with habits, views, and quirks that will not only get on our nerves, but also tempt us toward contempt. And love is only a real virtue when it is lived out among real, human relationships.” So we can talk about love all day long, but until we apply it to real people it is only talk. I’m much better at talking about loving my neighbor than actually doing it, but the challenge of wishing good for one another in the midst of different lifestyles, opinions, personalities, and yard maintenance philosophies is much of what makes life interesting.
And if we want better relationships with our neighbors but don’t know where to start, Lewis has something to say about that, too. In Mere Christianity he wrote: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
Rachel Womelsduff Gough and her family ditched the city for a patch of earth in the Snoqualmie Valley. Cheered on by her husband and two blonde babes, Rachel learns by getting her hands dirty, whether it’s gardening, chicken farming, canning, neighboring, or adventuring with soulmates in wild places. She reads constantly, and can’t live without coffee, flowers, and classic mystery stories.