My family and I have lived in our neighborhood for nearly 5 years now. It has been a time of growth in all areas personal, familial, and communal. When we moved in it was a cold, snowy day in mid-December hiding both our neighbors and their homes. Little did we know that within a few short months, people would emerge with the warm spring air and the continuing journey of living in West Phoenix would ensue.
Fast forward to the present and our tiny neighborhood of about 30-40 houses has shed some light on the areas mentioned above. It has been said that place is the least examined facet of our everyday lives and yet it has some of the most, if not the most, profound impacts on us as human beings. The actual locale one finds oneself can determine, shape, and call into question the entirety of our being. It does this by rooting us in the particular of our neighborhoods and opens our eyes to the nature of life itself. In a world of top-down hierarchy, understanding our placed-ness keeps us from importing the foreign and universal and pushes us to see ourselves as not only creators of our local environment, but also being created by our environments from the bottom up. This type of bottom-up engagement necessitates a posture of humbly listening and engaging instead of entering into a neighborhood with answers in tow. It constantly reminds us that we are only lying to ourselves when we think we can be human without relationally effecting others. Even when we aren’t aware of it, we are always relationally tied to each other and our locale however imperfect it may be.
Our tie to place is essential for us to be cognizant of because part of the essence of being human is to be placed. We are not unplaced beings and yet we find placelessness as a dominant theme of our current culture. We live as unrooted beings seeking after better jobs, better houses, and better paychecks. We have become a culture of commuters instead of a community of residents. Always having an eye to the horizon as any potential “better” may serve as an out for us, we become transient people who are able to value and hide behind anonymity. Our neighborhoods aren’t filled with actual neighbors; no, they just happen to be people living nearby. Objectification creeps in and people become “them” instead of named friends.
These ideas have become reality for me over the past several years as my place has come to dictate not only myself, but how I actually practice my faith as I follow after Jesus. A subtle paranoia has reared its ugly face as crime has fluctuated between petty theft to home invasion. Beyond that, we have had sex offenders move in, homeless people break into an abandoned house and subsequently live in tents outside of the house, multiple fires in the same building, and known drug dealers come and go.
And yet, Jesus tells me to love my neighbor and to make disciples.
Another interesting thing has transpired recently: I have been made our neighborhood’s co-leader of the Neighborhood Watch. We will be having our first neighborhood wide meeting in a few weeks due to the recent upswing of criminal mischief. In light of preparing for this meeting I have found myself wondering if I lack the competence needed in leading such a thing. It has hit me that I can teach and preach within the church walls, but that loving my neighbor in my actual neighborhood is another thing altogether.
Part of my realization of this is the nature of the Neighborhood Watch itself. I wonder if in some ways we are putting the cart before the horse. Everyone clamors for safety – or at least the sense of it – and yet safety and civility will not come from meetings here and there. Having a Neighborhood Watch is not profitable if you are not a neighbor yourself. Meetings to point out problems and complain about whatever is on your agenda will not accomplish much if you don’t have the space in your life to engage with your neighbor. We have replaced the being and doing of a neighbor with a program that (perhaps) expects the leader to take care of things, allowing the rest of us to passively sit back. The two – meetings and everyday neighborly life – need to kept intimately together.
I find myself being made aware of this in an analogous way within the Church. I have been told to love God and love my neighbor for as long as I can recall. However, it seems to me that the main – and maybe sole – way of loving my neighbor was through evangelism. “Winning souls for Jesus” was a thing taught and practiced through mission trips, cleaning up of yards, evangelistic tracts and surveys, and a whole host of other ways. Not once can I remember anything beyond somewhat pat answers and information concerning biblical reasons for loving our neighbors, let alone a visible and viable way of life worthy of imitation out in the real world.
And within a culture of placelessness this makes sense. This culture says, “There is a universal manner by which evangelism takes place and we can import it into any particular locale without regard to the specific people, customs, or way of life.” Part of this is due to the lack of meaning inherent to being seemingly unplaced. Walter Brueggemann states,
That promise concerned human persons who could lead detached, unrooted lives of endless choice and no commitment. It was glamorized around the virtues of mobility and anonymity that seemed so full of promise for freedom and self-actualization. But it has failed…It is now clear that a sense of place is a human hunger that urban promise has not met…It is rootlessness and not meaninglessness that characterizes the current crisis. There are no meanings apart from roots.
Without meaning our evangelism tactics fall flat because we allow ourselves to shortcut the relationships vital to the good news. Rootlessness sees our neighbors as primarily souls to convert, not friends to love, typically resulting not in a shared life, but instead random points of awkward contact. (Not to mention most [conservative] evangelism focuses on an individual’s eternal destination in a nonspatial “heaven” – a location without concrete place. Is it any wonder why we don’t know how to love within community?)
The odd thing is that it seems that we have bypassed the actual communal living of Jesus and his way, which is precisely the problem. We are not explicitly told to evangelize (in the way most people conservative Christians understand it) our neighbors; we are told to love them and to make disciples who make disciples who make disciples. It is as if we have skipped over #1 and #2 on Jesus’ “list” in an effort to get to #3. (This may have never been communicated verbally by our church leaders, but certainly it has been taught in practice.) If we could only see that by loving our neighbors, we then (hopefully and prayerfully) might share Jesus’ good news, which should naturally be responded to by entering into discipleship. It is an exercise in patience which only comes about through rootedness in place. I am not saying we shouldn’t evangelize; I am saying that evangelism without (Jesus’) love is used car saleman-type browbeating and love without (Jesus’) evangelism is selfishly shortsighted. Perhaps if we began to reunite love and evangelism as a way of life, we might be able to make more sense of these things.
Just like Neighborhood Watch meetings are an effort to ensure safety through the bypassing of neighborliness, our evangelistic tendencies keep actual relationship at bay resulting in pseudo-love. They allow us to live in proximity with others, but concurrently get us off the hook of incarnating Jesus’ message. We have bought into a systematized way of relating behind formulated special events, sayings, and prayers that demonstrate our overvaluing of being pragmatically programmatic instead of placed.
So I ask: Does our attachment to universal, programmatic methods of evangelism coupled with our practices of placelessness drastically hinder us from truly loving our neighbors and living in community?