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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? by Nancy Sleeth

For five years, my family lived in Wilmore, Kentucky, home of Asbury University and Asbury Seminary. Living two blocks from the center of town, I could walk everywhere—to work, the post office, the gym, the hair cutter, the bank, and Fitch’s IGA.

Mr. Fitch and his family have run the town grocery for fifty-five years. On multiple occasions, my husband and I have witnessed the owner giving food to people in the checkout line who could not afford to pay, something that just does not happen in the typical chain grocery store.

Unfortunately, competition from supercenters up the road took its toll. Fitch’s lost money for ten years. The store was teetering on closure when a group of neighbors got involved. Last Fourth of July, they signed a “Declaration of Independence from Big Box Stores.” Fitch’s Neighbors, a grassroots volunteer group, pledged to purchase at least three meals a week from their local grocer.
That’s not all. An Asbury Seminary student—inspired by his faith—organized an extreme grocery store makeover. Neighbors rolled up their sleeves on various projects, from scrubbing every inch of the store to completely repainting the exterior and a hundred small refurbishing touches in between. Together they logged more than six hundred volunteer hours revitalizing Fitch’s. For the first time in a decade, the store is profitable again.

The High Cost of Box Store “Bargains”

Unfortunately, such support and loyalty are dwindling in much of America. Soon after a supercenter moves in, the small-town grocery, hardware store, and pharmacy close. Consumers opt for so-called “bargains,” which end up costing more than they could imagine: the life and livelihood of their town. The town begins to erode from the inside out.

Downtown gives way to box stores, and box stores mean many of us practically live in the car. No wonder we have become an exhausted nation, driving the equivalent of five cross-country trips per year and getting nowhere. In many communities, neighbors no longer borrow a cup of flour because no one stays home. Even if someone were at home, who has time to bake bread? And how can we “break bread together” and share a meal if all our friends are busy on Facebook?

I remember the first time a neighbor apologized for knocking at our door. She said that she was sorry she had not called before coming by. This neighbor lived just a few houses away. We carpooled together. Why, then, should she feel bad about stopping by in person?

At the other extreme, Matthew and I have lived in a house where neighbors regularly walked in without knocking. This was somewhat unnerving, especially since the bathroom was located right by the door. We never knew who we would meet when coming out of the shower.

Reaching a balance between too little and too much neighborly interactions can be tricky. On a societal level, however, the trend clearly seems to be in one direction: away from direct human contact. Stopping by has given way to telephone calls, which have been usurped by e-mail, which is being replaced by texting and tweeting, and there are new layers of protocol. Don’t call unless you have a prearranged time to talk. Texting is noncommittal, but e-mail implies a nascent relationship. And heaven forbid that a friend should spontaneously stop by without making arrangements in advance.

Putting Our Wallets to Work

Every day, we have multiple opportunities to build community with our purchases. Bakeries, hardware stores, shoe stores, movie theaters, produce stands, plumbers, electricians, laundries, general contractors, dentists, optometrists, ice cream shops, booksellers, gift shops, stationers, clothing stores—these are just a few of the local businesses in my neighborhood that I can choose to support, or not support, every time I need goods or services. Instead of whining about a dying downtown, I can put my wallet to work.

Do I like the convenience of buying everything in one store? Of course, and I like the generally lower prices too. But at what cost? Local jobs, a healthy downtown, knowing the grocery clerk by name? Our banker actually started keeping lollipops at the front desk just for my husband. Such relationships are priceless. If it takes me a few extra minutes or a few extra dollars to promote the health of my community, I should be willing to make the investment.

Anyone who has lived in an organized community—a dorm, an apartment, or a homeowner’s association—knows that personal convenience must sometimes be sacrificed for the good of the community. You might enjoy listening to music with the volume turned up, but your neighbor below does not. You may want to have a pet but decide against it because the people next door would not appreciate the dog barking while you are at work all day. But sacrifice, too, is biblical—as we can see in Matthew 22:37-40 (loving God by loving neighbors), Romans 12:3-13 (the body of Christ acting together in love), and Galatians 6:2 (obeying the law of Christ by sharing each other’s burdens).

Similar principles apply to supporting a local economy. It might be more convenient for you to get your groceries, eyeglasses, manicure, and gas grill all in the same store, but there are costs that do not scan into the cash register or print out on your receipts. Those costs might be your neighbors’ livelihood, which eventually translates to empty storefronts and foreclosed homes. Instead, intentionally seek out businesses located within a couple miles of your house that are not part of a chain and stop in at least one each week to learn about what they do. Once you are familiar with some of these local stores and their owners, make an effort to do business with them and recommend them to others.

A Place at the Table

Last weekend, we had three different groups of friends, new and old, break bread with us. The first were friends from New England, dropping their son off at college and staying with us overnight. The next was a longtime friend from Nashville, in town for a workshop. He slipped out during the midday break to have lunch with us. The third group consisted of family and friends of family, some of whom we had never met before. Hosting these visitors was a privilege, the benefit to our family far outweighing any inconvenience of “having” to feed those who stopped by.

Matthew and I view opening our home to others as a joyous responsibility and a central part of building community. My motivation, especially when I’m doing the dishes afterward, comes from the letter to the Hebrews: “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!” (Hebrews 13:2).

“It’s Fun to Have Fun, You Just Have to Know How”—Dr. Seuss

In our twenty-first century world, downtime tends to separate people rather than bring us together. We engage more with our computers, TVs, and earphones than we do with our neighbors. While the Amish spend significantly less money on high-tech toys, they experience a richer form of fun. Making an effort to attend local festivals, picnicking in the parks, and engaging in informal socializing are simple ways we can build community while having a good time.

Still need a few more ideas to get you going? You can

  • Play together. If you have young children, find a few neighbors who might want to get together on a regular basis to share child care and have some adult time while the kids play.
  • Turn your yard or an open space into a center of fun. Horseshoes, badminton, a tire or rope swing, and other old-fashioned games can be a magnet for pulling neighborhoods together. Begin a book group. One great way to expand your mind and get to know your neighbors is through a monthly reading group. If you can’t find one, start one!
  • Invite neighbors for a meal. Breaking bread together is one of the best ways to break down barriers. To maximize enjoyment, let go of any expectations of a return invitation, and don’t be shy about allowing others to bring salad or dessert.
  • Walk the talk. It could be just two or three friends that meet at a regular time to get some fresh air while catching up on each other’s lives. I’ve found walks to be one of the best ways to have uninterrupted conversations with friends and neighbors.

Most of all: be friendly. Knock on your neighbor’s door. Reach out. Don’t wait for the other person to make the first move. As the Amish like to say, “The most beautiful attire is a smile.”



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