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I grew up in rural Pella, Iowa. My family firmly planted in fields outside a small and fairly tight knit community. And while I heard tales of good neighbors, bad neighbors, and neighborly interactions of all kinds, I didn’t experience them much. We liked our neighbors and were friendly with them, but we crossed paths and had conversations very rarely.
Our most common form of communication was the farmer wave — gently lifting two fingers off the steering wheel as our cars passed each other on the gravel road. The neighbors we did have looked an awful lot like us, thought an awful lot like us, and acted an awful lot like us — many of them having lived in the area as long as or even longer than my family.
Life can be strange. Although I never anticipated leaving rural Iowa, I now find myself situated on the east side of Michigan, in the Ann Arbor area, not too far from Detroit. I work at the Campus Chapel, which is a Reformed Campus Ministry at the University of Michigan. Many days I couldn’t possibly feel further from my home sweet acreage.
First of all, there are lots of trees here, but there’s also very little space on a campus like Michigan’s. It’s crawling with people. On top of all that it is bursting with difference and diversity. I see lots of people who don’t look or think like me.
This may seem like a routine experience for many, but for me it was absolute culture shock. I actually live in a small house in a town called Ypsilanti, about twenty minutes from campus. When my parents visit, they can’t believe how close my house is to my neighbors’. How different my living situation is from theirs.
I must admit, I was pretty awkward about interactions with neighbors at first. I felt a little bit like a child on a playground, trying to make a new friend. How do people do this? Why isn’t “Being Neighborly 101” taught to country bumpkins moving into a city?
Little by little relationships were formed. It’s always a little uncomfortable having those first conversations, especially when they ask what you do. I grew up in an area that elevated the role of pastor and the people that served under that mantle. Here pastors are often looked at as being peculiar or odd, maybe even fanatical. I slowly learned that my neighbors on one side identify as agnostic and my neighbor on the other side considers herself a lapsed Catholic. And though we differ on these things, they have been so gracious and love me really well.
Jack and Kristin take care of my cats when I visit Iowa. They give me produce from their garden. They made me a homemade mask when the pandemic started. They gave me a gift basket to celebrate my ordination. I have been overwhelmed by their kindness. We talk about gardening, the weather, and current events. I feel loved by them.
Heather on the other side is a single mom with a dog. Sometimes we take turns mowing each other’s lawns, shoveling each other’s sidewalks. She drops off banana bread and I bring her flowers. Her five year old son Lyle, and her spunky terrier Windy rush to meet me when I’m in my yard. As a single woman living alone over 500 miles from my family, these are profound acts of kindness.
These people make me feel safe and known. In a season of pandemic and polarization, I am comforted knowing that I have good neighbors on both sides.
It’s made me think a lot about what it looks like to be a good neighbor. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s stretching. Sometimes it’s unlearning thoughts or assumptions held in the past to learn new things. Sometimes it means setting down some of my stuff so I can help carry some of theirs. Sometimes it means listening instead of talking. It’s not always convenient. It’s not always natural. But it’s hard and good work. I still have a lot to learn in this area, but I am thankful for my neighbors and teachers on my path to learning how to better live into this gospel call.