Neighbors: The Next Step in Community

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A while back I wrote a blog about community. As I grow older, and hopefully wiser, I want to revisit the idea of community in and outside the Church.

When I pulled into the parking lot I already felt a little nervous. It’s always a little jarring for me going into a place I don’t know very well. I had given myself a pep talk on the ride over, reminding yours truly not to drift into my default mode of being a “wall flower.” When I finally parked I begin to experience both excitement and anxiousness, two emotions which often accompany one another. As I sat in the car not ready to get out, I had a stream of thoughts run through my head.

“You know, you could just turn around. You’ve got other stuff to do today.”

“I’ve heard weird stuff about the people who go here…”

“Will anyone talk to me?” (I think I’m cool, but will they think I’m cool.)

I made my way across the lot and through the front entrance. As soon as I hit the door I saw three people standing inside what I understood to be the foyer. Before I had the chance to say anything, a young woman made her way over to me.

“Good morning. You must be Justin, right? I’ve heard about you. Nice to have you here with us.” She said all this with what I perceived as a genuine smile across her face.

 She was followed by a handful of other people, introducing themselves to me with hearty handshakes. I found a seat and continued to have a conversation with a young man who was asking me a bit about myself. Not intruding questions mind you, but simple open ended questions that allowed me to share in detail as much as I felt comfortable with. More people began to come in and I was introduced to them as well. I was pleased to see people who looked different from one another. This was not a place where everyone looked alike. Men and women representing different ethnic backgrounds stood around in an open circle conversing about their lives and what they had done since they had last seen one another. From what I could tell from eavesdropping, most of them had seen each other no longer than a day or two before. I heard laughter coming down the hall and saw children entering into a room filled with toys and a big flat screen TV. There was even a dog wondering around affectionately looking for attention, which she found plenty of as the crowd grew to over 30 people.  As we made our way into a slightly larger room a gentleman named Reggie called everyone to attention.

“Hey everybody, we have a guest with us this morning. If you haven’t met him already, this is Justin. Before we leave today I want you to be able to tell me one thing about him.” I tend to shy away when a spotlight is directed upon me, but the manner in which this act of kindness was done made me feel a sense of acceptance.  

Working with students I often find myself talking about acceptance at least a couple of times a month. Acceptance is something I imagine most people become aware of in elementary school, if not, certainly by middle school. Being welcomed into a small community of friends where one feels they can truly be themselves with little to no judgment is highly sought. What I tell my students is the longing for acceptance never really goes away. Wanting to fit in or be accepted by a certain group of people happens well past ones awkward teen years. The same emotions can arise no matter the age, be it 15 or 50. In my case, I find life in groups which recognize me as a unique individual. Groups that allow me space to express my thoughts and feelings. For me it’s not so much about “fitting in” as it is allowing me to “be me.” When I feel I can’t convey who I am I shutdown versus conceding into the preferred stereotype (I mean come on, I picked the moniker black sheep Baptist for reason).

For the next hour I engaged in light conversation with different people who were both encouraging and affirming of my presence and contribution. We participated in a group activity where this milieu just happened. By the end of our time that day I felt I had shared more with some people in an hour than I had with some of my seminary classmates over the course of an academic year (not because my seminary peers aren’t awesome, but this environment seemed more conducive in allowing me to open up). After everything was over, Reggie raised his voice over everyone’s yet again. “Alight, who here can tell me something about Justin?” Multiple voices began shouting…

“His wife is named Lauren.”

“He moved here from Raleigh and lives over in Ardmore.”

“His got a golden retriever named Fred.”

“He goes to Wake Forest University.”

“He works at a church in Statesville.”

As I began to make my way out, a few people came over and thanked me for joining them that day. They expressed a desire for me to consider coming back and hoped I could bring my wife next time. Some even asked what my schedule was like to see if perhaps we could meet up during the week. I’m a pretty cautious person and typically when people approach me in this manner I tend to take three steps backwards to create space and evaluate the situation. This time I found myself only taking one step backwards. Somewhere deep inside me I believed they meant what they said. My encounter with these folks appeared to be bona fide.

As I got in my SUV I ran the scenario over in my head. I was greeted and felt welcomed. People were happy to see me there. I was asked to participate and cheered on for what I brought to the experience. People wanted to know something about me; they wanted me to add my voice to theirs. I felt part of something, even if it was just the first time I had visited there. Everyone seemed to want to accomplish the same goal, but did this in different ways. They not only invited me back, but wanted my wife to come (acknowledging her is just as important as acknowledging me). Driving down the road the thought came to me, “Man that really felt like church.”

But it wasn’t church. I wasn’t visiting another congregation. I was at a CrossFit “box”.

*Disclaimer/Confession: I’m not here to plug CrossFit. I was one of many people who for years made fun not so much of the program as much as I did of the people who went there. What’s the old joke? Q: How do you know someone does CrossFit? A: Don’t worry they’ll tell you. The irony of all this is when I got home I posted on social media about going there. Pot meets Kettle. My purpose is to become more active and lead a healthier life. At this time CrossFit is the best option for me to obtain that goal.

The realization that Crossfit does community better than most of the churches I’ve visited over the last decade was, and is, staggering. The people there were connected in ways I rarely see in church settings. I often hear the expression when leaving church, “Have a good week” or “I’ll see you next Sunday.” This doesn’t happen with the group of individuals who attend the box I visited (a “box” is what CrossFitters call their gym, if you go to one you’ll understand why). These people see each other anywhere from 3 to 6 times a week and sometimes travel to regional Crossfit competitions with each other. They get together and participate in other activities besides working out. One of the conversations I overheard dealt with a handful of people who had joined a kickball league together, another being a couple of guys grabbing breakfast one morning. These people were living out community and I was in awe.  

Rebel-rousing Baptist preacher Will D. Campbell in his fictional work The Glad River had this to say about authentic community. “Community ain’t something you join. You don’t get voted into it. It just happens!” Campbell alludes to the situations where community is less selective as it is organic. However, I’m hoping ole’ Brother Will would agree with me here, there has to be some intentionality behind community. Looking at the Crossfit community that I visited, I realize their facility and common desire to exercise is the catalyst that draws people together, but the motivation to connect with other individuals is what keeps people coming back day after day week after week with such gusto. All of a sudden the focus is not so much on the community, but the relationships that occur within it.

In the first chapter of The Glad River Campbell introduces two main characters, Doops and Kingston. They are thrown into getting to know one another in the midst of training for war (the scene takes place sometime after the attack on Pearl Harbor). Walking along, Kingston begins to share a revealing personal story about his upbringing. The story is intimate and Doops is both intrigued and taken back by the suddenness of Kingston’s ability to open up to him. From the feel of the conversation, the anecdote was told in order to build up a level of trust. Doops sensing this and starts the following dialogue.

Doops put his hand on the man’s shoulder and turned him around, looking directly into his eyes. “Do you trust me, Kingston?”

“Yes. I trust you, Doops. Do you trust me?”

“Yes. I trust you.” They stood shaking hands again, looking each other squarely in the eyes.

“Then we are buddies?” Kingston asked. Neither face showed any expression.

“Yes. We are buddies. I’m your buddy.”

“Are you my friend?”

“Friend?” Doops relpied. “Friend.” He repeated the word but no longer as a question, his voice dropping. “That’s a stronger word. We’ll have to see. But we’re neighbors. Like I say, we’re neighbors. I know that much.”

Neighbors. Maybe that’s a better way of describing how people that live in community should view one another. In fact, let’s change the idea of community to that of a neighborhood. When Lauren and I moved to Winston-Salem, we knew we wanted to live in a neighborhood we both liked and were excited when we found a house in Ardmore. Yet, just because we moved into the community/neighborhood that didn’t automatically make us neighbors with those around us. Sure maybe on the surface level and based solely off proximity, but simply being in a certain place doesn’t necessarily make one part of that place. I can run onto the basketball court at a Cleveland Cavaliers game wearing a Lebron James jersey and just because I’m close to the players doesn’t make me part of the team. To be neighbors with someone I believe a relationship has to be established. Over the course of a year we are starting to become neighbors with some of the folks in our neighborhood. We feed some of excess vegetation to our next-door neighbor’s goats (yes, we live in the city and our neighbor has goats). Our neighbor across the street has brought over our mail when it has been delivered to his place by mistake. Perhaps the best story deals with our neighbors down the street. After all the drama that surrounded last year’s political season, these neighbors wrote us a warm letter the day after the election stating that they wished to get to know us better (this letter was accompanied with homemade baked bread as well). Since then we have had several interactions including a lovely dinner at their place. We may not be the best of friends with these folks yet, but we are certainly neighbors. We not only recognize and see one another; we have also made moves towards one another.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells the story/parable of the Good Samaritan. A man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead. A priest and Levite, representing religious authority leaders in the Jewish community, pass by the man and offer no help. The foreign Samaritan, an individual not considered part of the Jewish community, sees the injured man and is moved by compassion. He helps the man where the others did not. At the end of the story Jesus uses the term “neighbor” in describing how the Samaritan responded. The injured man and the Samaritan were not friends, we do not know if they knew each other prior to this story, yet this did not stop them from becoming neighbors.

Sometimes community happens easily, i.e. I show up at Crossfit and I’m part of it. But if I want a deeper relationship with people I have to be willing to become neighborly. This summer I am fortunate to be serving at my current church in a full time role. My goal is to allow myself to become more immersed in the community of my congregation. I’ll also be thinking of ways I can be more of a neighbor to not only my parishioners but others as well.

 People at Crossfit.

 Fellow seminarians.

 Individuals in my actual neighborhood.

Maybe the answer to the question is not so much as how can I be a neighbor to them, but them to me?

As I often tell my students when presenting two different views; it’s probably a little bit of both. You can’t just be someone’s neighbor. They have to be yours too.