Confessions of a Neighbor with a Lot to Learn
by Jenn Hale
April 17, 2019
The other day I counted and realized I’ve lived in seven different neighborhoods as an adult. I remember each time, moving into a new neighborhood and hoping to do better at being a neighbor. It wasn’t that I’d been a bad neighbor. It’s just that there were too many excuses and not enough time, and somehow I never seemed to meet all the “neighboring goals” I set for myself.
But this last move was different. It was the middle of December 2016 and I was going through one of the hardest seasons of my life. To say I was not looking forward to moving my kids and myself into a new house in the middle of December was a grand understatement. Still, I was looking forward to a new start in this new-to-me neighborhood that just might be a place for me to heal and grow.
The week of the move I found myself gearing up to meet my neighbors and trying to find it within my heart and my schedule to be neighborly. I decided I was going to give myself some time, maybe a week or so, to get moved in and comfortable, and then Operation Meet The Neighbors would commence. But little did I know, God had something entirely different in store.
The two days of moving were chaotic and exhausting, and I could not have been more thankful for the friends and family who helped us. But the thing that was really remarkable was the steady stream of neighbors coming over to introduce themselves—some bringing small gifts of cookies or poinsettias as well as their names and phone numbers written down for us. They asked what brought us into a new neighborhood and when I gave them the brief and buttoned up version of my story, they listened and asked follow-up questions with compassion.
God had surprised me by loving me in a way I didn’t even know I needed at the time. Instead of allowing me to muster up the strength to figure out how to reach out to my neighbors during a time of heartache for me, He instead surrounded my kids and me with neighbors who let us know they were there for us and were thankful we were now a part of them.
One of the other surprising and delightful parts of this was the diversity that God surrounded us with. The next-door neighbors were self proclaimed “bad Catholics.” In future conversations, I would learn this meant they were brought up Catholic but didn’t practice anymore because they’d been hurt and disappointed by the church. Besides, they liked to have martini parties, and in their eyes “good Catholics” would never do that.
The other next-door neighbors were a Mormon family with five boys and a baby on the way. They apologized in advance for the noise level but immediately invited my kids over to play. I didn’t know it then, but some of my kid’s favorite neighborhood memories were going to be made at the “Elf Spaghetti Parties” this family would throw. (If you haven’t seen the movie Elf and are not familiar with “Elf spaghetti” and what goes on top of it, imagine spaghetti with maple syrup, crumbled pop-tarts, candy corn and other candy toppings—a child’s dream meal for sure!) But I digress . . .
Across the street was a gay couple in their early 30s—two kind men who came to check on me one night and let me know I had left my garage door open. In conversations that would follow with them, I learned that in their previous neighborhood they had hateful words spray painted on their house. “So far, this neighborhood feels more like home,” they told me. We also met a Buddhist family on the next street who had a girl the same age as my daughter, and the girls began having regular play dates.
Not long after moving in, the neighbors threw me a “Welcome To The Neighborhood Party.” When I showed up, the hostess whisked me into the kitchen where she said, “I’m so glad you’re the first one here. There’s something I need to tell you.” I told her I was all ears, and she went on to say she just wanted to warn me that everyone coming that night had political views and lifestyle views that were probably very different than mine. She just wanted me to be prepared. And she even offered to suggest to everyone that maybe we refrain from talking politics that night.
I smiled, mildly amused, wrapping my head around what had happened. My reputation preceded me, I guess. When I first moved in I had briefly mentioned to her where I work. She made some assumptions based on the fact that I work at a large, evangelical church and wanted to protect me from whatever harsh or offensive conversations might happen.
“No need to do that,” I said. “I want to get to know you all for who you really are. And I’m not afraid of political conversations. Besides, I can hold my own. And some of my views might surprise you too . . . you never know.”
“Sounds good,” she said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.” And she wasn’t kidding. The evening that followed was one of the most interesting and fun nights I’d been part of in a long time—not to mention delicious. I learned a lot about my neighbors that night . . . much more than I would have learned had they been holding back.
One of the many lessons I’m learning is that true hospitality means engaging the culture rather than shielding ourselves from it. Because our confidence is in who Jesus is and who we are in Jesus, we don’t have to be afraid of what lies outside our doors. In fact, we might even become close friends.
I am happy to say that two and a half years later, my kids and I are still a part of this neighborhood with no plans to move anytime soon. I am still on a journey of getting to know my neighbors, but this time around I find it to be a slow and intentional journey. I am a neighbor with a lot to learn. And I hope I always will be.
Jenn and her two kids live in Fullerton with their dog Rocket who also enjoys spontaneous neighboring with the dog next door via his own private hole in the fence.