There’s something refreshing about loving locally.
The first time I emerged from the Runnymede Subway Station in Toronto, I knew I’d discovered something different. I’d spent my entire life in suburbs, which had its own advantages. Bloor West Village, just off Runnymede Road, felt like something new. It was a village within a city, with residences, shops, businesses, and schools within walking distance of each other. There was nothing uniform or homogeneous about the area. It was messy, colourful, and my first introduction into neighbourhood living. It’s where I took my baby steps in learning to love a neighbourhood.
You don’t have to live in a place like Bloor West Village to experience this, although some communities make it easier. Christians are called to live in neighbourhoods whether in the city, suburb, small town, or country. Even more importantly, we’re called to love our neighbours, and let the roots of our lives dig down deep into our particular time and place. Christians ought to be the best residents of neighbourhoods there are.
The importance of neighbourhoods
The poet Wendell Berry loved the farm and the small town. He argued that we benefit from what he calls the “agrarian mind”:
“The agrarian mind is…local. It must know on intimate terms the local plants and animals and local soils; it must know local possibilities and impossibilities, opportunities and hazards. It depends on knowing very particular local histories and biographies.”
Berry argued for a commitment to a particular place for a lifetime, conducting one’s work, recreation, and family in the same place and within a web of long-term, local relationships. He argued against an “industrial mind” characterized by pride, a lack of respect and gratitude for nature and limitations, and a tendency toward exploitation and greed.
Jane Jacobs was an American-Canadian journalist who moved to Canada in 1968. She wrote extensively on cities, showing that one could have an “agrarian mind” in an urban centre. She argued for the importance of people who feel ownership of a neighbourhood, showing commitment to the common welfare, watching the street, taking action if necessary. Political theorist Mark Mitchell reflects her teaching:
“Ultimately, healthy communities will only be realized when individuals commit to a particular place and to particular neighbours in the long-term work of making a place, of recognizing and enjoying the responsibilities and pleasures of membership in a local community. These good things are not the unique provenance of agrarian or rural settings. They can and have been achieved in urban and town settings.”
Jacobs argued for the importance of foot traffic, street life, and a mixture of residences and businesses. These, she said, are crucial for economic vitality, safety, healthy human relationships, and a strong social fabric. It’s important to know your literal neighbours, to have a general knowledge of your larger community, and to contribute in a positive way to the larger community.
Both Berry and Jacobs argue for the importance of the local, being content to live in one place, building long-term relationships, and contributing to the larger community. Both argue against seeing neighbourhoods as a commodity that can be used or discarded at will. Our own wellbeing, and the fabric of society, depends on the strength of our neighbourhoods.
Loving our neighbourhoods
The Bible has a lot to say about place. From beginning to end, God’s story is about the Earth as His creation under the care of humans, created to exercise dominion on His behalf. The Garden of Eden is the template; the job of humanity was to cultivate the earth so that the entire planet would be just as glorious a place to live.
When sin entered the world, humanity was cast out of Eden, and we’ve been living in substandard neighbourhoods ever since. We’re told that God will create a new Earth, and things will once again be restored to their original design. In the meantime, God instructs His people to live so that that human life flourishes even in a broken world.
Even when God’s people were exiled from their homeland, God commanded them not to withdraw: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).
As one person put it, this applies even when God’s people find that their postal codes have them living in Satan’s precincts. Our calling when this happens is to continue to exercise dominion, seeking to cultivate where we live for human flourishing. Commenting on Jeremiah 29, Phil Ryken, formerly a pastor in Philadelphia, writes:
“God hereby commands Christians to do anything and everything to further the public good. Seeking the peace of the city means being a good neighbour. It means shovelling the sidewalk. It means cleaning the street. It means planting a tree. It means feeding the poor. It means volunteering at the local school. It means greeting people at the store. It means driving safely and helping people with car trouble. It means shutting down immoral businesses. It means embracing people from every ethnic background with the love of Christ.”
Historian Rodney Stark argues that Christianity grew from a small movement in Judea and Galilee to the dominant religion in the Roman Empire largely because Christians were great neighbours. They stayed in urban areas during plagues to care for the sick, they didn’t fight against their persecutors, and they valued and empowered women. Christianity improved the quality of life of those who joined the church, as well as the community as a whole.
Jesus’ command to love God and our neighbours is, he says, a summary of the whole law (Matthew 22:37-40). It’s a command to honour God, and to seek the greatest good of our neighbours, whoever they are. It’s a call to love our neighbours, and by extension, our neighbourhoods.
Our problem with place
When it comes to loving our neighbours and neighbourhoods, though, we encounter some problems. One is that we have a hard time confining ourselves to a place. The other is that we have a hard time loving the people in a place.
We live in a mobile culture. As such, many of us have a hard time committing to any one place. We don’t plant deep roots. We live isolated from our neighbourhoods, leaving them to shop, work, and worship. Our social connections are increasingly online. Place and location are often seen as irrelevant.
This is a symptom of a deeper problem, says author and pastor Zack Ewsine in his bookSensing Jesus. “Place exposes limits. Limits repulse the driven. The driven therefore struggle with the sense of place that Jesus had.” Jesus was content occupying a neighbourhood. He owned the name Jesus of Nazareth. “The Holy One of God has a hometown. The shade giver has roots.”
Eswine suggests our problem with place is as old as the Garden of Eden: it’s a struggle to accept our creatureliness. “Only God is omnipresent,” he writes, “and that same God humbled himself and became flesh and walked among us.” Overcoming this temptation is a central part of our calling:
“God will give you a place to inhabit, which means that you get to become attentive to what is there where you are. This means that to dwell knowledgeably and hospitably in and toward the place God gives you is to glorify him. God will give you a few things that he intends for you to do in your inhabited place and with those people. To do what God gives you to do is to strengthen the common good and to glorify him.”
We resist loving our neighbourhoods, Eswine says, because our neighbourhoods limit us. But we were meant to live within limits. Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz said, “One would like to astound the world, to save the world but one can do neither. We are summoned to deeds that are of moment only to our village.” As Berry and Jacobs argued, we thrive when we are rooted in a particular place. Loving our neighbourhoods means that we learn to be content with the one place we inhabit, and learn to love our neighbours there.
Our problem with people
Becoming content with one place isn’t the only problem. We also struggle with learning to love the actual people in our neighbourhood.
Most people love the idea of loving our neighbours, especially when “neighbours” remains an abstraction. There is no such thing as an abstraction in the Christian life, however. It’s always about a place and a people. Eugene Peterson writes:
“So—spiritual theology, lived theology—not just studied, or discussed, or written about; not “God” as an abstraction but God in a participating relationship; not God as a truth to be argued; not God as a weapon to be wielded in the culture wars. Rather, the conviction that everything of God that is revealed to us is to be lived relationally in the dailiness of our human lives on this local ground on which we have been placed. Nothing disembodied, nothing impersonal, nothing in general.”
There is no Christian life that is not lived out in a particular neighbourhood, among particular people. There is no loving our neighbour in theory; there is only the neighbour who actually lives in the unit beside me. It turns out that loving my actual neighbour is a whole lot harder than loving the theoretical neighbour in my mind.
One of the hardest parts about loving our neighbourhoods is that it makes real demands on our lives, and involves real people. Where I live, it’s learning to love the driver of the white Jeep who parks illegally out front, the neighbour who leaves garbage stuck in the disposal chute, and the ones who drop cigarette butts on my balcony.
There are no abstract neighbours or neighbourhoods; only real ones. We’re called to love the actual neighbourhood in which we live, rather than the ideal neighbourhood in our minds.
Learning to love my neighbourhood
Two years ago, our family grew frustrated with our lack of neighbourhood engagement. We lived in one neighbourhood; we worked in two other neighbourhoods; our children attended school in another set of neighbourhoods. Our lives were spread out over at least five different communities.
Since then, we’ve moved into one neighbourhood in downtown Toronto, one of 140 in the city. We now live, work, and worship in the same community. We walk almost everywhere. We see the same people on the streets and shops, and we’re trying to start a church that exists to serve the neighbourhood. Our social circles are increasingly the people who live within a five-minute walk from where we live.
We’re slowly learning what it means to be local, to know on intimate terms the place in which we live. We’re learning to commit to a particular place, enjoying the responsibilities and privileges of belonging to this community. We’re absorbing what it means to be local, content to live in one place, building long-term relationships, and contributing to the community.
In our increasingly mobile and impersonal world, there’s something refreshing about people who stay in one place and learn to love locally. That can happen in the city, the country, or the suburbs. It will take intentionality, but it’s worth it.
“God will give you a place to inhabit, which means that you get to become attentive to what is there where you are,” writes Eswine. Imagine what would happen if Christians across Canada took up this challenge and loved their neighbours and neighbourhoods, and if churches committed to serving their neighbourhoods. It could be that one of the greatest things we need to do is the one of the simplest things: to simply live in our neighbourhoods and love our neighbours for the rest of our lives to the glory of God.