A few weeks ago, I hand delivered a letter from our church Council to City Hall, expressing our deep concern and opposition with a proposal to locate a casino in downtown Hamilton. I made the seven or eight block walk there, texting with my wife and one of my kids as I walked. I delivered the letter to the City Clerk’s office and turned right around to head back to the office. As I cut across the parking lot entrance, I put my phone away and looked up. Something about the buildings caught my attention. So I stood there between Jackson and Hunter, looking up and down one of the high rise housing complexes. It’s a pretty plain building. Nothing remarkable in terms of design or decor. But I looked it over still the same. I slowly wandered down the street.
It wasn’t my first time walking the neighbourhood, or even walking these particular streets. I had intentionally “prayer-walked” this part of the neighbourhood several times in the past year. But this time I walked slower than usual, which my wife would tell you is pretty slow to start with. It did not take long before the disheveled homes, the trash gathering under overgrown bushes, and the paved yards cluttered my imagination. Who lived here? How did they get here? When did that attic become a third floor apartment? I walked, and listened, and stood still. What stories could these streets tell? Do any of these houses remember when they were one family homes? I wondered what they looked like forty or fifty years ago and if any of these residents were the same as back then. I recalled an older member of our congregation telling a story of living in a home near here as a young child, watching horse-drawn delivery trucks going down the road. What a sight that must have been – certainly worthy of Dr. Seuss’ Mulberry Street.
I passed a couple people, one walking a small dog, but neither of them looked up.
The neighborhood is marked by decades of accumulated dirt. Rickety steps lead to apartments in converted attics. The sidewalks are in far better repair than most of the front yards, ashphalted as they are to provide off-street parking for tenants and higher rents for landlords. Sure, a few yards and houses still hold their own. But for the most part, I was puzzled as to how beauty could be so thoroughly misplaced and neglected? I sighed as I walked. I wondered what it would be like to live there, to call these people my neighbors, and these streets my home.
‘Home.’ It’s funny how one tiny word can ricochet from my mind to my heart and into my gut: ‘Home.’ Somehow on this walk, I had entered an intimate space – not the space of demographic studies or stakeholder interviews or power analysis. In walking slowly, I traversed a wholly different space, perhaps even a holy space. People live here. People call this place home. The more I saw that these streets and these houses were home, the more I wondered “what if this were my home?”
So often the first missional impulse is to “move into the neighborhood.” And it’s a good impulse because it imitates Jesus’ own incarnation – “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” (The Message, John 1:14) When it comes to putting this missional impulse into action, Dr. Perkins and others in the CCDA movement rightly emphasize Relocation as an essential component of Christian community development.
Yet, I am left wondering: in our enthusiasm for missional living, do we too often encourage people to “go all the way” without taking the time to first build a relationship with the neighborhood? Isn’t moving into the neighbourhood a rather intimate act? When we move into the neighbourhood, we are altering the story of the community, merging our stories with the all the intersecting stories of neighbors and fences, of streets and parks, and even of trees and bushes and ashphalted front yards. There is a covenantal nature to the merging of our stories with those of a neighbourhood. In our desire to be missional, I wonder if have raced too quickly, too naively into bed with our neighbourhoods, without taking the time to really get to know each other – to laugh, to date, to cry, to experience life together before making what is a rather one-sided decision that now we’re going to live together.
There was something good, something intimate in my slow walk with the neighbourhood. It was like the first time I locked eyes with my wife for that split-second longer than we had before and neither of us could hold back, neither of us wanted to hold back, the curiously giddy smiles that follow. Or when your hands brush another’s ever so lightly as you’re walking, sending so many shivers through you that your brain is incapable of processing all of them. You have no idea where the relationship is going to go, but in that moment, you don’t care. You simply know you want to spend more time finding out who the other is.
Moving into the neighborhood isn’t the only act of missional intimacy with our neighborhoods. It’s not a question of simply overcoming geographic distance or judging missional engagement by how far or how close someone lives to the neighborhood. There is room to walk with the neighbourhood, time to talk with neighbours and learn their names and listen to their stories. There is space to work on projects together – to hold hands, if you will. And I wonder, when we concentrate on these other acts of missional intimacy, if we might even find that in the end our neighbours are the ones who will invite us to move into the neighbourhood with them.