Posted in Living Peacefully

Place, Story and Belonging

“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.” ~ Wendell Berry, A Long-Legged House

 

I’ve come upon a new chapter in my life. This chapter is set in a new place. A place I have never been before. It is a very old place with history dating before my birth. My place of work is housed on a city block that looks as if Main Street grew around it. I enjoy driving through the Main Street district each morning just as the sun is rising to watch keepers of the revived store fronts hosing down their sidewalk or setting out large easels telling foot traffic about the daily special.

 

The church in which I work houses a school that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. As I’ve met staff and other members of this community, I’ve noticed a longevity in this here. Many of them are people who came to this place, raised their families here, and made it a permanent home. Within the facility itself, I’ve already come across many sweet peculiarities that make working in an old church building such an adventure.

 

There are hallways that end abruptly and stairwells that are surely haunted. I’m often the first person in the building each morning and more than once I’ve wondered at a particular sound, creak or bumping in the night. It is kept fastidiously clean and has more character than any place I have recently worked or worshiped for that matter. There are pieces of furniture that have caused me to pause and wonder. 

kitchen

Today I needed to show love to an old wooden kitchen set from one of my preschool classrooms. While it is not usually my practice to paint over natural wood, this piece needed more refinishing than I could manage on my timeline. A fresh coat of paint will brighten up the corner of the room where children will be cooking their imaginary meals this year. But as I began wiping down the surfaces to begin priming these pieces, I couldn’t help but do some of my own imagining about the nicks, scars and well-worn spots I found.

Who was the master carpenter behind this small domestic playground? These pieces are so rare now in a world of press-board playthings so conveniently crafted to look like replicas of the real thing. And whose hands created all of these scars from use and play? How many children have played at life here? What were their real kitchens at home like? Where are they now?

kitchen knobs

I am realizing there are many stories of this place that I have not yet earned the right to hear. As I share in the daily life of this place in coming months, gaining the trust of the people I am here to serve, I hope to come to belong a part of this place too. Until then, I am remaining attentive to the many witnesses of this place that surround me each day. I pray I will be a good steward of this place and its story.

 

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Posted in Living Peacefully

Making Small Talk & Neighbors

 

They pulled in late on a September Saturday afternoon. The house next door had been vacant for months, and we were glad to see a truck roll up the steep driveway that is a twin to our own. It was our energetic Labrador that made introductions, immediately tearing across the short space between houses and lapping the truck in joyful circles. My husband apologetically introduced himself (and Maxine) and welcomed them to our neighborhood.

It was apparent from the dress of the mother and older girls that this family was Middle Eastern. In friendly, broken English the father introduced himself, his wife and children, and shook Jason’s hand. It was a small start to what would become an intentional relationship. It was just small talk.

A few days later, Jason noticed them piling trash at the street. Since we live outside the city limits, we have to pay for a trash service. Day after day, they moved trash from the street to their home, not understanding why it wasn’t being picked up. Jason went over, motioning and mimicking through the language barrier until he made sure they understood to call the number on our trashcan for service.

When I asked Jason how the conversation went he replied, “I just don’t want him to think we’re those kind of people.” He wanted them to know we cared, but the language barrier was so great and our conversation so small.

We noticed the mother or father walking the youngest child, who is around nine or ten, to the bus stop each morning. They would watch furtively over their shoulder and stand several yards away from the other children who were waiting for the same bus. Again, in the afternoon, one of them would wait at the stop – within eyesight of their house – to retrieve her.

It wasn’t until around Halloween that we realized their apprehension was for good reason. While working in our garage one day, I noticed some boys headed up their driveway. I thought it was unusual, but just figured they were visiting the youngest girl. Soon, I saw the boys run across my yard as if the devil himself was after them. This happened a few more times during November, until one day around Thanksgiving I heard one of the teenaged daughters step onto the porch and scream until the boys were out of sight. I ran into the yard to help, but she was distraught and the boys were gone. That day, Jason and I resolved to be the kind of neighbors they needed.

Months passed with only waves and smiles across our yards – but we were far more intentional about it then we’ve ever been before with other neighbors. Then one afternoon my doorbell began frantically ringing. I opened it to find the youngest daughter, distraught and in tears. She’d gotten off the bus to find no one at home and couldn’t get in the house. She wouldn’t come in, but did accept the use of my cell phone. She called to learn that her parents would be some soon and had gotten stuck in traffic. We sat on my front steps and talked about her school, riding the bus, and what she had for lunch at school. Just small talk until her parents arrived.

The next time her parents were gone when she got home, she didn’t ask to use the phone but just sat and talked with me. I told her that I was glad she came to our house when she needed help. She replied, “My parents say your house is a safe place if I have trouble.” I was glad our small talk was working, but I wasn’t sure if they really understood just how much we were glad they were our neighbors.

Then we got the sign.

We put out our sign on a Sunday afternoon with little fanfare. That evening we heard some noise in the yard and looked out to find our neighbors and many of their friends taking pictures of our sign with their phones. Honestly, we just weren’t sure what to think about their interest.

When the doorbell rang the next afternoon, I assumed my friend had gotten off the bus to an empty house once again. When I opened the door, I found two of the daughterstreats with radiant smiles. With arms extended they offered me homemade pastries and this explanation, “We made this for you to say thank you for the sign. We want you to know what it means for our family that you are telling the neighborhood you are happy we live here. These are from Egypt, our home. We made so you know we are glad to be neighbors. We have never seen a sign like this. Why do you have it?”

I told her that we belong to a peace church and that many of us were putting these signs in our yards. When she asked what I meant by peace church, I went on to tell her that we believed in truly loving our neighbors in word and deed. Then, I told them what we believe following Jesus means. They are Muslim, but they smiled and said, “This is what our world needs now.”

We continue to make small talk. Last weekend, they asked us to get their mail while they are out of town in May – at least we think that is what they said.

We’ve made small talk. It’s a small sign. These have been mustard seed moments. Loving our neighbor in small ways that make a big difference, at least on our street.