Consider where you live – do you like your neighbours, or do you find them difficult? I remember one particular set of neighbours of mine, back when I lived in Scotland, who were, frankly, annoying! They seemed to always be there. When I was cutting the grass, they stood watching. When I dared cut the hedge, they reminded me how much they loved the hedge, and don’t get me started about when the bins should be taken out!
Yet, they were my neighbours. It wasn’t all bad. They were there when we brought our twins home for the first time. They gave us sugar and tea bags when we ran out and, at Christmas, they gave our kids presents. I didn’t particularly like these neighbours (I don’t think they liked me either) but, without them, there would have been no sense of community. I call them my unexpected neighbours! People who you think will be trouble but, in fact, become part of your life.
As a Pastor, I have taught the story of the good Samaritan many times. A story where the ‘expected’ good people did nothing to help a man in need. Instead the ‘unexpected’ Samaritan helped a man who, the world said, should be his enemy. The interesting thing about this story is that it is given in response to the question, “who is my neighbour?”. The answer – everyone, even the ‘unexpected’.
My church, Lincoln Baptist, is situated on Croft Street and serves the Monks Abbey area. In the community there are families, students and older folks. There are also homeless, people struggling with addiction and even those for whom crime is the only way to live.
One day, as I stood outside the church gathering some cleaning materials, three men came towards me. I hadn’t met them before, but they were clearly homeless. We started chatting and soon found ourselves laughing and joking as if we had known each other for years. These guys asked what I was doing, and I explained that I needed to wash the church windows, pick out some weeds and clean the back step. Well, without discussion or argument, the three men picked up the materials and proceeded to do all the jobs I mentioned. When completed, we shook hands and they went on their way. They were my unexpected neighbours!
I have experienced several other unexpected neighbours while serving at Lincoln Baptist – a man, recently out of prison, spent hours cleaning and waxing the church floors. Another man who struggled with addiction, re-plastered an office wall. There was an older lady who bought me a bottle of Irn-Bru each week, because she knew I liked it; the young mum who, in her battle with anxiety, has taught me how to better care for people; the children of Monks Abbey school who sang at full volume on their visit to the church.
You see, community has little to do with who you live next to, but who you define as your neighbour. I wonder what would happen in our society if we treated everyone like the good Samaritan did? Would we find unexpected neighbours? Would we have more of a community? Would life be better? I think society has told us, for years, who we should hate, who doesn’t deserve a second chance and the ten ways to get back at the neighbour you don’t like. Maybe it’s time we began talking about how we start to repair our community, how we build relationships and, most importantly, how the unexpected neighbour becomes our friend.