Monday, March 16, 2015

Intentional Neighboring: Part 2

If you missed the first part of this series on Intentional Neighboring, you can go back and read it right here. This series follows a series of dinners we have been hosting to chat with some friends about what it actually means to be a good neighbor, particularly in a neighborhood that looks similar to ours. I want to take a minute (again) and acknowledge that my blog isn't the best medium for getting across this kind of information, because I'd much rather sit down with you across a cup of coffee or diet coke (and maybe some of Adam's famous cooking). Another disclaimer: we are not the experts here; rather, we are fellow sojourners who make many mistakes, but love our neighbors dearly and want to do our best to see them treated with love and dignity.

When we first moved downtown, we probably would have described our motives with, "we just want to serve our neighbors." This, of course, sounds noble and right; and I have heard similar assertions from many other Christians who are moving into neighborhoods that look like ours across the city. The only problem is that service, real service, finds itself inextricably entangled with and necessarily preceded by things like understanding, trust, and acceptance. In fact, according to Duane Elmer in Cross-Cultural Servanthood, you cannot actually serve someone until you have fully walked through five critical steps to get there (more on this in a minute). 
For those heading overseas as missionaries, much time gets spent training and preparing. Missionaries-to-be learn the language, study the culture, and hopefully prepare their hearts and minds to live somewhere new in ways that are dignifying and loving. I fear that much of this gets skipped over by those who are moving into inner-city neighborhoods (or any new neighborhood really). And the truth is that wherever you are moving, there is a culture and history that has preceded your arrival. Not only that, but God is already present and moving: you are not bringing Him with you. 

If you move in and immediately start "serving your neighbors," then this service comes out of what you think your neighbors need. Which, as it turns out, is an assumption based on your own cultural system of beliefs, and not necessarily on what your neighbors actually need. Unconsciously or not, your attitude will subtly reflect this underlying assumption of your own "rightness," rather than the humility that comes with serving as Christ does. 

Since the end goal is still serving your neighbors, the question (for me at least), quickly moves to: well, then what CAN I do? In Elmer's 6-step process to serving, you start with openness.
1. Openness - Openness is the ability to welcome people and make them feel safe. This is closely tied to hospitality, but it’s not a one-way street (remember Jesus was usually the guest when he ate with people). Some of the skills you need as a neighbor during this first step are: suspending judgement, tolerance for ambiguity (trying not to think black and white, and not to form opinions without all the facts), and positive attribution (assuming the best of people without being naive). Here is where you need to be honest with yourself and figure out where you might be unwilling or unable to give up power (or just your opinion as the “right” one).

2. Acceptance - Acceptance means communicating respect, value, worth and esteem to those around you. As Christians, we find a call to acceptance in Romans 15:7: “Therefore accept one another as Christ has accepted you, for the glory of God.” One thing to remember is that acceptance does not necessarily equal approval. This was a hard one for me as we delved into this world, when girls we knew and loved got pregnant at age 14, I wrestled through how to love them while making sure they knew I didn't "approve" of their choices. For me, now, I mostly just love them and know that they already realize how we feel about the whole thing. Because we have a relationship in which we know each other on deeper levels, we've already talked about things that free me up to just love and accept them for who and where they are. 

On that note, another important piece tied into acceptance is around labeling. I look back and cringe at some of the language we used to talk to people about our neighborhood and our neighbors. Now, Adam and I have discovered that the similarities between us and our neighbors far outweigh the differences. We've discovered that we belong to each other; and that together we discover Jesus across the dinner table, in the backyard, and throwing the Frisbee at the park. That the lady on the corner is Mikey, not prostitute. Because who among us wants to be labeled and described by our most desperate mistakes? So we learn names. And then we call people by them. Because we firmly believe that Christ would not brand junkie or homeless or drug dealer or gang-banger. Why do I believe this? Because the gospel in my own life carries the freedom and grace in called-by-name, not labeled by the mistakes I’ve made. Not proud, or greedy, or fearful, or anxious, or depressed, or quick-to-anger. None of that defines me in Christ, and living out of my identity in Him opens me up to allow my neighbors to do the same.

3. Trust - Only after our neighbors know that we accept them for who-they-are (and not just who we think they should be) can we begin to build trust. This is a process of establishing confidence in a relationship so both parties believe the other will not intentionally hurt them, but will act in their best interest. Trust requires an abundance of time and patience, and also carries an aspect of risk because we cannot build trust without opening ourselves up to hurt and placing our own trust in those around us as well. 

Here's the thing: I wish this process could be hurried along. That we could just jump through a couple hoops and BOOM, become trusted members of a community. But anyone who has built authentic relationships know that they always take time and commitment, and this is no less true in neighbor relationships than in any other part of our lives. 

4. Learning - The process of learning goes back to what I talked about a little earlier regarding the process and ways that overseas missionaries learn about the folks they are going to serve, seeking to understand the culture and language and nuances in ways that we tend to skip over here in our own country. We also seem to have a limited availability to learn from those we perceive as less educated or less spiritual; an attitude which only harms us and limits us from growth both in relationships and in our own lives.

There are three kinds of learning: 1.) about others; 2.) from others; and 3.) with others. Unfortunately, even for most overseas missionaries, learning often stops at "about others." But we are severely limiting our ability to love and serve those around us if we don't take the time (and humble ourselves sufficiently) to also realize and understand that we have much to learn from, and alongside, our neighbors as well. We always tell our mentors during training that they will grow best in their relationship by not only teaching their mentee new skills and abilities, but also letting their mentee teach them, and by learning something new together.

This is hard, of course, because it requires an admission that we dont already know everything. That we dont have a corner on all-the-answers for all-the-problems. At least in my own life, I've discovered the unexpected joy and peace that comes alongside this admission, despite how painful it might feel to make it.

On this note, you can start learning about your neighbors and neighborhood by seeking to learn more about the culture and history of where you are moving. For us, this meant learning about the historical context of Atlanta (I loved Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn), as well as devouring books and articles about the culture of the people we suddenly found ourselves in. We have also sought to spend time really learning about our neighbors and neighborhood from the people who live here now, and especially from those who have lived here long before we moved in. This has led to some of the richest and most eye-opening conversations and experiences I have ever had, just saying.

5. Understanding - Understanding centers on the ability to see through the other's eyes, to grasp the bigger picture. Integral to this understanding is a recognition that people usually act out of a larger framework that makes sense to them. Even when someone (like our neighbor) makes choices that dont make sense to us (out of our own framework for understanding), this does not mean they are acting irrationally or foolishly. Instead, it means we dont see the framework or life-view from which they are making these decisions. The process of understanding feels like putting together a puzzle without the picture, understanding how it all fits together takes patience and perseverance. One important piece to remember here is that we learn about God as we learn about other cultures, because He had NOT revealed all of His wisdom to the Western/middle-upper-class world.

I love that this fits so beautifully with the idea of incarnation, and that we fit into a culture when we fully understand it. It's also important to remember that unchecked ethnocentrism turns humans into objects to be manipulated and changed, and people can tell. People know if you are seeing them as objects used to accomplish your end-goal, rather than as friends and brothers/sisters who are deeply loved because of Jesus.

I realize this is already running foolishly-long, but I wanted to share two quick examples (from When Helping Hurts) of how this plays out with some of the kiddos we love/serve. “For many young women (young girls, really), having a child may be the only way of finding someone to love and be loved by. Sex and childbirth among teenagers in the ghetto . . . [is] about personal affirmation.” (David Hilfilker). Another example: Carl Ellis discusses the idea of ‘ghetto nihilism,' which is a worldview of predatory gratification, in which other human beings are seen simply as prey to fill the hunter’s belly. Living in this context of violence, some children assume they will not live very long. This can make them very present-oriented and give them little incentive to invest in their futures through such things as being diligent in school.

6. Serving - The posture of servanthood is one I associate often with Jesus when I read the Scriptures. I think of the ways He loves deeply and serves those He loves in real and tangible ways. Serving my neighbors out of real relationship becomes, then, a way for me to encounter and understand Christ in beautiful and deep ways that change my own heart in the process.

"Becoming a servant is a journey—a pilgrimage. While not complicated, the steps require considerable discipline and perseverance….” “Therefore, let us intentionally, every day, ask what we have learned about how a servant looks and acts in this culture. Otherwise we may be deluded into thinking we are serving when others may not see it that way at all.” (from Cross-Cultural Servanthood). “Serving people is not just doing what seems good in our own culture but seeking out the knowledge of the people, learning from them, knowing their cultural values and then acting in ways that support the fabric of the culture to the degree possible. After taking these steps, we will have served them.” (from Cross-Cultural Servanthood).

So finally, the servanthood model has progressed along the following steps: openness, acceptance, trust, learning, understanding, and serving. Each is dependent upon the next, but to make it actually work, think circular; as a continuous spiral, where each element facilitates the next. I think of the ways I encounter Jesus and deepen my own faith and trust in Him as I seek to build trust, understand,

Books for further reading:
Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christ-like Humility - Duane Elmer
When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself - Steve Corbett


  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this out and share it here. I desperately needed to read it all, but especially the reminder that "God is already present and moving: you are not bringing Him with you." Amen. And the idea that we must humble ourselves sufficiently. Oh man. That got me.

    1. Right? That one gets me every time because I keep forgetting apparently :-) thanks for taking the time to read, I know it was long! :-)

  2. So, so good. I second the comment above. That was one of my favorite sentences in this post, but there were many great kernels of wisdom and insight here. Probably my most favorite thought was the 3 types of learning: about, from, and with others. It's so easy to stop at the first one, and that's a travesty. Finally, the reality too of "ghetto nihilism" and what it does to people really impacts me in this really visceral way because children are the greatest victims of the racialized and structural injustices that are the lingering legacy of hundreds of years of white supremacy.


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