Our final guest blog for this week’s challenge comes from Jenny Flannagan who asks what being present in our neighbourhood means.
8000 miles from home and I’m in a conference workshop with twenty South Africans talking about why we live where we do. It’s not a question many people ask in relation to our discipleship but I think it’s a big one. And it fits with our exploration of presence – the places we dwell, put down roots and raise our kids in, these are the places where we begin to understand why it mattered to God to come and live so close to us, why he ‘moved into the neighbourhood.’
It’s a big question for us. We have friends who live in the biggest slum in Bangkok with their kids, and have done for more than a decade. We also have friends who live in beautiful big country houses with enormous gardens. The culture around us tells us which one to aspire to, and expects us to live in the nicest possible place we can afford. But that doesn’t seem to be God’s priority.
The first time I deliberately moved onto an inner-city housing estate I felt pretty excited about following Jesus into the less pretty parts of town. But in two years there I don’t think I got to know a single neighbour. I slept there, and sometimes ate there, but to say I was present, that I had really moved into the neighbourhood, would be an exaggeration.
So in the past few years we’ve made some changes to help us be more present in the neighbourhood, to give us more chance of seeing what God is up to and working out how to join in. We’ve given up full-time work in favour of part-time, flexible jobs (a luxury we’re grateful for) and adjusted our budgets accordingly. We have rhythms in our week, like regular ‘neighbour nights’ when we eat dinner with different households in our ‘block’. Being around in the daytime means we’re more likely to bump into our neighbours and get to know them. As we get to know them, and their different struggles, we work out how to help them, and how to receive help that we need from them.
Back to South Africa and the seminar, and a woman shares how she and her husband and daughter choose to live in the same chaotic township as she works in, doing community development. I am remembering that a colleague told me that 70% of women in South African townships have been raped, and I realise the cost of this way of life, and how easy my choices have been in comparison.
I know it’s not a competition, but it put some things in perspective. It makes me ask how willing I really am to ‘move into the neighbourhood’ and trust Jesus (rather than my middle-class values) with the ‘where’; it makes me ask how I can be more present in my neighbourhood, more willing to be distracted and disrupted by the people I live alongside, more willing to love and help.