Be a good neighbour
If you suffer with a ‘neighbour from hell’ or simply don’t know who is living next door, the command to “love thy neighbour” is a real challenge. Caroline Masom seeks some practical advice on how to build a sense of community where we live
The theme of loving your neighbour runs right through the Bible, from Leviticus to Luke and beyond. Loving your neighbour is second only in importance to loving God, according to Jesus.
So how can we find ways of connecting with the people who live closest to us, wherever we are? Because Jesus didn’t make an exception for anyone – not the noisy family in the flat above, nor the owner of the yapping dog on the other side of the fence, or the gang member round the corner . . .
But loving your neighbour can be hard. As if we needed evidence of the difficulties, news reports are full of stories of communities where neighbourliness has broken down. At one end of the spectrum are the ‘no-go’ estates where violent crime is endemic and gangs of youths terrorise the residents. At the other lie the quiet streets where, shut away in smart houses, some people discover that loneliness is no respecter of money or status.
Thankfully, there are individuals everywhere who generally don’t make the news, but whose efforts have a profound effect on their communities.
People like Chris, a retired lady who lives alone. The kids on her estate targeted her soon after she moved in, name-calling, shouting abuse and throwing things at her house. Although she was upset by their behaviour, she was determined not to let them intimidate her. More than that, she was determined to love them in Jesus’ name. So she went out of her way to be kind, making cakes and taking every opportunity to chat to them. Now their bad behaviour has stopped and if anyone tries to have a go at her, they protect her, because “Chris is all right”.
Not everyone has Chris’s courage, but according to Katrina Reading, Community and Family Worker at Gold Hill Baptist Church in Chalfont St Peter, neighbourhoods can be transformed by people who are prepared simply to be friendly.
“So much depends on your personality. Do whatever you feel comfortable doing - just pop round and introduce yourself, it doesn’t have to be formal.
“Be proactive and try and organise small things. We invited our new neighbours to our house for coffee and croissants in the garden during the summer, which was minimal work and cost very little. When we moved into a new area we went and knocked on all the doors closest to us and invited people round. Not everyone wanted to come. But we kept organising get-togethers and in the end everyone did come to something, although some people would never stay very long.
“Sometimes you have to be firm and set boundaries if people are too demanding, limiting your visits or offers of help to whatever level you can manage. But mostly people are so afraid of intruding or being a nuisance that they’re over-reticent and don’t want to ask for help even when they need it.”
Lonely people find the winter particularly difficult adds Katrina: “The long dark evenings and the difficulty of getting out when pavements are slippery and the weather is bad, increase a sense of isolation. But all it takes is a little creativity to get people together. For instance, if your neighbours are elderly, try inviting them for afternoon tea one weekend.”
Keep it simple
A simple, straightforward approach often works best, as Marion Turnbull, who lives in Manchester, has also discovered.
“I think an important part of getting to know your neighbours is simply saying hello and smiling when you see people. And taking the time to chat whenever you can.
“So many people are very busy, and people generally don’t want you always on their doorstep. It’s important not to poke your nose in, but it’s good to be friendly enough so that your neighbours feel they can call on you if they need to. We have Muslim neighbours on all sides of us and they are very glad to have us as friends, particularly as, sadly, they do suffer abuse and they are very nervous of the local youths. They invite us into their homes and sometimes we’re inundated by very hot food coming over the fence!”
Join with others
There are also more structured activities you can get involved with. Some churches, like Gold Hill, run BeFrienders schemes which match volunteers with isolated individuals in the community, often elderly housebound people or youngsters with special needs. Age Concern runs a similar scheme in many areas. A regular visit for a chat or a bit of practical help can make a huge difference and real friendships often develop.
Marion has also found that group activities can be useful in building community relationships.
“I offered to be Neighbourhood Watch Co-ordinator for my area, as the police were looking for a volunteer. We had a first meeting in our house and the idea was to have occasional get-togethers. That didn’t happen, but it gave me a good opportunity to go round and meet everyone, and at least people all know who I am now. The meeting we did have gave those who came the chance to meet each other and it was a nice time.
“Our church runs weekly, free, ‘Help with English’ classes for people in the community. We get about 30 each time, although there’s a big turnover. One Chinese lady came to my class every week, then started coming to church, and has now found faith in Jesus.
“Although my husband and I are quite ancient, we help at the local Friendship International Sunday afternoon café for students. Foreign students often find English culture confusing and they love having a safe haven where they can meet and talk. Chinese students in particular love talking to older people – all we do is sit down, and they come straight over to us to chat and ask questions about the UK and about Christianity. The students are encouraged to go to church as a cultural activity, and are invited to Bible studies in people’s homes.”
When problems occur
Sadly, things can sometimes go wrong, even between neighbours who once got on well. My 89-year-old disabled mother has been completely cut off by neighbours who used to be her friends, because she refused to take sides in a dispute they were having with the couple next door. It’s particularly sad because my Dad died recently and Mum would be much less lonely if the neighbours still popped round.
Why it matters
And as well as the purely human benefits of having an open and friendly relationship with our neighbours, there is a spiritual aspect.
“Although it’s important not to have an agenda when you’re trying to get to know your neighbours”’ says Katrina, “as Christians we don’t want to build community just for the sake of it. We build relationships in the hope of sharing our faith. That will come naturally if our friendship with our neighbours is genuine and they begin to trust and share with us.”
Take it further
* Look up what the Bible has to say about neighbours: Leviticus 19:18, Luke 10, Matthew 22:39
* For advice on common neighbourhood problems and suggestions for how to build a friendly neighbourhood, visit www.problemneighbours.co.uk