A City Set On A Hill

 “We believe we can change minds about what it means to be a Christian.”

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16

A pastor friend of mine once said to me, “The hardest thing I have ever done in ministry is to lead my congregation to love and care for their actual neighbors.” It is so countercultural for the church, because churches are not designed to do this. However, obedience to Jesus is to let our light shine in the context where He has placed us and let His light emanate from our homes to the surrounding darkness. As our light begins to shine from our neighborhoods it has the potential to change whole cities. Observe how the Lord’s light is working its way out from Bob and Sandy’s neighborhood to the city of Fullerton, California.

Bob and Sandy Jensen’s Neighborhood

My wife, Sandy, and I moved to Fullerton, Orange County, California in 1979. When we arrived on our shady, quiet street, we learned that we had been adopted into an active, connected community of neighbors. Since the early 1950s, that tradition of connectedness influenced the character and quality of life on the street.  At the center of all those activities were Barbara and Bill Kent, who served as the leaders of our neighborhood.

The Kents helped organize monthly teas for the women, where the activities of the street were discussed and planned, allowing full participation from all of her neighbors. The Kents helped produce Halloween and Christmas parties, as well as a July 4th block party each year. That all-day event included a breakfast buffet and tennis tournament, a themed parade with neighbors living on an adjacent street, children’s games and swimming, and a pot-luck dinner and fireworks in the cul-de-sac at the end of the street. Before each Christmas party Mrs. Kent would present a slide show representing July 4th party photos from the year before, 5 years before, 10 years before, and so on. She took great pride in enlisting her audience’s participation in identifying all of the children in the photos, and she shared stories about the children and their families. In many cases those children, now grown up, were returning to the street to bring their own children to the Richman Knoll July 4th party.

Mrs. Kent also published a street map with neighbors’ first names and phone numbers. She also offered our family access to her swimming pool, which is where our children learned how to swim. If anyone was seen driving at unsafe speeds on our quiet street, it was Barbara who knocked on that family’s door and asked them to drive more carefully. When people moved away, it was the Kents and neighbors on the street who organized send-off parties. Years later when Sandy and I read the The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak and David Runyon, we realized that the Kents had practiced the art of neighboring for decades.

Many changes have occurred in the years since the early 1950s, but the vision of the Kents and their early neighbors have continued. After Bill died and Barbara moved into an assisted living facility, Sandy and I, eager to be involved in the lives of those living around us, felt drawn to continue many of these neighborhood activities. We help organize the July 4th events, host Christmas Open Houses, Pumpkin Carving parties, and Ice Cream Socials, and we share these responsibilities with a closely connected network of volunteer neighbors. When new folks move onto to our streets, we welcome them into this culture of connectedness that has lasted nearly 70 years.

During this time of neighborhood involvement Sandy and I became involved in Global and Local Missions through our church. We have asked the Lord for opportunities to honor Him through service to others, and the Lord has abundantly answered that prayer. We’ve met some remarkably inspiring Kingdom workers through the years. Among those people have been Jay Williams, our local outreach pastor who now runs OC United, a non-profit seeking to make a difference in our city, authors like David Runyon and Lynn Cory, activists like Matt Svadja of Fiducia (a neighboring ministry initiative), and other incarnational missionaries whose faith calls them into action in highly imaginative and compassionate ways.

Sandy and I have tried to combine what we learned from the Kents and those people committed to living intentionally in their communities by reading several books on those topics, and participating in Bible Studies, conferences, and workshops focused on neighboring. With the help of Matt Svadja, we also launched neighboring classes at our church. Two of the most important lessons we learned is that our love for our neighbors must be offered without strings attached, and that we need to consistently pray for our neighbors and for opportunities to demonstrate the Gospel in action.

Neighboring and local outreach service came together in the spring of 2019, when our city service day, Love Fullerton, assigned a large team to do weed abatement on an acre of tall weeds and underbrush for a family struggling with health issues and related financial problems. Because that family has struggled since coming to the street, Sandy and I have decided that we are called to love them and pray for them, expecting nothing in return. As we work with City officials, Vector Control, and the Fire Department about conditions on their property, we continually remind ourselves of Jesus’ call to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”

We are all works in progress, and our outreach to our neighbors will continue to evolve. The people on our street know that we are Christians, and it is important to us that we reflect those values in our relationships with them.  By making ourselves available to our neighbors and deepening our relationships with them, we believe we can change minds about what it means to be a Christian.

A time for reflection:

Bob and Sandy’s lives were deeply influenced by the Kents. Had they not lived in Barbara and Bill’s neighborhood the trajectory of their lives more than likely would have taken a different course. The lives of those who live in our neighborhood are very precious to God and we have the opportunity to touch their lives in a life-changing way and they ours. How are you being changed by those in your neighborhood and what kind of influence are you having in theirs?

(Bob and Sandy attend the First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, where they serve as Missions Coordinators for their adult fellowship class, have served on the Mission Board, and have participated in or led six short term Global Missions Teams. Bob serves as a leader for Love Fullerton, and Sandy serves on the Board of Bless Vietnam Initiative. Sandy is the Communications Director for Far East Broadcasting Company, an international broadcast ministry.  Bob is retired from Fullerton College, where he served as a Theatre professor and Dean of Fine Arts during a span of 35 years.  They have three children and two grandchildren who live in Southern California.)

Listen to Bruce Zachary's experience with Neighborhood Initiative.

Listen to Dallas Willard's word to pastors and leaders about Neighborhood Initiative.

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