“That’s just what we do in this neighborhood…”

He (Jesus) told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches. He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds[b] of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Matthew 13:32, 33

We are so different from Jesus in the way we would like to see His kingdom grow. We think something big is needed, but Jesus says it starts small like a tiny mustard seed or a little bit of yeast in flour, and little by little it persistently grows and will take over and change the character of those in a neighborhood. I once I had a lady ask me at a seminar in Denver, “How can loving my neighbors have any impact on the city of Denver?” I responded to her question by referring to the parable of the mustard seed and the yeast and the flour; that if she loved her neighbors, eventually the seed of her love would impact all of Denver. Now, that may sound like an overstatement, but Jesus knew that love of this nature is contagious. In time, others will begin to jump onboard, and before long you have a movement that has spread throughout a neighborhood and beyond. Let’s observe how the seeds of love began to take over Charlene and Gary’s neighborhood and in other neighborhoods as well.

Charlene and Gary Miller’s Neighborhood

As Director of Neighborhood Watch for 15 years with the Boise City Police Department in Boise, Idaho, I, Charlene, was tasked with promoting safe neighborhoods. In the beginning, I taught residents that neighbors working together can reduce and prevent certain types of crime. In response to criminal activity, someone would want to start a Neighborhood Watch group, contacting me to help them initiate a group because they had been victimized. I would meet with and speak to residents about crime prevention, offering measures they could implement, encouraging them to watch out for each other and their property. Crime would be reduced due to their diligence.

I soon realized that after crime is reduced, which is the case when residents are watchful and take proper precautions, that the diligence of some over time in the Neighborhood Watch program would decrease. That is, the passion and fervency which motivated them to act in the first place dwindled in time as effectiveness increased.

Of the 300+ groups I helped coordinate, approximately 150 continued to thrive. I was interested in finding out what they did differently than those groups who started out strong and then lost interest. I interviewed many of the leaders and discovered it was the relationships they built with neighbors that were key to keeping neighborhoods safe, connected and vibrant. They had block parties, talked to each other frequently, shared their garden produce, helped each other when someone was sick, and watched over a house while the owner was away on vacation. It was much more than passing on useful information. They came together in their neighborhood and took ownership of it because of the relationships they had cultivated.

My focus in the Neighborhood Watch program changed. I still wanted to assist them in reducing and preventing crime, and to use the practical measures I taught for that purpose. Yet to have a thriving neighborhood we encouraged the relationship aspect between neighbors even more than before. It was in these active groups where strong relationships were built between neighbors that crime rarely occurred.

Some of the group leaders were Christians. They shared with me that they would regularly walk through their neighborhoods, silently praying for the residents in each house. They were convinced it made a difference.

My husband, Gary, and I live in a cul-de-sac of 5 houses. Three, including us, have lived next to each other for more than 24 years. Not all go to church, are of the same political persuasions, beliefs, or are even Christians. Our involvement in each other’s lives has grown over time. We have seen babies born, the arrival of grandkids, experienced difficulties, sickness, retirement, and death. We have shared vegetables from our gardens, watched each other’s houses when on vacation, fed each other’s animals, shoveled snow, exchanged food and Christmas goodies, held a women’s brunch and neighborhood BBQ, visited a neighbor in the hospital, and prayed for and with neighbors.

Recently a new neighbor, an older widow, was out on her front porch with her dog. We walked over to say ‘hi’ and neighbors from other houses came over to join us.  We all talked with each other for a while. This is not uncommon. We are also friends with some residents beyond the cul-de-sac, and are on a first name basis.

Our new elderly neighbor recently asked our next door neighbor (who is not a Christian) why she fed our cat and watched our house while we were away for two weeks, wondering if we weren’t somehow taking advantage of her. Our neighbor answered, “that’s just what we do in this neighborhood. We take care of each other.”  Gary has gone over to her house more than once in the middle of the night to help pick her disabled husband up off the floor. This new neighbor has since brought brownies to us and others in the cul-de-sac, saying she was glad she moved here.

It hasn’t always been this way. Neighbors have come and gone. One reclusive neighbor was uncomfortable with our attempts at friendliness, interpreting it as some sort of tit-for-tat manipulation. For example, if we did something for this neighbor they felt they would be obliged to do something for us.

A few years ago we read Lynn Cory’s book, “Neighborhood Initiative and the Love of God”. It rang true for us, especially since we had seen similar principles at work during our law enforcement careers. We were already friends with some of our neighbors, but now we began to pray anew and ask God how we could better love our neighbors. We have seen this neighborly approach slowly grow and produce more fruit, like the mustard plant Jesus spoke of in Matthew 13. We have made the choice, with God’s help, to love our neighbors into His kingdom, leaving their hearts in His hands, expecting Jesus to work. He gives us “kairos” moments as we simply make ourselves available for His purposes. God is continuing to answer our prayer, and we are sure there’s more to come.

A time for reflection:

Charlene points out in her story that caring relationships, particularly on the part of Christians, in a neighborhood, reduces crime and provides a safe place for people to live. From Charlene’s story there are a couple of things we can learn. Building a caring community doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to build this kind of relationship among neighbors. It also necessitates being available to your neighbors when there is a need. Once, an elderly woman, who was a part of a small group in our home, said to me, “I know what you are up to, you are up to 24/7.” She went on to explain, “We can go on a short term mission trip to Mexico, but when the trip is over with we can come back to our normal lives, but loving our our neighbors requires 24/7.” She was right, but this is not what I am up to, this is what the Great Commandment, loving God and loving our neighbors, is all about. This is how Jesus lived His life when He lived among us. If your neighborhood lacks community, what would it take to begin to foster relationships among your neighbors?

(Charlene and Gary Miller both recently retired from law enforcement careers.Gary was a Deputy Sheriff, working as a patrol officer and a training officer for Ada County, Idaho. Charlene was a member of the Crime Prevention Unit with the Boise City Police, responsible for Neighborhood Watch programs, teaching personal safety and crime prevention on local, state, and national levels.  Their professional lives carried over to their church experience. They have been mentors, volunteer pastors of an adult singles group, counseled married couples in crisis, and led bible studies. Gary is currently part of the men’s ministry team at their church and Charlene volunteers weekly at the local Union Rescue Mission for women, City Lights.  Married for 40 years, they have 3 children and 7 grandchildren. They have known Lynn and Jo Cory since the 1970s.)

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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