Be Afraid to Know Your Neighbors

Why real community is painful and sometimes tragic but always a beautiful thing
May 1, 2014

“Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.”

- From “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry

We arrived home after church on the second Sunday of Easter, my wife leading our children into the house while I unloaded our van of its many bags and miscellanea.  We greeted our next door neighbor as he pressure washed his siding, and noticed that another neighbor, Mrs. Edith, was making her way across the street to us. 

We seldom see Mrs. Edith outside (in the South, we often use “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, or “Miss” along with the first name of our elders), as she has a little more trouble getting around these days, and when she neared my wife and me, it was clear that she had been crying.  She wanted us to know that her husband had been taken to Hospice and given two weeks to live.  Liver cancer.

It took a few moments for us to reply.  Mr. David had always gotten on so well, even though we knew him to be in his 70s.  He still drove around, worked in the yard when he could, walked the sidewalks often, and quickly offered cheery greetings anytime we saw him, but it seems that men of his generation refuse to discuss such matters. 

Our children love Mr. David.  They call out their “hellos” to him in loud chorus, and my 6-year-old daughter wept quite openly when she heard the news.

It is sometimes easier not to know your neighbors.

Across the street, and on the same weekend, our neighbors of nearly nine years moved.  More than neighbors, they are friends.  Over that span, they have seen our family go from zero children to number four on the way.  We have shared nine years of birthdays, cookouts, borrowed lawnmowers, loud laughs, heart-breaking news, and countless missing ingredients for cooking.  They did not move far, but I still expect to see them bound out of the garage or front door every time I look towards that house.  Upon hearing the news of Mr. David, I needed them in that house.

After lunch and tucking the kids in for their Sunday afternoon nap, I drove to the Hospice House in town.  Getting out of the car took some doing and not a few prayers.  “I’m a minister,” I reminded myself.  “I’ve been a minister for nearly 13 years.  I can do this without tears.”  Actually, I’ve never been able to, and I didn’t believe my own pep talk that Sunday either.  At his bedside, my tears fell while my I prayed “…comfort him with the promise of life everlasting, given in the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.” 

Driving home, I wondered, is this why people put up 8-foot privacy fences, keep closed garages, and live like vampires, even in closely packed suburban neighborhoods like ours?  With all the talk of “community” that swirls about our neighborhoods, churches, and schools, we talk too little of how painful it is.  Community does mean love, connection, friendship, and feasting; but it also means loss, separation, disappointment, and death.  Rejoicing with those who rejoice must include weeping with those who weep (Romans 12:15).  We cannot “cross the road” from our neighbors’ suffering like those in Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan. 

Wendell Berry said, “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.”  Deep “conviviality” or friendliness is rooted, not in pleasantries and small talk, but in suffering.  True community brings healing to those who hurt, and it cannot be attained any other way.  The Lord has made us for community, with Himself and one another, but not for community in mere abstraction.  It is a community forged in tears, and when we experience it – even in the midst of its weeping – it is a beautiful thing.

Brian  Phillips

Brian Phillips

Dr. Brian Phillips is the Director of CiRCE Consulting & the Headmaster of the CiRCE Academy.  He also serves as a pastor in Concord, NC, where he lives with his wife and their four children.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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