In a typical suburban home, not far from where I live, a man was recently observed carrying out modifications to his house. Neighbors saw him on the roof working with power tools and assumed he was just carrying out some basic repairs. He seemed purposeful and oblivious to their attention.
When his children, both of whom suffered from non-verbal autism, didn’t show up for school the following week, calls were made to the parents’ phones. No one answered. So the police attended the family home only to discover the terrible truth about what the father had been doing the previous weekend. He had converted his house into a toxic gas chamber by rigging up a sinister network of hidden pipes. He had then closed all the windows and doors, turned on a series of gas cylinders, and poisoned his wife, both the children (aged 11 and 10), himself and the family dog.
It was clinical, elaborate, pre-meditated and deadly.
They were immigrants, with no family connections in town. Their kids’ disabilities made them extremely demanding. The marriage was under strain, as anybody’s would be under those circumstances. No one knows if the mother was aware of the plan. She was found alongside one of their children.
And so they all died silently and unassumingly, while all around them their neighbors cut their lawns and washed their cars and brought the groceries into their houses.
Welcome to suburbia.
Dave Runyon, the co-author of the Art of Neighboring, often runs seminars where he asks attendees to draw a tic-tac-toe grid. He asks them to put their own name in the center square and then write the names of their neighbors in the other eight squares.
Hardly anyone can fill all eight squares.
Most of the people who attend Dave’s workshop are Christians.
There are families all around us who are suffering through impossibly difficult circumstances. Marriage strain, financial stress, loneliness, mental illness, addictions, and more. And no one knows about it. Or cares. Nobody even knows their name.
Recently my wife had orthopedic surgery and was hospitalized for two weeks. She was desperate to come home by the end of that time. One of her nurses told us that at least half of the patients on that ward at any given time are the opposite: they want to stay in hospital. That’s because they have no one to go home to, no one to care for them during their recovery and rehabilitation.
My wife Caz got talking to one such patient who agreed with the nurse. She didn’t want to go home. She’d had a hip replacement and was returning to her small third-story apartment where there’d be no one to assist her.
Caz asked her whether she’d tried to find friends in her area. The woman said it was difficult to meet people. She’s a single middle-aged woman with no kids, so there are less entry points into society for someone like her than there are for young families. So Caz suggested she try one of the local churches. The woman shook her head. Even though she was not a Christian, she’d tried several churches and no one had talked to her or engaged her in any way.
Welcome to the suburban church.
Sure, in the suburban church there’s lots of talk about loving your neighbor, but it’s often couched in some general sense about loving all the people in your neighborhood or town. But as Dave Runyon and his co-author Jay Pathak write, “The problem is, however, that when we aim for everything, we hit nothing. So when we insist we’re neighbors with everybody, often we end up being neighbors with nobody.”
They continue, “I have come to believe that, as followers of Jesus, one of the worthiest endeavors we can undertake is to take the Great Commandment seriously and learn to be in relationship with our literal neighbors.”
Who are your literal neighbors?
Do you even know their names?
How is your church helping you to reach out to your neighborhood?
At the home where that 11 year old girl and her 10 year old brother died with their parents and their family dog, neighbors festooned the front of the house with flowers and cards. It was a touching expression of their shock and sadness. The community was reaching out to family who had suffered so greatly and who had died so alone in this world.
Sadly, it was all too late. They had died for lack of neighborliness.