Jesus in My Neighbourhood

ugly house


Are you ready yet?” my new neighbor shouts into the open door to his girlfriend. He’s ringing the doorbell impatiently to get her to hurry. Meanwhile, I can hear his toddler crying in his stroller.

“What do you want?!” he yells sharply to the kid.

It’s the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday. I’m in my back yard, hanging laundry on the line in the sunshine. I’m trying to sing to Lydia, who sits and babbles in her own stroller near me. I just sing nonsense — “Oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’ . . . ”

Cool it, you dumb f**k!” my neighbour’s girlfriend finally shouts back as she emerges from the apartment. I can’t hear what they’re arguing about as they walk off together, the baby still moaning in the stroller.

I want out.

I want to get out of this neighbourhood.

We have three new families living in the new apartment building next to our house. It was just built over the winter because the previous building, which formerly housed an assortment of drug-dealers and migrant workers, burned down two summers ago. The police hinted that they suspected arson when we were down at the office a few weeks later, following up on the recent break-in of Ben’s work trailer.

We have an abandoned house across from us which has a habit of losing its front door from time to time. I’m not sure who keeps hanging it back up. Next to us is a big empty field filled with waist-high weeds where trucks come to pick up or drop off loads of unwanted dirt and gravel. Down the street, another house grows a two-foot-tall front lawn every summer, and further down is another abandoned house which is all but collapsing. Around the corner from us is another home that caught fire last winter. The windows and doors are all still boarded up. I heard that the tenets had been trying to keep warm with electric heaters when their gas was cut off.

I don’t want my daughter growing up among all this.

I don’t want her hanging out with the boy next door whose parents refer to each other in four-letter expletives. I assume he and the rest of the neighbourhood will be a bad influence on her, and I’m terrified.

What I’m afraid to acknowledge is the possibility that we ought to stay because she might be a good influence on them.

We’re too quick to assume that evil will conquer good instead of the other way around — that a neglected boy’s hurt will spill over onto our beloved daughter’s innocence, rather than her sweetness work the other way around on him.

(I’m also too quick to assume that the boy will turn out badly while our daughter will turn out well, just because we use our curse words more sparingly).

My desire to leave this shabby, broken-down neighbourhood filled with poor and troubled families is exactly the opposite of Jesus’ impulse, which was to sink himself into the lives of the abused and down-trodden. Jesus seems to have sought out the drunks, the unfaithful spouses, the folks on welfare. Those seemed to be his favourite kinds of people. They’re the ones he chose to live with and eat dinner with.


The Jesus-y thing to do would be to stay, and to actually get to know these people who curse at their kids and leave cheap Christmas wreaths and garlands on their doors until mid-March. The Jesus-y thing to do would be to strike up a conversation one of these days, and maybe offer to babysit their kids while they get their groceries.

But I’m so scared. I’m scared to get tangled in the lives of people so different from me. They seem so threatening with their foul language and loud, booming music.

I don’t know if I have the courage to stay. But I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus would do.

Photo credit: cindy47452. This id not a house from our neighbourhood, but it doesn’t look too far off.

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  1. I love your heart, Kathleen! You are so right.

  2. It can be so difficult, discerning that call to stay, and be light! … or to go, for whatever reasons. You’ve piqued my brain in pointing out that many of us assume that evil will win out over good; why do we do that? It definitely takes a special bravery to expose ourselves again and again to things and people that make us uncomfortable and scared.

    I was consumed by how very different the people are in Azerbaijan after we moved here in December. The first few months were, frankly, terrifying. It took me much longer than I expected to realize that the people I see here are individuals with as much to offer (and just as much in need of love and community) as their counterparts in the U.S. This clarity has flipped the situation for me — I find that I now feel affection for my neighbors, and I wonder: Where will that affection take us? What lessons will He teach me, and possibly them? Bravery (although I feel like a fraud claiming bravery on my own part… if it is, it was given to me, if that makes any sense)… yes, bravery clears ways I don’t think would be open otherwise.

    • Wow, Azerbaijan?! I don’t even know where that is! Kay wait . . . googling it . . . Aha! Next to Georgia! We have a sponsor child there!

      Anyhow, thanks for sharing your story! I can’t imagine how much bravery it must take to move somewhere so different and to try to integrate yourself into the community. It is so inspiring to hear about you learning to have affection towards your neighbours whom you found so frightening at first. Lovely!

  3. Emily W says:

    Hi Kathleen! My question is, have your feelings about living in an undesirable neighborhood changed since Lydia made her appearance? I/we have always been pretty intentional about living in neighborhoods that make our friends and family nervous, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed it. That is something we want to keep doing long term. But everyone tells me that when (if) we have kids we’ll feel differently. I’m worried that they’re right. Have you ever read “A Theology as Big as the City” by Ray Bakke? Just curious – I read it in undergrad, years ago, but it was a big part of what shaped my desire to live in tougher neighborhoods.

    • I actually haven’t even heard of that book . . . thanks for suggesting it! And I’m not sure whether Lydia’s appearance has changed our feelings all that much . . . the thing is, Ben and I generally dislike having neighbours. I grew up in the country, so it feels strange and wrong to be able to hear my neighbour’s music at 10pm. I think that having Lydia in our lives has just increased our discomfort with our neighbourhood. I’m sure it will be even harder when she’s old enough to actually play with the neighbours.

  4. Hey!
    I’ve been reading for awhile now (since project m) and always like what you have to say (even though I’m no longer Christian myself). I grew up in a relatively poor city, but to a wealthy family, and my mom (an ex-social worker) intentionally sent us to an elementary school in the worst part of the city, to expose us to people who weren’t as privileged as us. I know its definitely different that living there, but a lot of our relatives were disturbed by her decision and felt it was unsafe (even though it wasn’t). Anyway, I think there is a LOT to be learned from witnessing what other’s go through, and I have always felt that it was an invaluable experience. As a social worker myself now, I feel like it allows me to relate to my clients, whom I otherwise may not have understood (had I been surrounded by wealth and privilege my whole life).
    I do think its a balance though, personally, since living in a lot of the neighborhoods in my particular city probably would have been a lot more dangerous. I think its very admirable that you take that into consideration–I also feel like, in high school, when I went to private school, there were just as many drugs, bad influences, etc as there were at the public schools, so who can really judge which is better? Good luck with your decision though!

    • Hi Ann! Thanks so much for engaging! What an interesting decision your mom made! I once read about a white family that sent their kids to a (poor) all-black school in an act of resistance against the racial segregation that is still so prevalent in American schools. A lot of people criticized their decision, too, saying it was cruel to subject their children to that kind of alienation. But it sounds like a pretty courageous and beautiful thing to do.

      And you make a great point: usually, the wealthy private schools (and neighbourhoods) have just as much a problem with drugs and other negative influences . . . and often other problems (materialism, snobbery, etc). Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. Another topic close to my heart! Yes I think you are right, Jesus would probably stay, but that does not mean he is asking you to stay. He will call some of us to live among the poor and others he will not. Where ever we live, he certainly wants us all to participate in serving and loving the poor, and this can be done in many ways of course.

    Proverbs 19:17
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  6. Maybe I’m just not a good enough Christian, but this makes me really nervous. Did Jesus intentionally seek out lost souls such as your neighbors? Absolutely. When he was a thirty year old man doing his ministry. Before that, we have no idea. I applaud and commend the people who are called to do things like that. But I’m not sure if we should all rush out to do it. (Obviously I have no clue what He’s calling you personally to do, though.)

    Can a child be a shining light and good example to those around her? Yes! But I think it would be extremely difficult to teach a toddler not to do something when the people she sees every day are doing it. If you are successful (and if anyone could, I’m sure you could!), there’s a risk that she’ll simply condemn her neighbors for doing the wrong things. Maybe I’m underestimating children, but I imagine they have to develop a certain level of maturity and understanding before they’re able to differentiate a person’s actions from the actual person. Not to mention having to deal with “But the neighbors do it!” once she’s older ;)

    I wasn’t going to comment the other day, because I didn’t want to rain on your parade, but I guess I was surprised at how positive the other comments were. If you are called to stay and raise up your neighborhood, I think God would/will reveal that to you. But it really doesn’t sound like you want to. And while God does call us to step outside our comfort zone, He doesn’t want us to be unhappy or live in fear. He has made you a mother, and the formation of your family is your primary vocation. Sometimes we forget that the people we are called to serve foremost are our own family members. You can serve them and serve others, and as Rue rightly notes, loving the poor can be done in many ways. I am not a great example of that, but I have no doubt that wherever you live, you will be.

    This comment, as usual, has gotten to long. I guess at the end of the day, I’d just say this: If you hadn’t engaged your neighbors before Lydia, then I would feel very hesitant about doing it now. Oh, and you have a beautiful heart :)
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    • And yes I did use the wrong “too” in that last paragraph. How embarrassing!
      That Married Couple recently posted..Which NFP Method is Right for Me? (Beta Quiz)My Profile

    • Thanks so much for offering an alternative perspective, That Married Couple! This is why I love blogging.

      You make all kinds of excellent points. I don’t know what we’re going to do as a family. Our hearts have always belonged to the country. We have always wanted to raise a few cows and chickens and live off the land. I feel like these longings constitute a “calling,” though I don’t know for sure. What I do know, though, is that if we leave this neighbourhood, I don’t want it to be out of fear. I still feel like I need to address my fear of neihbourhoods like mine, and understand that poorer people are not (necessarily) more threatening than the wealthy and educated.

      As always, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  7. Sarah Allen says:

    i missed your confession for this week! ;)

  8. Your fear of neighborhoods is so interesting to me because I was born and raised in the suburbs and I get freaked out in the country! How would I get to know my neighbors when they live a mile away? How would I borrow an egg or a cup of sugar in a pinch? How long would it take an ambulance or fire truck to get to me in an emergency?! What scary wild animal is hiding in the cornfields?! Scary stuff.
    I truly commend you though, for even entertaining the thought of staying! I’ve personally never lived in a ‘bad’ neighborhood, but I’ve lived in not-so-nice neighborhoods and they could be a bit draining. Thoughts like, ‘Why should I put so much effort into my lawn when no one else does?’, ‘ Why are my neighbors never considerate of my sleep, working on their car at all hours of the night?’ and ‘Don’t these people want to better themselves?’ constantly came to mind. However, living in a very nice neighborhood now, a lot of the pretty lawns are just for show. The owners don’t actually take pride in working on their lawn, they just hire a company to come spray chemicals and cut the grass every week. In most houses the parents both work to afford their nice house and no one is ever home. There is a lot of signaling going on with cars, the lawns, what kind of swing set your kid has, who’s having a bbq for everyone else, and so on. Just as a previous commenter mentioned, there are good and bad sides to both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ neighborhoods.
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  9. Heather G says:

    Hey Kathleen!

    Welcome to our neighbourhood. This is a really timely post for me, since Rob and I are going through a similar situation, living in such close proximity to rough tenants and neighbours. We hear them fighting, smell their drug use, put up with their music, and listen to their excuses about missing the rent. I pick my way through the broken glass and garbage in our driveway almost every day, and mourn my stolen flowers.
    On the other hand, living here has taught me that some of the folks in our neighbourhood are really friendly, decent types. I’ve enjoyed getting to know them and being taught to not judge by appearances.
    The difference between our experiences lies in that Rob and I certainly aren’t contemplating acting as a Godly example for our neighbours, and we can’t FREAKIN’ wait to get out of the “ghetto”. Every time I visit my Mum’s house I can’t help standing outside and looking around, admiring the neat lawns, spacious lots, and married couples fawning over babies in storllers. Everyone here is married! They all own cars! They’re not on welfare! If they’re swearing at each other, it’s definitely while indoors!
    Living in our neighbourhood has been illustrative of just how much of a suburban-ite I really am. I would love a place in the county, with lots of land and a big ol’ garden, as you know. But I also spend a lot of my time thinking about the day we can move into a “normal” split level home and live like the families I grew up around, in a suburb, in the country, whatever. Just out of here!!
    Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post.

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