Won't You Be My Neighbor?

A true story about the long-term benefits—and challenges—of intentional community

“Please, you come to my house,” Jamuna, my Bhutanese neighbor, said as she pulled my arm toward the door.

“I have to go home and cook dinner,” I tried to explain.

“No,” she said sternly. “You come to my house, eat.”

We had just finished a community English class, to which she usually came. People from Bhutan, Somalia, Burma and Mexico were all helping put up chairs and tables.

“Why didn’t you come to English class?” I asked her, rather hurt. “You know it is every Thursday night at 6 o’clock. You can come and learn English.”

“No, no” she said, pulling harder on my arm. “I stay home, make food for you. You come, eat.”

It was then I realized what was most important to Jamuna: friendship. My husband, Krispin, and I had been trying to serve people of the international community we live in, most recently through teaching an English class. Here, our friend denied the help we were offering just to have time to sit down with us across her table, to eat and to laugh our way through language and cultural differences, to be in a position of mutual sharing. Eating dinner with Jamuna and her family met more felt needs than any grammar class we could ever construct, a reality I was still slow to understand.

Working and living with refugees are two very different things. For five years I volunteered with Somali refugees in Portland, Ore. Most of them had arrived in America without any concept of a Western style of life—including stairs, light switches and running water. There was so much need and so much to experience, that for the first couple of years I ran around helping out in any practical way I could: setting up bank accounts, negotiating with welfare, going grocery shopping, even cleaning up cockroach infestations. As time went on, it became clear that education was a priority for the Somali community, especially for the women and children. I ended up starting various homework clubs and English classes at an apartment complex where many of the Somali families lived.

These classes and clubs all started out great. Fresh-faced kids from a local Bible college became homework helpers. Churches sponsored harvest parties and basketball camps. Brave souls volunteered to teach English to people who had never held a pencil in their life. But whenever I would start to feel confident in the success of a particular endeavor, all of my carefully chosen volunteers would start calling in sick. Or the neighbors would complain that our events made too much noise. Or the intended beneficiaries would simply stop showing up.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I moved into this particular apartment complex where we have kept up our relationships with many of the Somali families. When we first moved in, we eagerly looked forward to a rosy future of intentional (and international) community. We were tired of starting all sorts of programs—we wanted to live in relationship with our friends.

As anyone who lives in community knows, this type of relational living does not come easy. While we were closer in proximity to our Somali friends, culturally we were still worlds away. Not to mention the rest of the people who make up government-subsidized housing: single mothers, the mentally disabled, the post-homeless and various other refugee groups from faraway places like Bhutan and Guatemala (and let’s not forget bedbugs). We were still the privileged—the ones who spoke English, who had jobs (no matter how low-paying they were), who had education. And we are American through and through. We love our life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and of course privacy and individuality. Which is to say we locked our apartment doors and wondered when people would stop coming by and barging in.

In a land of extremes, we like concrete plans and actions. Growing up in families that revolved around the church, both my husband and I had the view that you either lived a life of ministry or you didn’t. By moving into a low-income apartment complex filled with refugees, I assumed we would be living a life of full-time ministry: teaching English classes, running citizenship programs, coaching soccer teams. This turned out to not only be impossible for us (working full- and part-time, both in school for master’s degrees), but would almost certainly have been detrimental to our relationship with each other. What we have learned most in the past two years is really about balancing our time and living in the tension of creating space for both our marriage and our friends and neighbors. Learning to love each other has become a vital part of our attempt at intentional community. Something as simple as Krispin washing the dishes leads to a conversation about gender roles and the need for mutual respect in a healthy relationship.

We recently had a baby, and we counted on this helping build cultural bridges with our refugee neighbors. Due to a severe medical complication, we ended up having our baby seven weeks early. As soon as we felt comfortable, we invited several Somali families over to meet the baby and tried not to panic as she was passed around. Like many premature babies, ours was a classic colic—crying inconsolably for hours at a time. Our friends urged us to get the baby to stop crying, and finally left. On her way toward the door, one friend turned and, with a sullen look, said: “Now we know why you no call us. It is good for you to stay at home with your crying baby.”

We felt rather crushed at our failed attempt to socialize (and secretly annoyed they didn’t have any ancient secrets for getting a baby to stop crying). But we realize this is a short phase both in the life of our daughter and our life lived in community. Soon our daughter will be running around, learning the African version of Duck, Duck, Goose (which is more like “lion, lion, little-kid-gets-eaten-by-lion”) and eating rice with her fingers like her Bhutanese friends.

We have learned to view intentional community through a long-range lens. With a baby, we can’t chase 70-plus kids who are covered in puffy paint around a community room in an effort to assemble a “found materials” art project (something we have actually attempted in the past). In seven years I have gone through several phases of life: marriage, graduate school, having a baby. And no matter what phase of life we may be in at the moment, we know we are in this for the long term. And as amazing as planning and executing events can be, I have found that some of the best conversations I have ever had have come from the most mundane of tasks: taking people grocery shopping, baking cookies, drinking tea and chatting about the weather. In the midst of these everyday situations, we have been asked the most profound theological questions: Who is Jesus? Why did He have to die? How do you know He is real? Who came first, Jesus or Muhammad? Is Santa Claus a god? (OK, maybe they aren’t all so profound. But they are thought-provoking).

When you have a long-term view of building community, your relationships don’t have to decrease due to the inevitable life changes—they just change and adapt. Both Krispin and I plan to be working on our relationship with each other for a very, very long time. We also plan on living in community for the rest of our days, no matter where we might be. So, for now, I look for ways to make friends in the laundry room, rather than focusing on a classroom. If someone skips English class in order to extend friendship to me and my family, I feel immensely blessed. And this teaches me to make more time for the quiet relational moments that happen in our apartment when we invite our international friends over. More often than not these days that is where I am: sitting and drinking a cup of chai in my apartment, watching kids chase my cat as their mom insults my husband’s beard.

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