Whether you’re reading this at home or at work, let me ask you a question. What sort of signal do you give your neighbors? Do you extend welcoming hospitality or have you constructed walls for your personal safe haven?
Go Home Ranch
My wife and I once hired a handyman to build a lattice fence that would enclose a giant air conditioning unit that we had installed the previous spring. This former shop teacher did an amazing job – beautiful work and to our surprise, priced extremely reasonably. On top of that, he was a nice, good ol’ guy.
Since he had recently transplanted from the Abilene, TX area to Memphis, TN, I couldn’t resist asking this Texan how the transition was coming along. I love asking that question to folks who relocate to the broader Memphis area not only because you get some great answers, but also because I love to hear the “newbie” perception, which fades or sometimes goes unnoticed by natives.
In the past, I’ve heard everything from “I love Memphis” to “Memphis is so boring and bland.” But I wasn’t prepared for our handyman’s response:
We’re adjusting to having neighbors. We didn’t have neighbors back in Texas.
Luckily my mouth didn’t fall open, but I was shocked. I think I mumbled something like, “Really? That’s quite an adjustment I bet.”
I’d always grown up with neighbors, yet this guy had gone years, decades even, without them. Our handyman had lived on 160 acres. The nearest Lowe’s was an hour away, and to do any errands required a whole day’s planning.
Like many Texas ranch entrances – two massive beams on either side of the horizontal beam – our handyman had a sign dangling down designating the name of his ranch:
GO HOME RANCH
That’s an interesting message to say the least.
If we are honest with ourselves, though, are the rest of us non-ranchers any different? Even though 99% of us have neighbors, do most of us in the United States act like it? We’ve constructed our own “Go Home Ranch” signs in our front yards by daily retreating into our escape, shutting the garage door, and locking ourselves inside our safe havens. If we happen to go outside it’s to hang out in the backyard…away from those dangerous, scary strangers.
As I’ve been pondering what it means to take the second half of the Great Commandment more seriously, I’ve realized that to prevent the natural tendency to create my own “Go Home Ranch,” I need to replace my praxis.
I need to “move into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message) like Jesus and grow roots. I must become more specific and contextualized in my discipleship. All of this, of course, is grounded in the interdynamic relationship between humanity and land, which is quintessential to neighboring – to discipleship.
So I’ve restructured my discipleship practices around place. I’m re-placing a disembodied lifestyle with a local, rooted one. This neighborhood nexus I’ve constructed is centered around 7 P’s*: parsonage (home), porch (welcoming connectional points), pathways (daily routes), pivots (stopping points, e.g., “third place”), parish (geographical district and people), polis (city), and periphery (outer limits).
In this post I’d like to focus on porch since I touched on interactions just outside of the home (i.e., “parsonage”). Hopefully, by giving a few pointers and examples, it’ll reinvigorate you to reclaim the porch.
Most people try to play or enjoy the exterior of their home (what I call “parsonage”) via the backyard. The problem with this is that it usually limits your visibility. You can interact with your next-door neighbors through hanging out in the backyard (plenty of “Wilson” conversations over the fence), but ultimately you’ll be losing out on a myriad of opportunities to meet and greet neighbors on their pathways (“daily routes”).
One of my first neighboring experiences came through “porchin’ it” with my neighbor across the street, Mr. Sam Oakley. Sam (rest his soul) used to sit out on his porch in his rocking chair each afternoon reading his KJV Bible or the local newspaper, chilling in the shade, and spitting his chew. When I’d get home from work, Sam would wave, and I would go over and we’d shoot the breeze for 30 minutes to an hour, talking about anything and everything.
Sam taught me a major lesson in neighboring: the importance of being present. Consistently being visible and available is key to loving our neighbors as ourselves. You simply can’t engage with fellow neighbors if you decide to build a moat around your castle, which is our default mode in an individualistic culture.
Personally, I’ve met quite a few people in my neighborhood by just hanging out on the porch. But, I’ve also found that unless it’s Halloween or Christmas, not many people will approach you at your porch. So you have to meet people where they are and extend your porch to the pathways through the driveway, mailbox, and the front yard.
The Turquoise Table
Although I have many stories of utilizing the driveway, mailbox, and front yard as extensions of the porch, for brevity’s sake I’d like to highlight an excellent, ingenious idea from someone else, which has taken off like wildfire.
Ever get tired of spinning your wheels when you try to create community? (Pastors, can I get an amen?) After trying unsuccessfully for 10 years, Kristin Schell came up with a creative, simple solution. She decided to move the backyard to the front.
A picnic table. To be more exact…a picnic table that was turquoise.
Before you knew it, neighbors began suddenly stopping by for coffee, a drink, or just to chat at the table. It became a gathering place where people could connect. Clearly, it hit a nerve as its popularity spread and more turquoise tables began popping up throughout her neighborhood. A little later and now there are at least 40 states where the turquoise table can be found.**
All of this happened because a faithful Christian decided to love her neighbors where they were. It didn’t involve elaborate details, or even knocking on doors, but deciding to be present and available to others. In doing so, perhaps we see a glimpse of what it means to not only extend the “porch,” but also to extend the Table into our neighborhoods.
*Inspired by Woodward and White’s The Church as Movement (pp. 205-209) and the Scottish parish model.