Love Starts With a Name

Many would say it would be ‘nice’ to know the neighbors better. But as a life priority, that ranks somewhere near the desirability of adding heated seats to their automobile. You can get where you’re going without it, but it can add a little enjoyment to the drive. (The Abundant Community, p. 16)

Many people are familiar with the story in the Bible of the religious leader who asked Jesus what the greatest command was.

who-is-my-neighbor“Love God and love your neighbor,” was the short version of Jesus’ reply.

“Who is my neighbor?” the leader asked, wanting to justify himself.

Jesus replied by telling a story about an outcast (think illegal allien) who came across a guy beat up on the side of the road, helped him out and even paid for his medical bills! This was after two other religious leaders walked right past the wounded man.

“Which one was the neighbor?” Jesus asked.

“The guy who showed pity.”

“Go and follow his example.”

Just like the questioning leader, many of us still try to justify ourselves by redefining “neighbor.” We say, “Neighbor can be my co-workers, my friends, really anyone in the world.”

“When we insist we’re neighbors with everybody, often we end up being neighbors with nobody.” ~Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, The Art of Neighboring (p.35).

These authors emphasize that we need to demonstrate love to our literal neighbors, and to start by simply learning the names of those who live around us. As they explain:

What do you think about when you hear the word love? Theologians write about it, poets muse about it, singers sing about it. We want to be really clear: we are none of those. We are relatively normal guys. We’re not deep thinkers, nor do we have any musical skills whatsoever-we’d embarrass ourselves on a karaoke stage. And, if we happened to rhyme, it’s not on purpose. But we do know this about love: to love someone, it helps to actually know their name. (p.40)

The authors then challenge readers to complete a simple exercise: write down the names of the people who live immediately around you. If you can, write both the first and last name. I have to admit, even though I’ve lived in my current neighborhood for over a year (and just around the corner from my current house for three years prior to that), hosted a neighborhood BBQ, participated in block parties and cleanups and am involved in community development full-time and volunteer in my free-time on a community development team at my church, I struggled with this first step. The exercise highlights how most of us could grow in loving our neighbors, and an easy way to get started: by learning their names!

Once you’ve jotted down names, the next step is to write any other relevant information you’ve learned through conversation with the person. In other words, things you can’t know just by observation such as the color of their car or landscape in their yard. Finally, you write down in-depth knowledge you’ve gained from meaningful conversations such as your neighbors’ dreams, desires, beliefs and motivations (p.37). It may take years to completely fill in the squares with this sort of in-depth information. Yet as we do, genuine love will form between us and our neighbors, replacing suspicion and criticism that has become a marker of our industrialized planet. As I wrote in a poem for a neighborhood block party last year:

“Which is the greatest command?”
A man asked the Teacher
“Love God and love your neighbors
Treat them like your brothers and sisters.”

Yet how can we love them
When we don’t even know?
The people around us
Are just houses in a row!

What we don’t know
We often suspect
Hurl insults
Treat like an object

Upset when their dog
Poops in our yard
We call the police
As we get in our car

Why not walk across the street
Offer to lend a hand
Get to know that neighbor
Turn into a friend

As we know our neighbors
We reduce our fear
Look out for each other
When danger is near

We represent a range
From wealth to poverty
Yet each brings a gift
That strengthens our community

So neighbors, let’s unite
Set aside our worries
Let’s raise our voices
Tell our communities’ stories

Let’s work for change
Safety on our avenue
Decrease the crime
As we reclaim and renew

Our neighborhood as our own
Where we work and connect
Worship and play
Without fear or regret

Neighborhood Dreams

Rainier Valley Heritage Parade 2015

This guest post comes from Lauren Squires who volunteers with me on the Community Development team at Rainier Avenue Church. She recently shared this vision with our team, a group dedicated to our South Seattle neighborhood of Hillman City. An Urban Planner, Lauren sees community development through holistic lens that consider issues like sustainable transportation solutions alongside human equity and economic capacities. Her vision was inspired by an activity she participated in at CommonLife’s monthly neighborhood gatherings known as Fellowship of the Neighborhood. Thanks, Lauren, for sharing your thoughts; through shared vision and collaboration, such a dream can become a reality!

After a busy day at work, I hop on my bicycle to ride home up over Beacon Hill to Hillman City from downtown. Catching glimpses of the vistas, the Cascades saying goodnight to the Olympics as the spring sun settles behind. I wave, nod and smile to folks as I wind through the neighborhood streets.

Dropping down into the heart of Hillman City, the intersection of Rainier and Orcas is buzzing with people. The streets are closed for a neighborhood festival and block party. The people of the neighborhood have taken over the street. Vendors from the Somali market are cooking food and brewing chai, selling to the neighborhood from tents. Muslims from the mosque and Christians from Rainier Avenue Church work shoulder-to-shoulder to paint a mural in the street at the intersection of Juneau and Rainier. Women at Spinnaker Bay are pouring pints for a boisterous crowd in the beer garden set up in the street, tempting the dedicated CrossFitters tossing medicine balls back and forth just 10 feet away. Women are lined up along the sidewalk getting their hair braided, watching to the people groove to the band playing in front of Tarik’s restaurant and community culinary school recently opened in what use to be Maxim’s Gentleman’s club.

This is the epitome of neighborhood flourishing: to ride my bike home from work without my heart spiking once from a close call through a network of neighborhood streets and safe crossings—all the while recognizing faces and exchanging smiles. To be engulfed in a neighborhood gathering, surrounded by others that call this place home or who just pass through regularly for business and have stuck around for the evening. To see each community member’s presence and contribution celebrated and cherished. Each has a valued place at the table. Unity across race, age, income, creed and even transportation mode.
I scan the throng of neighbors eating, chasing toddlers, deep in conversation with each other or just taking it all in, as I am. I weave down the crowded sidewalk to lock up my bike. As I walk past DADS’ open door, inside I see OGs watching a basketball game with their sons, mentors coaching their younger brothers and a father changing his baby’s diaper at the front desk. If I would’ve seen these men anywhere else, I would’ve assumed the worst of them based on their clothes, speech and swagger. But those assumptions have been proven wrong too many times now. When I walk the streets of my neighborhood, it’s characterized by openness toward each other, assuming the best of one another, a leaning in and positive inquisitiveness about our difference instead of a pulling back.


What would it look like if your neighborhood was flourishing? Tell us in a comment.

Lauren Squires_Head Shot

Lauren Squires, Urban Planner

Lauren is an urban planner, active transportation specialist and community advocate enthusiastic about inclusive, livable places. A strong team member offering a range of strategic planning, policy development, bicycle and pedestrian design, facilitation and writing skills, at MIG|SvR Lauren works on projects ranging from complete streetscape concepts to multimodal transportation planning to community planning projects focused on health and equity. Lauren is passionate about urban systems and engaging complex issues to enhance quality of life in Seattle. A Rainier Valley resident, she regularly collaborates with diverse communities on neighborhood planning initiatives such as Rainier Valley Greenways. Lauren currently serves on the Seattle Planning Commission.

10 Benefits of a Community Yard Sale

yard saleMany people think I run an annual to bi-annual yard sale simply to make some extra cash. Although my yard sale earnings contributed towards paying off student loans, the intangible benefits I receive from managing these sales extend beyond the monetary. Following my most recent sale this past weekend, I jotted down ten reasons I love running yard sales in my neighborhood:

  1. A core value of Christian Community Development gets lived out. John Perkins talks about the three R’s in Christian Community Development: Relocation, Redistribution and Reconciliation. Hosting a yard sale in my community is a way of living out the “Redistribution” piece. Most of the stuff I sell comes from wealthy people, who have discarded their belongings when moving, or from hoarders who have passed away and can no longer benefit from their earthly possessions. I get joy when hosting these sales by seeing how the discarded possessions of wealthy people get repurposed by my low income and working class neighbors.
  2. Low-income neighbors, immigrants and refugees can outfit their homes and families. Many refugees and first-generation immigrants purchase clothes, dishes, house ware and furniture at a reduced rate to outfit their households. Yard sales like mine offer our neighbors the ability to buy these items at low-cost (say a couch for $10-$20 or a shirt for $.25)…and that’s far more dignifying than receiving handouts!Shoes lined up for the sale
  3. International development happens at a grassroots level. In addition to buying for their local families, some first-generation immigrants purchase affordable items to ship to their relatives and friends in developing countries. I see this as powerful, grassroots community development that supersedes the work of giant organizations and mega NGO’s which often intrude with foreign ideas about what people need. Since yard sale goods are selected and shared by people who were once local residents there and know the community, culture and needs, the “aid” coming in the form of boxes filled with bargains is likely to be what’s both useful and appreciated.
  4. Leftover items find new homes. At the end of my sale this past weekend, I took five bags of remaining clothes to a clothing exchange where a group of working-class friends (who value repurposing items over buying new) rampaged through them and discovered all sorts of wearable finds!
  5. DJ at yard saleOffers intermediate employment. With the last two sales, I’ve been able to employ a couple friends who were in-between jobs.
  6. Get to meet my neighbors. Hosting a yard sale connects me and my household to our neighbors, literally our front-door community.
  7. My neighbors meet each other. Simultaneously, my neighbors get introduced to each other at the sale, oftentimes some of whom previously knew no one else in the area.
  8. Ideas for future community gatherings percolate. During the course of these neighborly interactions this past weekend, we discussed hosting a progressive music night—something similar to a progressive dinner in which we would go from one house to the next for a different genre of live music. Conversations like this highlight the gifts that each person brings to our local context.
  9. Professional connections form. This past weekend, for example, I was able to introduce my assistant to a potential employer whom I’d been trying to connect for a couple of months!
  10. Our neighborhood gets safer. Knowing one’s neighbors builds trust and has proven to be the leading cause in crime reduction.

Talking Blood: Black Lives Matter Protest

Black Lives Matter

The organizers called me an “ally” because I am white. As an ally, I was instructed to line up behind the people of color. I was at a Black Lives Matter protest for police accountability that gathered around noon on this rainy, cold Saturday in January at MLK Memorial Park. Organized by women of color for systemic change, they lead the march to our Seattle detention center where the city plans to spend $210 million rebuilding and expanding so they can lock up more of our youth. Statistically, this will mostly hold youth of color; currently, for example, black youth comprise 8% of the state’s youth but 42% of our detention center. And recent events have shown us that the school to prison pipeline is becoming a school to graveyard pipeline. Black lives that have become a hashtag should have received justice (and many more deaths go completely unnoticed).

Police escorts in front of the Seattle detention center.

About 20 police escorts line in front of the Seattle detention center.

Caring about this injustice is something that my community of faith, and primarily my friends of color, have made me aware of in recent years. So I was surprised when a group of non-religious white friends (whom I affectionately refer to as my “hippie circle”) invited me to the event. I was even more surprised to see that the majority of the 200-300 participants who showed up to protest were white. The organizers expressed appreciation for us allies who were showing solidarity, but emphasized that the movement should be lead by people of color.

Earlier in the day I had tried to imagine what our world would look like had the people of Africa risen to prominence, conquered North America, and enslaved my ancestors from Germany and England…then hauled them here against their will to work their farms and businesses without pay. What would it have looked like to grow up in a country where for 200 years black men were the prominent figures in media, newspapers and history books? Where the justice system was created by black men to the disadvantage of a white minority and where I was always considered “the other,” or not even considered at all. Where I had trouble finding hair products that were not designed for curly hair and the food I liked to eat was considered “ethnic” and the music white people produced was considered part of a subculture. But to be honest, even with my vivid imagination, I couldn’t fully imagine that as a reality. So when the organizers of our protest asked that we “allies” line up in the back, I personally was not offended. I was getting only a tiny taste of the way we white people have for centuries treated our brothers and sisters of color.

hands up don't shoot

Bi-standers joined us when they heard our slogan “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

“Hands up, don’t shoot!” we shouted as we marched. The response of most African Americans we passed was an instantaneous motion of flinging their hands in the air as well. Drivers gave short honks of support or punched their fists in the air in agreement. Meanwhile, most white people we passed simply stared back or looked annoyed that we were disrupting the roads. At intersections, the organizers ordered us to block off traffic.

“We intend to inconvenience people!” they shouted. I could tell the vehicles’ drivers were perturbed to be stopped in the middle of their journeys and I couldn’t blame them–I would be too! But I understood what the organizers were emphasizing: privilege and comfort must be inconvenienced in order for people to stop and think and consider that black lives matter just as much as the busy lives of us who still live do.

Blocking the traffic circle.

Blocking the traffic circle.

At the second intersection, we blocked off an extra exit from the interstate. This was the busiest intersection we blockaded during the protest and lasted for probably 10 minutes. A couple minutes in, cars began honking and a few illegally drove through a nearby business parking lot.

“Let’s block them off!” someone said. I headed over, thinking others would join me. A car loaded with young white guys rolled down their windows and hollered profanities at us as they rolled past. Another car was about to follow but I stepped in the way, yelling “Wait! Stop!” A righteous anger overcame me and I yelled at impatient people in their cars, “Black lives matter! Stop and think about that for a minute. We all need to stop and think about this!” Some people cautioned me that I was outside of the main road but a guy who was videoing the scene from his phone said not to worry because he was capturing it all. A couple minutes later a young guy sauntered over; I thought he was coming to join me but he just cautioned me not to get hurt standing there by myself and I told him “Well, then stand here with me!” He said he needed to be back in the circle for something but that we would be there for awhile longer, for 4 minutes for a die in (I later realized he was a First Aid medic).

die in

Organizers lead the die in, 4 minutes of silence.

About that time an older man joined me and got to his knees, along with most of the crowd. As I did I prayed that Jesus would give me strength. My legs were wobbly but I remembered our prayer time from yesterday and thought of Abel and Martin Luther King Jr and innocent black youth who have died. I knew if I was hit or injured, it would be for this struggle all have shared for justice for humanity. The courage to stand there alone could only come from God and I began to pray that God’s kingdom would come and will would be done here on earth as it is in heaven.

Praying during die in

Standing, praying

I thought of how yesterday we were praying at my office for racial reconciliation after a staff-wide conversation the day before on reflections from Ferguson. Someone had mentioned during that conversation that we would always have conflict on earth–conflict that started with the first two brothers, Cain and Abel, one of whom killed the other one! Someone else spoke about how the death of youth like Michael Brown is especially angering because it was the result of the color of his skin. In similar situations of conflict between police and young white guys, less violent methods have been employed, whereas many of our youth of color have simply been killed, unjustly, on the spot. These young men can no longer speak at all!

Martin Luther King Jr. Quote

During our prayer time I meditated on the story of Abel. God spoke to me from Hebrews 11:4 which says:

“By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”

And in Genesis 4:10:

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.

This young man continues to shout to God and to humanity, his blood screaming to God from the dirt, his story teaching us today that injustices do not go unnoticed.

After the march, I concluded the day watching Selma. The stone-cold expressions depicted on the faces of the police in the movie, preventing Black people from voting in the 1960’s, were almost a mirror reflection of the nearly two dozen police I saw lining in front of the detention center earlier. The hatred remarks of the young white guys who drove by our traffic circle could have just as easily come from the mouths of the white people of Alabama over 50 years ago. Most disheartening was the fact that the only online news coverage I could find from the event was a piece about how traffic was disrupted with comments like:

“so just use a few fire hoses from fire trucks and hose them all down black white or what ever . just get the road ways clear”


“Just run ‘em down…..Black Lives Splatter.”

Even here in a city that prides itself in being progressive, I am appalled by how much racism continues to choke us. May the blood not splatter but speak!

Note: photos for this piece along with additional images of the day can be found here.

Neighborhood Love

revitalized bus stop on other side of hill

revitalized bus stop on other side of hill

Every day on my commute to work, I walk past a group of people huddled near the base of the light rail and a bus stop. Growing up I would have learned to label as this group as “riff-raft.” Some days in the afternoon the bus stop smells like alcohol, the remains of broken wine bottles and smashed beer cans serving as self-evidence of the public consumption. People literally camp out there all day (sometimes even at night), play cards, drink, deal drugs and use the bushes as a urinal. Moving intentionally to South Seattle in order to be a part of community development initiatives, I had the glorious idea of hosting a BBQ or picnic with these folks in order to build relationships and get to know them as human beings. I knew in turn they would look out for me.

The BBQ has yet to happen, but from my daily commute we’ve grown accustomed to each other. At first I merely returned their greetings, making no eye contact. Eventually, I began to make small exchanges with some of the women. I think they appreciate being recognized as existing, as human beings who can communicate verbally. The man in the long trench coat who’s out at every hour was the first person to wish me “Happy Valentine’s” this year. That made my morning. As someone who’s love language is words of affirmation, the most priceless moment, though, was earlier this week when a woman called out, “You’re awesome!” Why, I have no idea. But it reinforced the reality that when we go somewhere expecting to give love, we receive it in greater doses back, often from surprising sources.