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.

Rainier Valley Coffee Shop

Tin Umbrella

As a visionary, idea-generator, I cultivate so many entrepreneurial dreams that I know I will never be able to live all of them out in a lifetime. Always, I am excited to see others take off with one of these creative endeavor, whether sparked by my influence or not. Awhile ago, I suggested to my community development team that a bakery in Hillman City could achieve a number of our desired goals for the neighborhood: cultivate community among diverse residents, employ recent immigrants, introduce people from diverse ethnic backgrounds to one another’s language, food and culture. Each day of the week, a delicacy from a different community represented in the neighborhood would be featured. Neighbors would come to expect Ethiopian sweet bread on Mondays and Vietnamese rolls on Tuesday, for example. The signs would be written in at least half a dozen of the most widely spoken languages in the Rainier Valley and the bakery would intentionally employ people representing these different communities to work together and teach one another how to bake their specialties. It would also have a space for community activities, or open mikes, where singing, dancing, poetry, storytelling and the arts could be performed. Another member of my team suggested the shop sell bubble tea as well (a Bubble Tea Bakery).

Although this idea hasn’t developed beyond the dream stage, I was excited to learn that a coffee shop, the Tin Umbrella, was opening in the neighborhood that’s connecting with our Ethiopian community and creating a gathering space for residents. The founder, Joya, spent some time in Ethiopia so speaks Amaharic and is sourcing the beans from farmers she personally knows there.

Attending the Grand Opening, however, I was disappointed that the crowd present did not at all represent the diversity of the Rainier Valley. I have since learned that the opening of the Tin Umbrella, as well as the Spinnaker Bay Brewing Company a block away, are sources of controversy by longer-term residents. Many feel as if these up-and-coming enterprises mirror the gentrification that occurred in Columbia City, pushing the lower-income residents, recent immigrants and diverse ethnic communities farther out of the city to be replaced by hip, young hangouts. Talking with Joya in-person, I know she has a desire to engage and celebrate the diverse communities located here, yet her business model (delivering high-end coffee to residents by bike) appeals to a select set of residents, while alienating others.If enterprises like the Tin Umbrella really want to connect with the other communities present, they will have to make the effort and do things like:

  • Sell unroasted beans to Ethiopian residents for their coffee ceremonies (in conjunction with getting the word out and marketing them at a price residents can afford)
  • Collaborate with other businesses in Hillman City to encourage cross experimentation of customers (e.g. a punch card for getting Somalian tea at the other shops in the neighborhood as well as Tin Umbrella coffee)
  • Employ baristas, roasters and staff who represent the diversity of the neighborhood

Watching establishments such as the coffee shop and brewery unfold causes me to recognize the difficulties that surround economic growth and development in conjunction with social and COMMUNITY development.It’s a tricky balance to facilitate both and I don’t know of a lot of models that have done that well. If you know of some, please share. I would love to hear about them!