Who Exactly Is Our Neighbor?
By Rev. Leah Cunningham
One of the challenges of the rural church is to identify who our neighbors are. What do we define as our “community”?
We have no subdivisions within walking distance of our church. There are no schools within 5 miles of our doors. We are surrounded by farms, light industry, and small service businesses. The Dollar General and a gas station are our closest neighbors. There is no new residential construction coming into our community. Our neighborhoods are well established and most folks go to church or consider themselves members of a church.
As with many small-membership, rural or semi-rural churches, we had to face the reality that if we were going to be here 50 years from now, we had to get out into our community. But where? What community? All of us go “into town” to shop, to the doctor, to the bank and to local restaurants.
What we realized is our community does not consist of houses close to us with sidewalks that lead to our doors. Our neighbors are not necessarily those who live near us but they are found “in town” where we go every day. Our community is made up of the kids who bag our groceries, the part-time workers who serve our hamburgers, and those who stand in line with us at the post office. Our neighbors may not be within walking distance of the church, but are pumping gas where we do every day.
We were in the habit of going to town and coming home without noticing or interacting with many of these neighbors. We realized we are already “outside of our walls,” as they say, but we needed to change our routine and engage our neighbors.
We realized the young people working at the grocery store (our future teachers, police officers and business owners), are our responsibility. The elderly getting prescriptions filled had needs we may not have noticed before. The single moms trying to make the most of their limited coupons and WIC benefits might need to know someone cares about them. The young man in the construction vest may have had a really hard week, but had we noticed? What I knew for sure was every one of us had to develop new habits of looking people in the eye, listening to them and engaging our community one person at a time.
Several years ago, we were gifted with a bequest and made the decision to use it for Missions and Outreach. Our first deliberate act of mission was to buy Kroger gift cards. We had labels printed on each card, that read “God loves you and so do we” with our church name. The instruction was to give them to people in the doctor’s office, the grocery store, the recycling center and anywhere we might go. This activity was an icebreaker which caused us to be more aware of those around us. It helped us to engage strangers that we heretofore may have passed by without a thought.
No, we didn’t gain new members by sharing our blessing. But this act of kindness “cracked it open” for us. We became “other focused” and comfortable meeting new people. Our mission efforts have expanded and increased as we have identified several places in our “community” where we now serve the homeless, the working poor and those at risk.
It’s amazing what God can do with a $10 Kroger card and willing hearts.
Rev. Leah Cunningham is pastor or Mt. Pleasant UMC in the Atlanta Decatur Oxford District. Contact her at email@example.com.