I was inspecting my future house a couple days ago, down in Mattoon. Jim (the church's maintenance man) was there to answer my questions and jot down any requests or concerns I might have had. I think I'm going to like Jim.
The house looks in pretty good shape, so my main concern was where I might put my garden. Jim took a deep breath. "Well, that's going to be complicated...The back yard doesn't get much sun, so your garden won't do well there...
And the front yard...well...it's like this: A few of the neighbors in this part of town are kind of high falutin." (Jim is obviously not high-falutin or he would have used the more proper term: "high-faluting.") He went on, "Anyway, you go to growing pole beans and okra in your front yard, and I'll guarantee that some of your new neighbors will be paying you a visit...and it won't be to welcome you."
I got his point. No garden in the front yard. When you come to visit me, you will be able to walk across my front lawn and not worry yourself about squashing my squash. I have also made an executive decision that I will not discard any cast-away stuff in the front yard: broken couches, rusted refrigerators, used car parts, etc. I already know: that is what church closets are used for. My yard will look nice.
All this "anti-garden in the front lawn" would have baffled my grandma. She was a pastor's wife for over 40 years before my grandpa died. And when I started in the ministry (many years ago) she decided to give me a long talk. "Church folks only care about two things: how you dress and how good your garden is. It's fine if you're good at preaching and praying. But the main gossip will mostly be about how good you and your garden look."
Sometimes it's really hard to get your grandma's voice out of your head. I wish she had said something to me about how to get along with the neighborhood. But all I can remember from that talk is her insistence on good wardrobes and horticulture.
So here's how I left it with Jim: He's going to see if we can't plow up a little section on the side of the house (out of sight of most neighbors) and I'm going to see if I can't get along with whoever my new neighbors turn out to be.
Since I don't have to worry for a few weeks about my garden, I have started recollecting different neighbors I've had over the years. I know I'll really miss the folks here in my Urbana neighborhood. I can tell you the names of 25 of my immediate neighbors...and many of their stories.
And I've been trying to remember neighbors I've had in other towns where I lived. The most articulate neighbor I've ever had was Mrs. Tarwater, who lived next door for 12 years. When we moved in, she met me at the border of our yards, welcomed me to the neighborhood, and informed me that I lived on a friendly street. Then she leaned in, lowered her voice, and explained that the street was friendly because "we don't make a habit of bothering each other."
Our girls were six and four at the time. I just assumed this was her way of letting me know that she was not available to babysit. We coexisted alongside each other contentedly for over a decade.
I remember the friendliest neighbor ever. It was before the girls were born, and I was serving my first church out of seminary. We were living in an apartment. One night, about 3 a.m., someone started pounding on our front door. I rushed to the living room and looked out the peephole to see who it was. It was the middle aged woman in the apartment above us...stark naked...asking me to let her in.
I had no idea how to interpret "Love your neighbor" at that moment. I tried to think, "What Would Jesus Do?" But that wasn't getting me anywhere. So I averted my eyes, opened the door a slight bit, and tried to engage her in conversation. We had heard no abuse going on above us. After some conversation, I eventually reckoned that she was sleepwalking. So I called her husband on the phone.
"Your wife's outside our apartment. Um...I didn't look at her...but I know it's her by her voice...um...I think she's lost...um...not that I looked at her...but you might want to come and get her." He did.
Many folks say that "neighborliness" isn't what it used to be. Well, I'm not sure I want quite the intimacy of that neighbor from decades ago. But I do think that life is worse if we live in fortresses in our own neighborhoods, never getting to know the names and stories of those who live alongside us.
I promise to behave with my garden when I move to Mattoon. But I do hope the people there wear their pajamas when they sleepwalk. Lord have mercy. Mike