Where goes the neighbourhood?

July 4, 2012 | Viewpoints | Number 14
Phil Wagler |

“Howdy ho, neighbour!” were the famous words of Wilson on that 90’s sitcom, Home Improvement.

“Hi dilly ho neighbourinos!” That’s what Ned Flanders happily blurts to Homer in The Simpsons.

“When I got married, I didn’t just get a husband, I got the whole freak show that set up their tent across the street.” Those are the frustrated words of Debra Barone about her in-law neighbours on Everybody Loves Raymond.

Television loves to portray the highs and lows of the neighbourhood, painting the optimistic picture that, at the end of the day, neighbourliness wins out. Our family has lived in different parts of Canada—in villages, towns and cities—and we’ve always been able to say we have had good neighbours. At the same time, it is also true that we have known surprisingly few of them well. There’s always been that over-the-fence Wilson-esque “howdy ho!” that gives the appearance of neighbourliness while denying its power.

The statistics reveal that being a neighbour is increasingly necessary. The Vancouver Foundation surveyed almost four thousand “Lotuslanders” and discovered that in one of the most densely populated and diverse cities in Canada, one in four people find it difficult to make friends and one in three categorize their lives as lonely.

The stats may be different where you live, but the study should cause us to reconsider our TV-shaped assumptions. Truth is, most of us view neighbourliness on reruns while rarely engaging in neighbourliness in the raw . . . because it’s too uncomfortable.

The survey also found that most respondents knew only two neighbours by name. Most did not do simple favours for their neighbours and few visited their homes or invited them over.

On the disturbing side, roughly 30 percent rated Middle Eastern, South Asian and Asian immigrants as the least desirable neighbours; almost two-thirds did not have close friends from another ethnic group, and 65 percent preferred spending time with people who are like them.

None of this should really shock us. It smells familiar. However, if we’re Christians, it should be different.

Nikolai Berdyaev said, “Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one.” The Scriptures repeatedly call the one who knows God to more than “howdy ho” neighbourliness.

Jesus speaks, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:46-48).

The call to love the neighbour, even our enemy, is a call to reflect the perfection of God. The neighbourhood is to be more holy, complete and whole because the disciples of Jesus reside there.

To the lawyer asking, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). The one you wouldn’t want in your neighbourhood becomes the one most neighbourly. “Go and do likewise.”

In the end, Jesus doesn’t really answer the lawyer’s cross-examination. He simply flips the question on its head: “What kind of neighbour are you?” And that remains a very good question.

Phil Wagler (phil_wagler@yahoo) is a pastor in Surrey, B.C., a city growing by a thousand new neighbours each month. He and his church have a lot of holy to practise. He is also a commentator on MennoMedia’s Shaping Families and the author of Kingdom Culture.

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