“Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?” The song plays as a soundtrack in the back of my mind as I scurry around town checking off items on my list: pay the water bill, deposit money at the bank, pick up a few items at the grocery store, and indulge in an iced coffee (well, that wasn’t actually on the list.) The familiar characters from Sesame Street serenade me with their chorus.
I find it amusing and yet profound that those simple lessons from childhood continue to speak into my life today. The voices challenge me to think about the answer to the question. In a culture of fast paced, rapidly impersonal exchanges with humanity, recognizing the faces in my community becomes challenging.
Who are the people in my neighborhood? Some are close friends; people with whom I have shared life for up to two decades. We become extended family; sharing the old fashioned act of borrowing a cup of sugar, watching each others’ children, providing meals in times of adversity, driving kids to school and generally doing life together.
Other people in my sphere are not people with whom I interact daily but are familiar faces in the routines of my life. I think of the cashier at the grocery store with whom I exchange pleasantries and small talk a few times a week as she scans my forgotten items for dinner. We don’t know much about each other but have gained glimpses into each other’s world through finding common humanity as we share a laugh or frustration. The woman who waits on my family as we grab snacks at a fast food restaurant on our way to church also comes to mind. We know her now on a first name basis and when we arrive, she already knows what will be ordered. Though not all these relationships have the same depth, they have one thing in common: “connectedness.”
That commonality has sacred implications.
One morning, as I woke up to the radio station set to my alarm, a woman’s voice convicted me that I also woke up to a new reality. As she spoke, I listened to her happily testify to an app she uses to order food and beverage. No phone call. No waiting in line. Simply show up at the appointed time and pick up the order.
What is happening to our connection to one another? I confess, as someone who is middle aged, it’s tempting to fall into the “when I was growing up…” train of thought. Every generation waxes nostalgically about their past while struggling to embrace changes in culture. However, this particular movement away from human connection really tugs at my heart.
The digital age appears to create an abundant number of ways in which we can increase our connections to one another. Social media allows us to initiate relationships with people across the globe. These relationships can offer opportunities to engage with diverse voices. However, it becomes tempting to quickly gravitate toward others according “categories.” therefore decreasing exposure to others different from ourselves.
I also wonder how many encounters in the “flesh” are being missed by engagement primarily online. If God’s character is revealed through the Imago dei found in all of us, what are the implications if we create barriers to encountering the breadth of human creation? C.S. Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory “There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal.”
A few years ago, my 18 year old son was searching for a local job. I was surprised at the impersonal process he encountered. Most applications he submitted were online and involved personality tests, questions with limited options for clarification, and background history. Only a few of the many applications submitted resulted in an interview. Most of them yielded no feedback at all; even with follow up phone calls. After a year, he finally landed a position. Ironically, it was one with a pop up store which interviewed on the spot after he inquired about a position in person.
I am reminded that not so long ago, looking for a first job involved filling out a paper application and then walking into a neighborhood shop inquiring of vacancies. In person. No personality test. No exhaustive background check. Risky? Probably. But a certain amount of risk is always involved in entering a relationship. What do we learn about each other as the relationship builds and more of our stories are disclosed?
Changing our habits does not come easy. Convenience will likely be sacrificed in order to engage in intentional connections. I am mindful of my own struggles yesterday. As I waited in the neighborhood pharmacy drive through, the woman in the other lane engaged in what felt like a lengthy conversation with the employee. The woman’s dog had accompanied her and became the theme of a mutual adoration for pets. At first, I felt frustration bubble below the surface of my skin. My patience was running low as I typically expect a quick turn around in a drive through. However, my own passionate thoughts about the void of human interaction broke through my impatience. I was waiting for a sacred purpose.
Isn’t this where it starts? I asked myself. Simple observations, Impromptu connections. Transformation on a small scale. Yes, I sit longer while they talk. When these connections multiply within my neighborhood, we all benefit. Trust. Education. Understanding, People are more than their names or titles. Imago Dei. A ripple of connections not only strengthens the fabric of a local community but also has implications globally..
I am inspired by Martin Luther King Jr’s words, “I admire the good Samaritan, but I don’t want to be one. I don’t want to spend my life picking up people by the side of the road after they have been beaten up and robbed. I want to change the Jericho road, so that everybody has an opportunity for a job, education, security, health.” By reframing how we view our interactions, we can see them as opportunities for transformation: for others and ourselves.