In May I began walking a daily four-mile loop around our village, Damariscotta Mills, a lovely spot tucked between a lake and a tidal river on Maine’s midcoast.
I hoped, by starting some sort—any sort—of regimen, I might begin to prepare for a long hike my husband and I hope to make in 2015. I also hoped to banish some of the middle-aged thickness that has begun to accumulate about my person. To be honest, I didn’t think much about the spiritual component of walking around my neighborhood beyond the gift of creation and the mollifying effect that nature has to soothe my frenetic modern soul.
But around that time, my boss—Steve Lane, the Episcopal Bishop of Maine, who had recently returned from sabbatical—started talking about a book that proposed sending people from congregations out in pairs to walk their neighborhoods and to pray about what they observed and for the people they encountered. With that suggestion, prayer suddenly seeped into my daily walk. I prayed as I passed the homes of neighbors I’ve known for 25 years as well as those of people I’ve never happened to meet beyond a friendly wave.
In September Bishop Lane invited a number of congregations to consider forming teams of two to “Pray the Neighborhood” for one year. He asked them to take a walk around their neighborhood for an hour each week, to pray together about what they observed, and, ultimately, to gather the teams to consider how their church might join the mission of God at work in their specific locale.
Recently I asked some of the people who have committed to praying their neighborhood what they have discovered after the first few months.
The Rev. Tim Walmer of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Wilton said,
We saw a large amount of Halloween decorations around the neighborhood: fake tombstones, a zombie or two, spider webs, and lots of pumpkins. So, realizing our church is in a central location, we opened the church doors on Halloween evening and passed out popcorn balls and cookies for the kids and hot cider for the grownups. We had more than 100 people stop by. I don’t have high expectations about them coming on Sunday, but the experience of simply greeting people at the front door of the church was thoroughly enjoyable.
The rector and senior warden, the Rev. Dan Warren and Paul Beaudette, of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Auburn, shared an even bolder, highly un-Episcopal, move. They knocked on a door.
Paul and I walked down to the sidewalk and on to the Franklin Street School. We knew one of our parishioners sent magazines, gifts at Christmas, and some money in June for caps and gowns for students. It’s a school for 65 students who have dropped out of other schools. Never having been inside, we rang the security buzzer. “Yes?” said a voice.
“We’re from St. Michael’s, catty-corner to you.”
“Oh, come in.”
We walked through a general-purpose room to a welcoming administrative office, chatted with the secretary, and asked if the principal might be available.
“I’m here,” said a man sitting on a side couch. He wore jeans, a dark blue shirt, and a loose black tie that seemed the only badge of authority.
We introduced ourselves, shared common acquaintances, and then heard from him how eleven teachers and four counselors teach, coach, cajole, comfort, and inspire.
“We try to give them a life to look forward to and the relational skills to have a home and job,” said the principal.
“Seems like there’s a lot of Section 8 housing around here.” I said.
“Only Section 8 housing,” he said.
“We’ve been thinking of hosting suppers with the Congregational church.”
The principal’s face brightened. “I know them,” he said. “Our kids could help cook.”
Paul described another encounter, as well:
We came across a woman who was sitting on the sidewalk with a couple of small children while two other kids played on the porch and lawn of the house. We introduced ourselves, which prompted another woman to come outside as well. She introduced herself as Barbara, the grandma. The kids were very cute, and one little boy was very talkative. One thing that caught my attention, however, was the look of concern on the grandmother’s face when she saw us. I’m not sure but it struck me as a look that wondered, ‘What do they want from us?’ or ‘What have we done wrong?’”
At our Diocesan Convention in October, Bishop Lane described this “missional experiment” in his Convention address. A week later a Convention delegate, my friend and neighbor Rachel Zoller, told me that she and another delegate were inspired to start walking the neighborhood as well. On their first walk, along the same route that I walk, they encountered an acquaintance who told them that her neighbor, who lives in the house they had stopped in front of, was homebound.
“Would she like someone to visit her?” asked Rachel.
“Oh, I’m sure she would love it. I’ll let her know to expect you,” said the neighbor.
Is that all it takes? Is it so simple to make connections among our neighbors? By walking and praying, by showing up, we can be the hands and feet of Jesus in our neighborhood.
Sometimes, when I arrive home from work, I’m surprised to find that my husband, Scott, whose commute is much shorter than mine, isn’t at home yet. “Where were you?” I’ll ask when he walks in later.
“Helping Charlie with his computer,” he’ll say. There are any number of other names of retired neighbors he might substitute for Charlie, our 94-year-old friend who lives a few houses down. Though Scott would be loath to call it a “ministry,” serving as the on-call computer guy for a half dozen neighbors allows them to stay in touch with family and friends scattered across the country and the world. It matters. It is a ministry of connection and offering of gifts, whether Scott pooh-poohs the idea or not. Does “ministry” have to be limited to activities like visiting the sick or feeding the hungry? Might it also encompass other simple gestures of kindness, like installing a wireless router in a neighbor’s house?
About a mile and a half into my walk, I cross a right-of-way for a high power-transmission line. One gorgeous blue sky day in early November, I stopped there as the wind barreled along the treeless corridor at right angles with West Neck Road, ripping the leaves off the trees on either side. As I stood at that crossroads, letting myself be buffeted, I realized it didn’t matter which direction the wind propelled me—back toward my house or further down the road. If I let it, the Spirit would open doors all along the way.