Finding God in the Neighborhood

People have a tendency to cluster based on shared interests, but the changing demographics of cities and towns present the possibility to forge new levels of connection.

La Citta Vita / Flickr

In the 1980s, when I was living in Durham, North Carolina, I attended a church in a neighborhood undergoing transition. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church had been built to serve Hope Valley, an upper-class neighborhood, an early 20th-century enclave strategically positioned on the other side of the Durham County line, allowing residents to avoid racial tensions in town. By the late 1980s, however, change was afoot in Durham County. Huge planned developments sprang up, complete with schools, private pools, and associations. The new communities bore old-fashioned words like “chapel,” “farm,” or “woods” in their names, to give them an air of tradition. The old Hope Valley neighbors, who could be an exclusive lot, had a hard time with these pop-up communities, seeing the new people as interlopers and the new developments as intrusions on the landscape. At the church, a tribal war broke out between those who sought to maintain the old neighborhood and the newcomers who had begun to attend the church. In the short term, the old-timers won. It was, in a word, unpleasant.

An odd thing, however, has happened since. The way of life that the older church members were trying to maintain, that of the historic houses and interrelated families, has pretty much vanished. They may have won the skirmish at the church, but the world was changing around them. Although old Hope Valley remains as a protected historic district, some of it was surrendered to infill and tear down, and the newer surrounding neighborhoods, with their modern amenities, are now home to many thousands more people than the original neighborhood could have ever housed. The new tribe eventually took over. Thirty years ago, I thought that the conflict at St. Stephen’s church was about theology. In hindsight, it is apparent that it was a conflict about sociology: the meaning and future of the American neighborhood.

What happened in Hope Valley was a microcosm of something happening all over the United States. Old neighborhoods, urban, suburban, rural, or small-town, have been challenged by new kinds of neighborhoods where new patterns of tribe were being formed. In some cities, liberal tribes were forming; in other American cities and counties, the same phenomenon was underway in a conservative direction, where people clustered around different economic or cultural patterns. Across the nation, neighborhoods became more homogeneous in taste and worldview, even while sometimes becoming more racially or ethnically diverse. Although some people bemoan or ridicule the rise of gated communities (those neighborhoods surrounded by fences and guards), if truth be told, a large percentage of the population does not need actual gates in order to live behind the invisible fencing of “like-mindedness.”

And that is what a tribe is: people who are, in some way or another, alike and band together for common purpose. Human beings feel safer when they are near those who understand them, whose lives are enmeshed socially and economically, and who share a common outlook. Tribes are as old as human history.

Although “tribe” is often a negative word in contemporary usage, it is helpful to remember that “tribe” is a rich source of history, identity, and solidarity among native peoples. The problem is not the idea of tribe per se, but what happens when tribes become exclusive (when belonging is based on some form of superiority) and interested primarily in their own survival (when other tribes are viewed as a threat). Old Hope Valley is an interesting example. It began in the 1920s as a revolutionary experiment in community planning, a mixture of private and public spaces, with harmony between architecture and nature, based on the sensibilities of a successful Southern merchant class. Hope Valley was a tribe, and it existed within a world of Durham’s other tribes: the lively Hayti neighborhood, the African American equivalent to Hope Valley, including its famous financial district known as “Black Wall Street”; the white working-class neighborhoods around the tobacco mills served by both socialjustice churches and labor unions; and the academic community of students and professors who lived on or around the Duke campus. Durham, like all dynamic cities, has a history of tribes clustering in community. For a city to succeed, however, tribes must work together.

When the tribes found a larger common purpose—like supporting education or building a successful local economy—the groups managed the tensions between the need to belong based on alikeness (as manifested in Durham’s many neighborhoods) with the need for cooperating with people who were different (in workplaces and civic associations). In times of economic stress, however, cooperation could quickly turn to competition between classes and neighborhoods. The structure of racism was always in play as well.

At times, class and race served as meaningful bonds of neighborhood, but all too often class and race buttressed fear, thus turning places like Hope Valley into clannish enclaves. In the case of Hope Valley, what began as a radical rural experiment in making community quickly devolved into an enclave, a world unto itself, threatened by change. “Fear brings out the basest instincts,” writes British political scientist Sue Goss, “and narrows our sense of belonging to self-preservation.”

Building strong neighborhoods will not necessarily make the world a better place. Old Hope Valley was a very strong neighborhood, with thick history and meaningful ties. Thirty years ago, however, those ties created an insular community of superiority and fear, and all of the worst aspects of tribalism came into play in the conflict at the church. Strong neighborhoods can be strong in the wrong ways, about the wrong things. But building communities on the basis of “likeness” is not really a problem either, for human beings have always built neighborhoods around some principle of “likeness.” The difficulty arises when strong ties and likeness mutate into exclusion and conformity. Nostalgia for the old neighborhood often blurs the reality that it can be damned unpleasant to live in restrictive and close-minded places. Generations of Americans left the old neighborhoods to experience personal freedom with looser or fewer ties in order to find fuller, more meaningful lives.

Freed from old ties, however, we usually make new ones. Mobility creates the conditions for new neighborhoods to form. Unless one is a hermit, most of us naturally sort into groups of likeness. We hang out with those we like around shared concerns and similar tastes. That is the basis of friendship, the secret ingredient of neighborliness and community. That’s the rub: Human beings are tribal people. We always have been and always will be. Neighborhoods have always been places where people gather in small clusters to reside together in safety and mutual support, little “tribes” in a larger city or region. A fine line is crossed, however, when tribes become clans and neighborhoods become enclaves. Clans almost always have the compulsion to fight other clans; enclaves typically feed on paranoia about the outside world. In the 21st century, some tribes act more like clans—looking inward for approval and outward with accusation. Too often, our chosen neighbors (whether in physical or virtual neighborhoods) are comrades in cliquish echo chambers. The principle of clustering around likeness has driven us into ever-smaller groups, increasingly isolated from one another, suspicious of those who are different, surrounded by the invisible fencing of fear.

* * *

On a pleasant summer day, I was buying some lamb at the local farmers’ market. Mr. Miller is a livestock farmer, and about half my family’s meat comes from him. He is Mennonite of a sort, with a beard and conservatively dressed daughter who covers her head. We often talk theology. But on that particular day, we were talking about how to grill lamb.

“How do you season it?” I asked.

“Their herb mix,” he replied, pointing to the farmer in the neighboring booth, who happens to be a Muslim. “Our meat, their herbs. No better combination.”

Mennonite and Muslim interfaith cooperation at the farmers’ market. The world, I thought, could learn a lot right here. This is a neighborhood place where the walls have come down.

A recent book, The New Parish, asserts that one of the primary shortcomings of contemporary society is “living above place,” which is the tendency to develop structures that keep cause-and-effect relationships far apart in space and time where we cannot have firsthand experience of them. For example, you have probably experienced buying groceries without any idea where the food originated or who was involved in the production and delivery process. Living above place describes the process where this type of separation happens so frequently that we become disoriented to reality.

The result is “a cocooned way of life,” with people “unaware of how their lives really affect each other and the world.” The farmers’ market is about living in place, not above it. In a small parking lot next to the public library, people make new connections between the environment and food, family and nutrition, farmers and customers, economy and exchange, learning and teaching. In a real sense, the market serves as the neighborhood table.

The market has become a spiritual practice for me, one that I was actually longing for (although I could not have clearly articulated that in advance). Judging from the number of people who attend on a weekly basis, my neighbors find something meaningful at this gathering as well. Indeed, the farmers’ market in my neighborhood reflects a larger shift toward local food. From 1994 to 2014, the number of farmers’ markets known to the U.S. Department of Agriculture rose from 1,700 to over 8,000. More and more congregations have begun to host neighborhood farmers’ markets, trying to make overt the relationship between food, neighborhood, hospitality, and spirituality.

One of the most successful is St. Stephen’s Market at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Gary Jones, the senior minister at St. Stephen’s, refers to the market as the “Saturday congregation.” Every week, vendors bring their wares to the market, where the church also invites musicians to play, provides an onsite café, hosts food trucks, and offers activities for children. St. Stephen’s opened the market as an act of hospitality. Kate Ruby, the market manager says, “Everyone is welcome, the church, the neighborhood at large. Everyone is welcome at the market. Bring your dog. Bring your kids.” The purpose of the market is “connection,” a spiritual principle that the organizers trust makes the world better through care for the environment, building community, and teaching people how place and food are related. The market is also connected to larger issues of poverty and social justice: A “gleanings” program asks vendors to donate leftovers to the church’s food pantry, and various nonprofit organizations are given space to raise money for community causes.

Farmers’ markets are only one indication of a larger trend: the desire for meaningful local community and to locate in a place appears to be an ever-growing reality for vast numbers of people. A recent study of American adults showed that three-quarters of the population believe the nation’s economic future is dependent on the health and quality of local communities. Both the youngest and oldest American workers would rather choose a desirable place to live than a company to work for.

Desirable places, however, are of a certain type: good neighborhood schools, public-transportation options, creativity and diversity, the presence of family and friends, and the ability to walk to parks, libraries, and stores. According to the findings, “Traditional business recruitment strategies are seen as less important than investing in local amenities and quality of life. Job prospects and economic health are not the overriding factors for choosing where to live.” Sixty percent of respondents want to “age in place,” while nearly 80 percent seek housing with extra space for roommates or family members to create extended households. Additionally, 58 percent want to be part of communities where people share resources—like bikes, tools, cars, or Internet access—in relationships and business transactions of mutual trust.

As a result, the authors of the study argue that a “new economics of place” has emerged in American life that emphasizes the tie between a “stronger economy and stronger communities” with “quality neighborhoods” driving toward a more optimistic future. Sharing goods, living together, feeding one another, creating an alternate economy—it brings to mind a story in the New Testament where a group of strangers, having experienced a dramatic manifestation of God’s Spirit, formed a new community of generosity, hospitality, and mutual care (Acts 2:43–47; 4:32–35). Maybe people are not as selfish as we sometimes imagine. Our shared desires and innovative ideas are surprisingly neighborly.

Neighborhoods are made up of ordinary things. The farmers’ market, for example, is a gathering of regular people buying tomatoes or apples. Most of what happens on my street involves leaf blowers, teenage drivers, and dogs. People borrow shovels, swap used baby clothes, hold a yard sale, and surprise others with small gifts. It is about family and friends and acquaintances, about schools and churches and local parks.

When people say what they want in a neighborhood, they say that they want to be able to walk. Indeed, two-thirds of Americans list “walkability” as one of the most important characteristics in a desirable neighborhood. They want to move about in the place where they live, to feel the sun or the rain, to notice things, perhaps to pause and chat with a neighbor, to feel safe and secure on the streets, to wander around or follow a path. You cannot be above a place when you are walking through it. Some historians claim that the car killed American neighborhoods. Maybe walking can help make them anew.

Walking is a way of connecting, of feeling our feet on the ground, a very ordinary and surprisingly spiritual thing. Author Kathleen Norris writes of its power in her small book The Quotidian Mysteries. Making the case that God is best known to us in simple, daily activities, she shares that walking is a kind of “poetic meter” that “originates in the bodily rhythm of arms and legs in motion” and “reflects the basic rhythms of creation.” Another word for that rhythm, the rhythm of body, poetry, and creation, is prayer.

Praying while walking is an ancient practice. Buddhists have long noted the profound relationship between walking and meditation, emphasizing the harmony that develops between breath, movement, and attentiveness. Some Buddhist teachers point out that practitioners must keep their eyes open during walking meditation, something that creates an intense awareness of both other people and the beauty of creation and reminds the walker that meditation is ultimately for others. Indeed, to understand neighborhood, the deep wisdom that is present when people make a place together, we must learn to see with new eyes.

Our neighborhoods are not as often in decline as they are invisible, taken for granted and ignored. When I walk around the blocks near my house, I sometimes think of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s reflection: “Walking with ease and with peace of mind on the earth is a wonderful miracle.” I change the words a bit, however: “Walking with ease and with peace of mind around the neighborhood is a wonderful miracle.” We do not pay as much attention as we should to these places that we make, communities by happenstance of proximity, where every day we are presented multiple opportunities to practice the Golden Rule.

This article is excerpted from Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution.