As I prep for an ABCD Training for the Public Library Association next week in Chicago, I am moved to revisit some of my favorite stories I’ve encountered of people changing the world starting right outside their front door, acting with the belief that such change starts with rediscovering the art of neighboring, practicing hospitality, & nurturing relationships.
One of these stories is of Don and Terry L. Vande Krol, a husband & wife team, who when I met them at the time were living about 40 miles South of me in North Port, FL. About a year back, they decided the answer to “How can we live in a more connected community?” was to just try something to make that happen.
So, they began by simply inviting their neighbors over once a week, with devout consistency & easy-going openness, to sit in a circle and answer the simple question, “How was your week?” Then there would be a topic or an idea that had usually emerged from the following week for everyone to spend a bit of time chewing over together. Then, they dug into a potluck meal and just hung out. This tradition became known as Neighbors Gathering.
Seems pretty simple, sweet, nice… but when I had the opportunity thru my work then at SCOPE to sit down with some of those neighbors and ask for their stories of personal and collective transformation, my own belief in the power of this seemingly simple work was exponentially expanded and deepened.
How had simply getting together with neighbors once a month affected their lives?
I heard one story of a man who met a neighbor, another man of about his age, maybe a little older, thru Neighbors Gathering. Since this younger man has some carpentry skills, he offered to build the other guy a ramp when he learned thru the weekly meet-up that this neighbor could use one. Just so happened that the younger man was struggling with alcohol addiction, and the older man had beat this addiction himself. A bond was formed which enabled the younger guy to connect with other folks working toward the same goal, which massively helped him in his own journey out of addiction.
Another guy, a relatively solitary fellow, reported that he had found the super useful resource of finding neighbors who would happily watch his cat when he traveled, but also acknowledged a subtle but strong change in his quality of life by simply knowing the people who lived around him, and feeling part of a community.
And I’ll never forget an older woman who shared with utmost sincerity, “Neighbors Gathering has restored my faith in humanity.”
The more I listened, watched, and soaked up the interactions in the Neighbors Gathering space, I became convinced that these few stories, a scratch on the surface on the ecosystem of care, exchange, problem-solving and significant human transformation that flowed from these folks gathering in a circle once a week.
I also had the great honor to be welcomed into a few of these gatherings over the course of several months – at which I was delighted to learn that, even tho I had made a 45 min hike down from Sarasota and certainly didn’t live down the block, here I was considered a neighbor — because “A neighbor is someone who we care about and who cares about us,” in the culture of Neighbors Gathering.
Apart from the simplicity of the gathering and the infectious hospitality of the space, one of the things that struck me most was how diverse the group was in terms of age, background, personality, etc. Perhaps because most of our neighborhoods in the US are quite segregated, there was only so much diversity one could expect within a 4-5 block radius, but despite this, it was not the usual “hang with your crowd” type feel I always encounter, to my own dismay, when usually going out and about.
I was moved to revisit the site that Don & Terry built to share some tools so that others might experiment with their own gatherings, and came across this beautiful quote from Don…
“Our soul is enriched by having a diversity of friends and neighbors that we care deeply about who differ from us.”
…and I wonder, “What would the world look like now if we all did some little thing differently each day, week, or month based upon this conviction?
How would our nation be moved toward a more collectively intelligent reality, in which our politics, identities, and social interactions now seem more dominated than ever by how much more right we are than “those people”? How much less would our human service agencies and other institutions be crying out for more funding so they can solve community issues — since neighbors would now be engaged in solving those for and with each other, and only turning to such services when absolutely necessary?
And I say, this would be so to the same degree that Don & Terry restored MY faith in humanity by their repeated action each week to welcome new, different faces into their homes, break bread with them, and inquire into their lives — “exponentially.”
Maybe starting now, or come the New Year, those of us who feel so moved, who — whichever side of the political spectrum we sit upon, are frustrated by the news reports and general state of things — can all begin to experiment together.
As the holidays embrace us, let us ask ourselves:
“What small, repeated action can I take, which I would enjoy enough that I’m willing to commit to doing, that will bring my life closer together with those who are different than me?”
My own answer right now?
To carve out more consistent time to hold space for people on my block to meet & spend time with one another.
(P.S. Terry & Don, I miss you guys so much and you continue to be such a deep inspiration to me.)
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