A week ago I listened to a presentation by David Orr about “global climate disruption” (aka global warming) and what to do about it.  Orr suggested that one thing we need to recover in the face of climate change is the understanding of neighbor as a verb.  I have been asking myself, what would this mean?

Once upon a time we lived in communities...can we return to 'neighboring'?

Once upon a time we lived in communities...can we return to 'neighboring'?

I have heard people, mostly of my grandparents’ generation, talk of neighboring together.  For them neighboring meant forming a cooperative relationship—a space of care.  A “when I’m out of town you’ll feed my animals and when you’re out of town I’ll feed your animals” sort of thing.

What neighboring means when done well and completely is a network of dependency—relationships that double the joys and half the sorrows.  Through this network we are allowed to take risks and slough off excess because we don’t have to supply all of our own needs.

One of my favorite parts of spring is backpacking on the Ouachita or Ozark Highlands trail.  When backpacking you must carry everything needed to survive and be comfortable for a few days in the woods.  It helps, when backpacking with friends, to split the weight—one person carrying the tent poles another the tent, one person carrying the cook stove and another the cook pans.  We don’t all need our own pans, our own stove or our own tent.  To insist on carrying it all ourselves would mean that we demand a heavy burden.

Yet this is very much what we do in our home lives.  We have whole blocks of houses next to each other with garages full of lawn equipment and tools that stay there most of the time.  Why does any street need more than a couple of lawn mowers?  Because we are unwilling to do the work of neighboring together.   We are left to carry all the load ourselves.

We don’t even neighbor in our own households.  I have been in too many houses with TVs in every room.  Why?  So that everyone can watch what they want.  iPods and other personal media devices are accomplishing the same effect in a more extreme way.  I’ve seen kids sitting together watching their own movies on their own iPods—we can’t even share the experience of entertainment!

Beyond the devastation to our culture it should also be obvious what this lack of neighboring means for the environment.  When we don’t neighbor we have to have our own car, our own computer, our own lawnmower, our own etc.  Consumption multiplies exponentially.

So how do we begin to neighbor?  For Christians part of the answer will surely mean transforming another noun to a verb—we need to church together.  What if we actively looked for ways to be dependent upon one another in our churches?

Of course this will be difficult without relationships of proximity.  How can we church if we aren’t neighbors?  Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis is a great example of what it means for a church to neighbor together.  Many members of the church have rehabbed abandoned houses near the church and moved into the neighborhood.  For them there is no distinction between churching together and neighboring together.  It isn’t always easy, they will tell you.  But if you go there you will see that the Kingdom is clearly present.

So we must begin to neighbor, to develop networks of dependence.  We must divide the burden to live lighter, happier lives.

Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield (M.Div. Virginia Theological Seminary) is ordained in the Episcopal Church and serves a parish in his native Arkansas. is the author of 'This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit and Deeper Faith', 'Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us',and the small collection of essays 'Farming as a Spiritual Discipline'. Ragan works to live the good life in partnership with his wife Emily and daughters Lillian and Lucia.

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