Holy Attention: Seeing your neighborhood with new eyes

By Steve Matthews

“If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors’ prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities – and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared.
(pg. 59, “Racism and the Economy”)” 
― Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

What do you know about your neighbors?  What about the neighbors around your church building?  Is your knowledge based on your intuition, some good research (hopefully utilizing some of the excellent data available to you through FaithX)?  Is your knowledge more anecdotal, based on passing observations or the stories of others?  Each of these lenses offers some perspective on the neighborhoods around your churches, but they are only part of the picture.  

Another valuable way of learning more about our neighbors and neighborhoods is the scientific practice of direct observation.  What can we learn by simply noticing?  There are many ways to notice.  When I walk in my neck of the woods, I can marvel at (or criticize) landscaping or in- process home renovations. Sometimes I notice people and offer a greeting.  Most of the time though, I am simply on my way somewhere and not really paying much attention.

In my work with local clergy, I often invite them to take an hour long walk with me through the neighborhoods surrounding their churches.  Sometimes, people know their neighborhoods really well. Sometimes they are completely surprised by what they find.  For example, one priest discovered a path from the neighborhood through the woods toward the church.  We followed it and while there was some litter, it mostly seemed to be a place of exploration used by neighborhood kids (whom she had never met).  One priest discovered a silk screen artist just around the corner from the church.  He said, “I wish I had known he was here, because I just ordered t-shirts for the church carnival online.”  Our neighbors and neighborhoods are filled with pleasant surprises and treasures, if we only have eyes and hearts to see.

The adjustments we have made to stay safe from COVID-19 have not been fun, and many of the restrictions and protocols have cut us off from our familiar ways of knowing and relating to people.  Even so, there are still life-giving ways to know and learn more about our church’s neighborhoods.  With the right precautions, we can take neighborhood walks.  We can practice direct observation. While the weather is still nice, I invite you to take a deliberate walk around the neighborhoods surrounding your church (perhaps inviting someone to join you).  What do you see that you haven’t seen before?  Where is the beauty?  Do you see hope and/or despair?  What businesses do you notice?  Where is the natural world flourishing or struggling?  Do you see or hear birds?  What are you seeing for the first time?  

I encourage you to take this walk prayerfully.   Maybe you decide to take a break and sit somewhere and rest with prayerful attention.  Once you complete the walk, reserve some time to record your observations about what you have seen, but also take some time to notice what is stirring in you.  Is the Spirit beginning to shape an invitation for you that might benefit this neighborhood?

If you’d like to see your congregation’s neighborhood with new eyes, we can help you do just that. To find out more, click here