After four years of frustration and failure to really engage my community and neighborhood, I began this year with a repentant heart to love my neighbors with greater intentionality. I started a Next Door neighborhood and identified a square mile of my city to be “my neighborhood”. Things started off fairly well, and after a couple of months, I had first-hand knowledge of about 20 neighbors.
As the year unfolded, I began to find myself in a fog with a number of factors (personally and ministerially speaking) contributing to a state of malaise and detachment. It was not until our recent vacation that God used long hours of reflection and prayer to bring clarity and direction to everyday life. One of the first areas I wanted to address was my continual repentance in turning toward (as opposed away) from my neighbors. I asked God to help me re-engage in meaningful ways to make a difference where I live.
Two weeks ago today, I was riding bikes with my son when I look over a tree and saw a large black plume of smoke billowing into the sky. I knew a house was on fire. I rushed my son inside and sped over on my bike to see if I could be of any help. I arrived just as the mother and daughter ran from the house and the fire took over the garage, propelled by several propane tanks. After notifying neighbors to get out of their home, I watched on the street a house go up in flames. It was a crazy sight to see.
As I stood there helpless, I could not help but think about the family who just lost their home. They were my neighbors but I did not know them. All I knew is that everything they owned was destroyed. After being interviewed by local news, I went home to put my kids in bed. It was a rainy evening, and as we prayed together at their bedside, I realized how such a tragedy could have happened to us. I came into the living room burdened and heavy-hearted. I told my wife that I needed to go back to find the father (who I have never met or talked to) because it is likely he won’t be coming back around any time soon with his house gone. But it was raining. We were practically strangers. I’m sure he didn’t want to talk to anyone. At least I tried to help out earlier. Those were the things that kept coming to my mind as justification for me laying down on my couch in my air-conditioned, smoke-free living room. Knowing the merciful thing to do, I was looking for a way to avoid the situation like priest and Levite.
By God’s grace, I did not listen to myself. The conviction of my repenting heart and clarity of what I sensed God doing in my life brought me to a “Jericho moment.” No, I did not hear a voice from heaven or have some surreal sensation. I look outside at the smoke still visible through the rain and felt like Jesus telling me, “I want you to take responsibility for your neighbor’s loss like I’ve taken responsibility for your sin. Love your neighbor as I have loved you, and take ownership of their need as if I were there doing it myself.” I didn’t hear those exact words, but that impression was more real to me that night than I can express.
I got on my bike and headed to the burned down house to find the husband and father. As the firefighters wrapped up their work, I saw him squatting down at the edge of his driveway with tears in his eyes. As I approached him, I prayed under my breath that God would grant me favor with my neighbor. I introduced myself to him and told him who I was and how sorry I was for his loss. I explained I was a Christian and local pastor and wanted to help. He replied, “You are a Christian?” I said, “Yes, sir, and I want to help.” Come to find out, he had just recently come to faith in Jesus Christ, as did his wife earlier in the year. We talked briefly, wept together, prayed together, and then exchanged contact information.
It was around midnight that night that God began putting in my heart how I could serve this family. The one thing that kept come back to my mind was how in situations like this in life, the bad news gets all the press. We are bad people (sinners) living in a bad news world (as the news reporter told me, “if it bleeds, it leads”). Yet God has given us good news in Jesus Christ. Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more! His good news is greater than our bad news, and He is making all things new. In this situation, my prayer was that the good news for once would be bigger than the bad news. As God gave me strength, I was determined to see that happen on earth, in my neighborhood, as it is in heaven.
After spending some time with the family looking at their house, I grabbed my whiteboard and went to planning. My hope was to get the media, fire department, and local businesses to support an effort of local neighbors to rally around this family and should some of the burden they now bear. After announcing the donation party at our house, we set up an online form for donation planning for church members and those in the community. Within 24 hours, we had already received over $500 in gift cards and nearly a dozen bags of groceries! Needless to say, I was really encouraged.
Over the following week, I leveraged all my community networking and social media to get the word out so that others could get involved. Local news reported on the party, Publix and Wal-Mart set up grocery drop-off centers for donations at the front of their stores, and the city fire department also spread the word and made all stations drop off centers as well. Chick-fil-a, Panera Bread, and Domino’s all donated large amounts of food and drinks for the party as well. In the end, we had over 75 people show up for the party in spite of two downpours with 8 suitcases of clothes, 30 bags of groceries, and over $1400 in gift cards and cash for the family. It was a blast!
While I was praying to be faithful in this Jericho moment, I kept battling fear, frustration, and a sense self-preservation. What if no one comes through? What if nothing is donated? What if all this energy is spent in vain? All those what-if’s can mess you up, if you know what I mean. Three verses that kept coming back to me in the midst of unbelief and pride were:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
1 John 3:16-18
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
One of the great joys I had over the past two weeks was going door-to-door informing neighbors about the donation party and opportunity to help out. I had prayed for a way to re-engage, and God allowed me to meet more than double the neighbors I knew before this tragic event. Through their interest and generosity, our Next Door network doubled in size with families joining on almost a daily basis. I am excited about the new relationships formed with my neighbors, not the least of which is the Martinez family who have become so dear to us through their tragedy.
As a pastor seeking to live as a missionary in my city, there are some lessons I’ve learned through this that I thought would be worth passing along:
- The importance of building rhythms in the community as a pastor. I knew the managers and employees of the businesses who supported our donation party long before the need arose, so when I asked them for their support, they were talking to a friend, not a stranger. Building relational equity in the community does a long way when you have a need like this.
- Being competent in the social networking world pays off in the real world. Almost all of my communication (including with local news outlets) came initially through social networking (Facebook especially). Through sharing stories and statuses, the possibility of opportunities going viral is real. The Cape Coral Fire Department plug along had 89 shares in our community.
- One of the highlights of the party for me was having my son’s t-ball coach and family come out and bring donations. One of our goals with my son playing t-ball would be building relationships with the other nine families with kids, most of whom are not Christians. To see the missional efforts cross paths in this manner was quite cool and reminds me that we are weaving a fabric of missional engagement in the city that is intended to cover the city with the gospel in word and deed.
- The personal dividends as well as community impact has gone much further than this tragedy. Not only are the Martinez family no longer strangers, they have become more than neighbors but like family to us. Our garage is their garage. Our stuff has become their stuff. But not only that, our community is pitching in ways that go beyond food or clothing or money to pursuing relationships and service to one another. Even now as I write this blogpost, I just received a message from a neighbor wanting to educate children in our neighborhood on what to do in case of a fire.
As I look back on this Jericho moment the past two weeks, I am excited to see what God has done. Taking the trash out the other day, I noticed my neighbor talking to one of her friends and pointing at me. I looked, smiled, and waved to them. My neighbor then yelled, “I was just telling my friend, ‘That’s my neighbor Tim!'” That meant more to me than she could realize. God is not finished writing my own story–one where I pray repentance sings and my neighbor’s hear the song in the chorus of my everyday life.