Updated: Feb 2
“You just can’t do that” said a small group of new colleagues, looking horrified.
“Why not?” I asked, feeling a slight tightness in my chest. It was 2014 and I, an American in her early 30s, had just moved from Italy to England and was desperate to make new friends. I casually asked how to meet my neighbours and proposed knocking on their doors with some homemade treats to introduce myself. The troubled looks on their faces revealed this was culturally inconceivable.
My heart sank to a new level of lonely.
As a joke before marrying my British husband, a friend gifted me a book with the subtitle “The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour” in which pop anthropologist Kate Fox interviewed British taxi drivers about why house numbers were so difficult to find in Britain. "An Englishman’s home is his castle, right? He can’t actually have the moat-and-drawbridge, but he can make it bloody difficult to get to.” (Excuse the language… taxi drivers, eh?)
Was she ever right. I felt I lived on a long street of mini castles even though our tightly-packed homes all shared walls. But the castle-dilemma isn’t unique to Britain. Many cultures have long driveways or even gates (aka drawbridges) around their homes to close upon entry. Invisible cultural norms, busy schedules and perceived class and race barriers keep us from interacting with our neighbours.
The suggested solution from my new colleagues to break my isolation? “Just wait.”
"Wait for something to happen on the street. Perhaps a car accident or an mis-delivered Amazon package!” I wish this was a joke but alas, this was the actual advice given.
In other words, I needed a reason to be neighbourly. Well, in 2020 that reason came ripping down all our streets: a global pandemic.
When Covid-19 struck, I already knew a few of my neighbours. My small children, local park and clunky way of frequently introducing myself really helped on a small scale. But when news of a nationwide lockdown came, we all prepared for its impact. This time, instead of "just waiting," we pulled together and did just the opposite. Writing this from our now third lockdown I can say I wouldn’t be surviving without my neighbours.
How I’m coping these days can best summarized by the following: neighbours and Jesus. Our street community has been one of the major highlights for me during a pretty rubbish year. As a Christian, I can see why the Bible talks about us being created for community. I’ve had such beautiful opportunities to reach out to help a neighbour and also be served in return. It’s a reflection of the very generous heart of God and it couldn’t be more beautiful!
Perhaps you desire the same for your street. Maybe you’ve also experienced how the pandemic has pulled people together where you are. I’ve included 4 suggestions to get started (with or without Covid-19) as well as a short list of creative ideas to weather the rest of this pandemic with your neighbours.
1. It takes a Neighbour to be a Neighbour
As risky as it may feel, a neighbourhood community always needs to start somewhere. Why not with you? Jesus talks in Matthew 7 about taking the risk and being the neighbour you’d want to have. Would you like someone to bring your bins (trash) in from the street after collection? Would you like someone to drop by some cake to celebrate surviving another week of lockdown? Sure you would. Take the risk and initiate the neighbourly love and see what happens. It might take a bit more creativity in lockdown but all our needs are so much higher in this season and we all need our neighbours more than ever. Now really is the time!
2. Lead by Listening
Cultivate a level of kind curiosity about your neighbours. Remember details about their work, children’s names and how they respond to “How zoomed out are you?” the week before. Ask follow-up questions. As you develop a friendship over time be willing to share more vulnerably from your own life and be a safe person who can handle deeper conversation about real life. As a Christian I’ve offered to pray for neighbours and found it a privilege to remember their specific circumstances, especially during such a hard year, in prayer.
3. Teamwork Makes the Dream work
A phrase I often repeat with my children applies to our neighbourhoods as well: teamwork really does make the dream work. Community also starts small. Do you know one neighbour that shares a hobby with you? Perhaps it’s running or reading, sport or trips to a local coffee shop or pub. If you chat with this friend first it's easier (and less awkward) to invite others into it instead of a large invite. On our street a neighbour next door and I started a bookclub and my husband started a weekly football (erhm, soccer) night. What started small grew to include 15-20 of our neighbours and then expanded to running clubs, whisky clubs, park meet-ups and street parties to name a few. It’s always easy to invite a new neighbour to something that’s already established by a small group.
4. It’s your street, you can flyer if you want to
Perhaps you have a small community of your immediate neighbours started. There are around 100 homes on our street and there’s no way we’d get to know the others through front garden conversations alone. Consider posting a flyer through doors inviting your neighbours to a WhatsApp group, Facebook group or whatever online platform makes sense in your context. You can also use a flyer to invite to a specific event. We’ve used flyers to advertise for a Covid-19 help group for those self-isolating as well as summer street parties and Christmas parties. (I recommend the free website canva.com for quick flyer designs!)
As promised, here is a list of ways we’ve seen our neighbourhood grow and develop while in lockdown. (Please keep in mind all government guidelines and safety when organising events.)
• Socially distanced holidays: We celebrated Easter with a children’s scavenger hunt (paper eggs in windows) and zoom meet-up for adults, doorstep carols at Christmastime, socially-distanced Halloween and front garden parties for Victory in Europe day
• Running Club- if distanced exercise is allowed. Offer to run together during the week and organise a distance run to benefit a charity of choice.
• Zoom Pub Quiz: Nominate a quiz master and choose a family quiz or an adult-only quiz in the evening. Offer prizes!
• Community Art Installation: Use pavement chalk to start off a design and invite others to join, hand out small air-dry clay ornaments to neighbours and invite them to colour or paint on them to hang on a prominent tree, invite neighbours to decorate their windows and honour front-line workers with their designs
• Street Read-Along: Invite adults and children to record themselves reading their favourite picture book and post the videos on a street YouTube channel
• Parachute or Zip-line Challenge: Challenge households to create their own zip line or parachute for teddy bears and film their creations to share
• Socially Distanced Olympics- Invite neighbours to create individual events in their front gardens and a map for children to tick off when they’ve completed each activity
• Organise a collection- Contact a charity (if you’re in the UK check out GAiN UK) which takes donations for refugees or those in need and offer your home as a drop-off centre. Collect food for a local food bank.
• Street Book Swap - Invite neighbours to bring their unwanted books to display in an outdoor location and take a few books home with them.
• Whisky or Coffee Club - If restrictions and weather allow, a socially distanced whisky club or morning coffee meet-ups
• Arrange a food or coffee truck - During the hardest of lockdowns we supported local businesses by organising a coffee truck and a pizza truck to park on our street. It really lifted everyone’s spirits!
• Fancy Dress (Costume) Daily Exercise - We’ve seen huge dinosaurs, clowns and even bananas walking down our street during their daily exercise in the toughest of lockdowns
• Litter Pick - Set a time or day for a distanced litter pick to keep your street clean!
• Covid-19 Help Group Text- We have a specific WhatsApp (group text) group for those willing to help others get supplies or have a conversation for those feeling lonely. We also included a phone number of a point-person on the flyer for the elderly who might not have a smart phone.
1 Kate Fox (2004) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.
Lauren Dixon is an American living on one of the best streets in Birmingham, England with her husband and 3 small children, the youngest born during a Covid-19 lockdown. She has worked with the charity Agapé in the UK and Italy for the last 14 years and enjoys dinner parties, home reno and adventures with friends. She doesn’t enjoy being locked indoors, zoom-schooling or providing 1,500 snacks a day despite spending the majority of the last year engaging in these activities.