Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

By Giles H. Florence, Jr.

Associate Editor

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    I can still remember the summer evening I turned the corner into our neighborhood and saw long tables and lawn chairs lining the street in rows. The scene resembled a sidewalk cafe spontaneously taking shape. People were busy spreading paper over tabletops, arranging the gas and charcoal grills at one end of the street, setting up a sound system and record player in a driveway, and hanging a volleyball net between two poles on a lawn. The annual neighborhood potluck dinner was almost underway.

    Alan and Verla Jones, our ward mission leaders, coordinate the tradition. In fact, they had started it even before they became ward mission leaders. Within minutes my family and I joined the streams of people funneling from various directions into the haze of barbecue smoke at the center of the thickening conviviality.

    Brother Jones’s easy laugh and mildly raspy voice could be distinguished above the others as he went about introducing various new neighbors and first-timers to others who had gathered. After five years now, the need for introductions has been reduced to two or three new people each time.

    Like many neighborhoods, ours consists of those who have lived here since it was built and those who have just moved in—more non-Mormons than Mormons in both categories. “We just like the idea of knowing our neighbors,” Verla Jones says, explaining how it all began. “We’re all so busy otherwise. It gives nonmembers and members a chance to meet as people, as neighbors.”

    “Here in Salt Lake, nonmembers tend to think that everything we do is intended to persuade them to get baptized,” Alan adds. “That’s not our reason for doing it. We’ve made some terrific friends in the neighborhood that we probably wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

    Thanks to the Joneses, the rest of us have, too.

    Pockets of acquainted people chat as Alan makes the rounds to see that no one goes without an introduction. Soon all are seated, and a blessing is asked on the food and on the community. After dinner, there are games on the adjoining lawns and then a street dance.

    This happens every year, and feelings in the neighborhood between members and nonmembers are better because of it. Sometimes the Church is mentioned, but usually not. This year, the Joneses have both sons on missions, so I expect that some of the nonmembers may hear about how they are doing. Generally, everyone seems to appreciate each other better as they get acquainted at these gatherings. “All it takes, really, is for one or two people to keep the thing going,” remarks Alan. “One year people may feel like coming, another year they may not be able to or feel like it. But it kind of gives the neighbors a chance to sit and get to know each other personally.”

    Members like Alan and Verla Jones are building bridges between people in many ways. For instance, one nonmember who had come to the dinner for the first time mentioned to someone there that he was going to paint his fence the next week. The number of members who showed up the next week to help him paint the fence truly impressed him. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “People often say things like ‘Oh, we’d like to help,’ but this neighborhood blew me away. It was fantastic. People here do seem to love their neighbors.”

    A ward in California has found a completely different way of fellowshipping their neighbors. Each month the Palo Alto Second Ward, Menlo Park California Stake, invites the community into its meetinghouse for an evening of classical music. As often as not, those performing on the program are not members of the Church, sometimes not even members of the community.

    Since the Menlo Park chapel is on Ensign Street, these events have become known to the public as the Ensign Street Concerts. “The concerts range from amateur to professional,” explains Nina Price, ward cultural arts specialist and the creator of the series. “The intention has been to reach out to the community with a high-quality evening of entertainment. Our goal is to share something of beauty that we value; there is no intention of trying to preach the gospel directly, either with displays or commentary. We think our greatest force for good is simply to offer the good taste and inspiration implicit in the music.”

    The free concerts have now run monthly for more than two years and have been of exceptionally high quality. Last Christmas season, the program was an organ concert and vocal ensemble that played largely seasonal music to a capacity crowd. On one occasion, an accomplished ward pianist and the Palo Alto Philharmonic gathered together in the multipurpose room to play a piano concerto. Vocalists, violinists, and other musicians have volunteered their time and talents, contributing to this unique effort to share the fellowship of music with their neighbors.

    The Norman Second Ward in the Norman Oklahoma Stake has found another way to reach out a hand of fellowship and share common values. Once a year, “the ward nominates an outstanding nonmember family as ‘Family of the Year’ here in Norman,” says Marge Land, who writes an article about the winning family for the local paper each year.

    Honoring families who are successful and who have high standards is one way of stressing the importance of the family, ward leaders decided. Each year, a committee from the ward is appointed to consider candidate families in the community. The family chosen may be one that exemplifies unity, togetherness, or family spirit. It may be a family that has dealt with a particular difficulty courageously. Or it may be a family that has made a substantial contribution to the community through service.

    Many stakes, wards, and individuals throughout the Church have devised ways to reach out into the community. Some have chosen to provide a service, such as a food or clothing drive for the poor, a meal to the homeless, a sub-for-Santa, or a clean-up project. Some have offered seminars or training in emergency preparedness, food storage, or family history. One family who lived near a vacant lot contacted the owner, who lived out of state, and asked for permission to plant and cultivate a garden on the spot. Once they got permission, they informed their neighbors that space was available for growing vegetables and fruit. Now instead of being an eyesore, that property is a place of beauty and industry all summer long—a place where neighbors visit and work side by side. It supplies food for their tables and an equally delicious banquet of fellowship for people who knew little about each other before one family reached out to their neighbors.

    Many neighborhoods have such events. They are a pleasant way for members of the Church to fellowship neighbors. But reaching out to our neighbors doesn’t need to involve a formal event. We need only be alert to the needs of those around us to discover ways to assist and bless and fellowship. When we bake, why not bake something for the widower down the street? When we fix a pot of stew or a casserole, could we carry some over to one who may not have the time to cook? When it’s raining, could one of our children take an elderly person’s newspaper, garbage can, or mail up to the house? When we discover a real bargain on some commodity, could we call the divorcée or another neighbor whose budget is as tight as our own with the news? There is no end to the tiny acts of kindness that can brighten others’ lives without taking much time.

    To be a fellowshipping neighbor is perhaps more an attitude than an event. It is an attitude of mind that impels us to discover ways to serve and enjoy the fellowship of others. It moves us to reach out and consider what we “would that men should do” to us; and then do “even so to them.” (Matt. 7:12; see also Luke 6:31; 3 Ne. 14:12.)

    Illustrated by Jon Burton