This summer, Ward Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Northville, Mich., is learning how to engage and befriend the people God has placed in its path. But turning neighbors into friends feels like it’s becoming a lost art. In people’s hectic lives, the last thing many want to do is try and cultivate any kind of relationship with those living on the other side of the privacy fence. And yet, that’s exactly what Mike and Jen List set out to do when they moved on to Harrison Street in Livonia, Mich., in 2014.
It may seem like that kind of neighborhood community now only lives in sitcoms and the memories of an older generation. But the Lists are proving that all it takes for authentic community to exist between neighbors is good food, warm hospitality, and a willingness to invite some intimacy and vulnerability into your lives.
It all started with apples.
The Lists’ home is situated on a full acre of land, and with that came a half a dozen or more apple trees. The apple harvest was plentiful in 2015, so they had an idea—invite the neighbors to help bring in the harvest, and then stick around and enjoy some of the fruits of their labors (pun intended). It wasn’t an entirely mercenary scheme. Jen had grown up in a close-knit neighborhood where everyone knew each other, and life easily flowed between homes. She wanted that again, especially for her two young daughters.
“Neighbors were a big part of my life. We did everything with them,” Jen said. “So, when we moved here in Livonia, for me it was important to meet our neighbors.”
Even before they moved into their home, they came trick-or-treating in the neighborhood in hopes of meeting new people and establishing relationships. The harvest party was a natural next step for them in meeting more people. They printed flyers and went door to door, inviting everyone to their inaugural List Family Harvest Party.
“I like the quote, ‘If you’ve been blessed, build a bigger table, not a higher fence,” Mike said. “We thought it would be cool to have this Harvest Party. And we really did have a lot of apples.”
That first year, the turnout was modest, but the Lists started building friendships with those who came—especially two young families who lived nearby. Year after year, the harvest party grew. More families came. A chili cook-off was added, as well as doughnut taste-testing as people brought fresh doughnuts from cider mills around the state. The Harrison Street community grew with it.
“This is your community, whether you like it or not,” Jen said. “Regardless, you are sharing life with your neighbors so you might as well make the most of it.”
The Lists have hosted people from across the cultural spectrum. Musician friends, neighbor friends, work friends, church friends; people who would not necessarily hang out together have met at the List Family Harvest Party.
“Then you find out that random people know each other, or know someone who knows someone else, it shows just how small the world really is,” Jen said.
This is where my family and I come in. We also moved onto Harrison Street in 2014. We lived a further down the road from the Lists, so didn’t meet them or learn about the annual harvest party until another life event threw us in their path. We met at the corner bus stop when our son and the Lists’ daughter were in kindergarten together. It’s amazing the conversations you have when you are waiting 15 minutes for the bus to show up. Soon, the Lists invited us to one of their “neighbor dinners” that they host throughout the year for young families living in and around Harrison Street.
To say that knowing them—and the other people we’ve met on our street—has been a blessing would be an understatement. I grew up not knowing my neighbors in any intimate way, but I had always longed for that. In fact, I had been praying for nearly three years to meet some families in the neighborhood with whom we could do life together.
For those of us in this neighbor friend group, we’ve seen the potential for spiritual conversations to emerge—even when not all the friends are Christians. Having a trusted relationship has opened doors to conversations and questions.
“Inviting people over was never about a mission or a project, but just a way to make friends,” Mike said. “However, conversations naturally come out of that because you are already a community.”
The community has grown to neighborhood text chains and sharing of resources. Tools, equipment, food—you name it, we share it. In addition to being a gardener, tree farmer, and musician, Mike also is a beekeeper, barista, and baker. Every once and a while we find baskets of bread and honey on our doorstep. My daughter has dubbed him the “bread fairy.”
In addition to summertime neighbor dinners, we plan holiday parties, birthday parties, camping trips, and bonfires. When my daughter was in the hospital for a few days in 2019, we came home to the neighborhood guys raking all the leaves in our yard.
“I feel like our neighborhood community has become one of the strongest communities we are a part of,” Jen said.
This community of friends and neighbors on Harrison Street exists today thanks to a family who didn’t wait for people to reach out to them. They reached out to others, opened their home, and allowed those seeds to produce a harvest of friendship.
More ideas for reaching your neighborhood
Want to start building a community in your neighborhood but not sure where to start? Do what comes naturally to you! Here are some ideas to start with. Just start reaching out. You never know who you might meet or what friendships might emerge!
- Make cookies and drop off on doorsteps with a note.
- Hang out in your front yard.
- Hand out free lemonade to people walking by.
- Plan a neighborhood bonfire.
- Do a Rake and Run, or help with yard work or snow removal (e.g., clean the sidewalks after a big snow).
- Build a little free library or use that space as a small food pantry.
- Plan a neighborhood potluck and cookout.
- Walk your neighborhood and stop and chat with people you pass (just be open to conversations that might happen spontaneously).
- Be a curious person and genuinely interested in the people and things you might see around your neighborhood.
- Take it upon yourself to keep your neighborhood clean, such as picking up any litter you find.
- Be present and pay attention to the needs of your neighborhood. Is there a neighbor who seems like they might need a hand with something? Offer your help, but not in a pushy way.
by Kelly Skarritt-Williams
Ward Church Director of Digital Marketing and Communications