"When you get your 'Who am I?' question right, all of your 'What should I do?' questions tend to take care of themselves." - Richard Rohr, Falling Upward
This quote has been one that has stuck with me since I first read this book over a decade ago because it so closely aligns with my journey of how I began my involvement with NeighborLink and what fueled my commitment to going deeper into the core issues we see in our work, and is aligned with the Lord’s call to serve professionally in a new space within the Kingdom.
As I’ve spent time in deep reflection and preparing the NL team during my transition, I’ve been documenting some of the main lessons learned over the past 13 years. One of our core values at NL is to be committed to learning, and a way we practice this value is to spend time each week during our staff meeting reflecting what we learned the week before with each other. It’s been transformative for our team the past two years. In that spirit, here are a few lessons I want to share with you.
WE ARE ALL A FEW CIRCUMSTANCES OR CHOICES AWAY
In 15 years of projects, I can confidently say that we’re all just a razor thin line away from needing the help of others in significant ways. What ultimately determines our ability to navigate life’s circumstances or the bad choices we’ve made is how deep our security net is or how broad and stable our community is. I’ve met incredible people that have lived healthy, productive lives who love Jesus who have bought their own home through hard work and raised a wonderful family just like I’m trying to do, not be able to afford to cover the hefty expenses of home maintenance because they made working class wages and weren’t able to build a retirement plan like I have been able to so far. I’ve met neighbors who were tragically injured while in the middle of helping someone on the side of the road with a car issue have their life completely changed and need help with mobility repairs to their home. I’ve also seen someone living paycheck to paycheck do all the right things have that cheap car they had to buy from a not-so-reputable car dealer break again and take any saving they may of have had, and now they can’t fix the hot water heater. I can resonate and see many of these issues happening in my own life, and it makes me that much more grateful each time I see NeighborLink volunteers come alongside their neighbors, who are desperate for community to help, and develop a relationship.
This lesson is what prompted my wife and me to be intentional about where we bought of first house. If we were going to be engaged in community development work, then we needed to be all in, to the point where the issues facing the neighborhood weren’t just issues to solve for others, they were ours to solve because we felt them too. I heard a community development expert say one time that you have to live and work in a place for 7-10 years before you can even begin to understand what the community needs. I thought that was exaggerated, but after 12 years living and working in a lower income area, I believe it whole heartedly. After 13 years of working with individuals aging in place and in various neighborhoods, we learn more every year about the systemic challenges pressing against great people. I can confidently say that NL embraces this philosophy at the core, and any future solutions that we present are because we are proximate to neighbors in need. We’re in the yards and homes of over 1,300 homeowners and dozens of neighborhoods around Fort Wayne every year. We hear the stories, learn from neighbors, and live intentional lives as a team.
VULNERABILITY MUST BE EMBRACED
Our society does not widely embrace vulnerability as a normal part of our daily lives, and often treats it like a liability. NL has taught me to recognize that we all have vulnerabilities every day, and just because I’m asking for help doesn’t mean I’m weak, broken, or unable to offer something in return from a where I am strong. My current vulnerability doesn’t mean I’m going to be vulnerable forever. I’ve learned many times that when I’m at my most vulnerable, it’s others that show up or whom I invited in my life with their strengths that help me move towards strength. Almost every project where I have gotten time to spend getting to know the neighbor I’m helping, I walk away feeling like I have been blessed more than I’ve been a blessing. They had a vulnerability in something that they couldn’t physically do that I could, and they had the ability to speak a word of encouragement, offer a prayer, or share a cold bottle of water with me when I needed it. NL is about relationships and connections, not just our ability to fix broken things. I have learned how to ask for help more freely and receive others’ blessings as their offering, rather than dismiss out of lack of need. Vulnerability can be a beautiful and harmonious transaction to be sought after rather than avoided.
SMALL THINGS CHANGE NEIGHBORHOODS
It is those individuals in our circles of awareness and influence that do the things that everyone sees and thinks that needs done. Ever since the first time I called a neighbor who now had an actual, physical neighbor helping them after I had been mowing their grass for months, I’ve become more aware of just how much everyone observes what’s going on around them, but rarely acts. What happened in that project is that the neighbor saw that there was a stranger showing up week after week to do something that had been done a certain way for a long time by the person I was helping. Eventually, the neighbors interacted outside in passing and questions were asked, awareness was gained, and generosity was offered. I see this most clearly in my own neighborhood when I see a neighbor who has faithfully filled a small bag of trash up twice a day as he walks his dog for years. This neighbor regularly gets celebrated for this simple act, as they should. It’s those small actions that have prompted other neighbors to take responsibility for the small things they see because they know they have a part to play in solidarity to the others. Not everyone is motivated to pick up trash, but we all have something we see in our daily lives that we wish someone would do something about. I’ve learned that this is the Holy Spirit’s way of talking to me and encouraging to own that aspect. If I see it, maybe I should be the one to do it. When I do this and when I’ve seen others do it, others are quick to show up and join in the efforts. It takes courage to be the one who moves first, no matter how small the task is.
I have a hundred other lessons learned that have impacted me over the years thanks to all the volunteers, board members, community partners, friends, neighbors, and supporters who have been gracious and generous to me over the years.
NeighborLink is so much more than its leader. Any success or praise that has come my way over the years is shared with the dedicated staff that are weaving their life and vocations together on a daily basis. They are the true operational power behind NeighborLink. And, beyond our staff, NeighborLink doesn’t exist or work without the hundreds of volunteers each year that move from a desire to do good and help to actually doing it. If you reflect on all that is involved in a simple 45-minute yard mowing project, you will see how monumental the efforts of NeighborLink volunteers are when you think about the completion of 1,300 projects a year.
Thank you for trusting me as Executive Director and for joining me in the front yards, on the roofs, in the streets, and in the living rooms of 10,000 tangible home repair projects in the past 13 years. I’m as confident as ever that the best years of NeighborLink are yet to come. I’ll see you on a project as a volunteer soon.
Grace and Peace,