Won’t you be my neighbor?

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by Allison Vander Broek

It’s the start of August—nearing the end of summer. We’ve still got a month till the school year starts up and I’m already feeling nostalgic and sad, wishing time would slow down or we might add just one more month to stop summer from dwindling away.

My world has shrunk very small this summer. School’s out for a few months and I’m halfway through my dissertation, spending most of my days locked away sorting through sources or frantically writing a few more pages.

And thus, I live in my tiny little world here in Boston, accompanied by a couple of friends who live just down the road, my roommate, the handful of people at my little neighborhood church, the baristas at the new hipster coffee shop down the block, and my thousands and thousands of primary sources. Oh and Twitter and the news, of course, which is definitely not good for my psyche or soul.

The other day I caught myself lamenting this sad existence as I wrapped up writing another dissertation chapter. The Liturgists had just released a new worship meditation for patrons (best $5 a month I’ve ever spent). It had a simple refrain: “Keep my heart open.” I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Then on Sunday morning at church, our rector Amy had spent some time talking about one of the songs we sing during Communion—also with a similar refrain: “Open my heart.” As I thought about both those things, I threw myself a bit of a pity party about how closed off this summer has felt—how closed off I’ve felt this summer.

This pity party continued for several days. Then I came home one night to find my roommate and one of our neighbors at the kitchen table. I joined them and we had a great discussion about family, friends, careers, immigration, and American politics (a few of our downstairs neighbors are immigrants applying for asylum in the US). The next night I had another good conversation with one of our other neighbors in the building.

I thought a little more about this summer and realized maybe it wasn’t such a waste and maybe I hadn’t been as closed off as I’d thought. Because, honestly, one of the best parts of this summer has been finally getting to know my neighbors. Kind of unexpectedly, we’ve done a lot of fun stuff this summer—a party over Memorial Day weekend, a BBQ, celebrated Eid together, and have had many a random chat coming in or out of our building.

Now that might sound completely normal and utterly unremarkable to most of you—to know one’s neighbors. But in Boston, we don’t do that. Or at least not very often. I’ve tried in previous apartments but have mostly been greeted with suspicious stares. I’m starting year 6 here in Boston and this is my first time actually knowing every single neighbor in my building. It’s a summer miracle, one I badly needed.

I’m generally pretty enthusiastic about pushing myself and others to think big when it comes to the question: “Who is my neighbor?” But maybe just for this season—when my world has gotten so small and when the rest of the world sometimes seems too daunting and overwhelming—it’s okay to focus on the small and celebrate the joys of true neighborliness. I might not feel like I did much else this summer, but I’m happy to have the chance to practice that neighborliness again. And that’s a win in my book. Or at the very least it’s a start.

Allison Vander Broek is a PhD candidate at Boston College studying American religious history. She is currently working on a dissertation tentatively titled “Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Antiabortion Movement Before Roe” in which she explores the grassroots organizing that built the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

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