I have been a part of the Missional conversation now for over a decade. In these circles, the debate of being local in community practice or affiliation driven never seems to get old. These demands for drawing lines of inclusion and exclusion, who’s in and who’s out, tend to infuriate me a bit as no matter what side you lean to, you always seem to exclude someone. I mean, who really has the authority to determine a person’s relational belonging & boundary lines anyways?
Then I saw a short film called ‘Agents Of Connection’. It moved me and opened my eyes to a renewing thought. Being local is not about finding yourself in a singular defined place or land; it’s not about becoming a “booth troll”. Being a local means being rooted in the relationships of any and all places to which you find yourself in while recognizing how those connections extend beyond just one point of place and time. You are a local because you are open to connection and letting the place you are in see you for who you are. You are a local because you engage those around you by seeing their connections and who and what they are. You are a local because as an agent of connection, your presence and story extends beyond just one particular place and time; you belong with others.
Who am I? It is a question that I end up asking everyday as I enter different spaces of my neighbourhood and community. The funny thing is, if I am truly honest, my environment speaks into my identity just as much as I can say I speak of my presence into it. The best way I can find belonging, and who I am in any one place, is by being open to the ways I am connecting with my environment and those who are in it.
Think about it, when you enter into your local coffee shop, how do the people around you greet you? Maybe they are energetic, smiling as they say hello and ask about your day. Or, withdrawn because they sense you are not really wanting to be bothered and are just quickly grabbing your order before running out the door. Does the places you find yourself in seem to perceive the type of person you are and respond accordingly? Maybe it is because of the ways you are presenting your relational connectivity.
My friends Tim & Sue are geniuses when it comes to creating spaces for open relational connectivity. Last year they really wanted to use the Halloween season to connect more with their neighbours in NE Calgary, but like most people in the suburbs, they live in a home with an attached garage and no front porch. In years past, they would answer their door to the kids knocking and crowd around the front entrance hoping to find an opportunity to talk with their neighbours. But instead, the children would be standing in the doorway while their parents would often be standing down on the sidewalk and the most they would be able to do to connect with them would be a polite distant wave of hello.
This particular year they were going to do something different, they were going to become more relationally connective by making their home more open to their neighbours. Opening their garage door and setting up some chairs for sitting in while providing candy for the kids and hot chocolate for passers by trying to keep warm, Tim & Sue created a space where they could be closer to and host not just their neighbours kids, but their parents too. People came right into their home, sat in a shared makeshift living room and told stories about who they are, struggles that were happening in the community, and even made plans for future get togethers and opportunities for sharing life. Things only possible because my friends Tim & Sue opened themselves and their home for relational connection, allowing their neighbours to see them for who they truly are.
Being aware of our own openness to relational connection is only one part of what it means to practice being local. We also need to notice and recognize the many ways spaces and others around us present opportunities to engage and connect with who and what they are.
In the summer particularly, I like to wheel around my neighbourhood and see who I can run into of my neighbours. Canadian winters can sometimes make it hard to create those spontaneous moments of connection but, when I can, I like to catch up with my local peop’s and hear what’s new in life. At the same time, I like to take an inventory of the new and old store fronts while making plans to visit them and see what they are about. When I go into these places, the first thing I notice and ask is who and what kind of people seem to be here? Is this a place I can just hangout in or come and return to often? And, how do the people here seem to react to my being there; what are their attitudes like - are they friendly, open, observant? Particularly, when it is a store front, I try to catch the staff’s name tags so I can learn their names.
After living in my SE Calgary neighbourhood for the last 18 years, I have got to know a lot of my neighbours through these simple acts. But I’ve really got to know them on a much deeper level as I fostered the relationships these opportunities created. Recognizing neighbourhood connection points and seeing others are just simple stepping stones to hearing your local neighbours & neighbourhood's life stories. These spaces and opportunities for connecting relationally are only one asect of local practice; once you have seen and made the connection with others, you must remain present and go out of your way to go deeper with them to truly be an agent of connection.
It seems like so long ago, but when Mo and I first met, I was on one of those neighbourhood exploring adventures. Since then, Mo has become my regular barber in a local barbershop who I visit every few weeks and he’s become a good friend. There’s been times where I’ve gone in, to get a hair cut, and ended up sitting in the barbers chair for over an hour talking with him and the others in the shop. I’ve learned about Mo’s family and four kids, the health struggles of his youngest son, his family back in Iraq and what its like in his home country. We often talk about our faiths as Muslim and Christian friends.
Two years ago, Mo suffered a heart attack and was away from work for several months. I would go in for a hair cut but there was always something missing; the relational connection of Mo and his laughter had changed the environment in his absence. Checking in with the other barbers every so often while passing along cards of get well greetings, I was relieved when Mo finally returned and we again could continue those great conversations and the need for local belonging.
A Presence That Extends Beyond Place & Time
I started this post sharing how I had grown frustrated with this projected divide between belonging locally & through affiliation. After 18 years of living in my neighbourhood I have come to experience that our sense of belonging transcends just the local perimeters we think we place upon it. Our stories, character, and life overlap onto others and it stretches our "knowness" and relationships beyond the understanding of just a singular place. In some sense, we are boundless.
For close to six years I worked for the local Home Depot. My neighbour Mark was the one who got me the job and I was thankful just for the current opportunity at the time to earn a little bit while looking for work elsewhere. It wasn't a job I truly expected to be in long, but as the years past, I grew to love being a part of this local hardware store and the many friendships I found there.
One summer a few years back, my wife Bonnie and I had ventured to the Calgary Zoo with my uncle Mike and his family. Wheeling around the many exhibits and seeing the different animals, we loved spending some time with the family. It was while passing the ape exhibit that a little girl came up beside me and excitedly said, "Hello!" I greeted her in response and asked what her name was. After answering she raised her hand and pointed at my chest while yelling down the hallway behind me, "Mom! It's the Home Depot Guy!!"
The Home Depot Guy... It's a name that brings a bit of a laugh to my wife and I. There really is very few places we can go in the city where someone doesn't recognize me as "The Home Depot Guy". Truth is, I haven't worked for the local hardware store now for close to three years and we still, on occasion, have people ask if "I'm the guy". It is an experience that taught me being an Agent Of Connection is about sharing a character and story that binds us relationally to others and finds a place of belonging that goes beyond just one environment or time.
We must learn to change our language about belonging locally and find a renewed imagination into the term. We cannot be confined by the locality of boarders but must allow the Spirit to intwine us into an ever expanding neighbourhood of relationships. We must become agents of connection that open ourselves to be known by others, see others and our environments as relationally present, and the story that we are a part of as being far bigger then just one place & time. We must go deeper and farther into the meanings of being local.