This is how you build a community

June 14, 2008 | 22 comments

Regular readers know that I have a great fascination with the problem of isolation and the breakdown of communities in modern America. As I was talking about in my post where I compared the internet to the village water well and in our great discussion about how we at-home moms can combine our socializing time and our housework time, I think that the isolation of modern suburbia is having a huge negative impact on our society.

Throughout these discussions, every now and then I’d get the suggestion that perhaps there’s something I could do to foster a sense of community here where I live. I’d always shake my head and think, “You don’t know my neighborhood.”

I live in a typical high-turnover suburban area where people keep to themselves and don’t really know their neighbors — sometimes people don’t even respond if you say hello when you walk past them on the way to the mailbox. I once described it here. Almost no other adults stay home during the day and our family weekends tend to be busy, so the possibility of forming any kind of bond with the people who live around me seemed bleak. However, I figured it might be worth a quick prayer since my blog commenters have been right so many times before. “It would take a miracle, ” I said very skeptically and half-heartedly before Vespers one day, “but, Lord, if there’s any way to get a community feel going here in my little corner of suburbia, let me know.” And I thought nothing more of it after that.

Meanwhile, there have been some very interesting developments with the girls.

Every one of their parents/guardians eventually began to express concern about the amount of time they spend over here, worrying that they were bothering me. I was half tempted to explain that at any other point in my life I would have had a nervous breakdown long before now, that it is entirely thanks to the grace of God that this situation is working so well, but I ended up just assuring them that it’s fine for the girls to be at my house. In each conversation my assurance led to a long pause, and then to a grateful but hesitant response like, “I know you have three little ones yourself…I mean…are you sure?”

And ever since these conversations, the girls have been even more forthcoming about their willingness to help me. Evidently their parents implored them to be as helpful as possible if they’re going to spend so much time over here. Yesterday, for example, Riley* and Catherine insisted on cleaning the kitchen during the kids’ naptime while I finished up a couple things on my laptop. Afterwards, they helped me straighten the living room and played with the kids while I started to cook dinner. The house looked so nice, my husband commented that it was like coming home to a hotel.

The other day was a rare occasion when the girls weren’t here during lunchtime, and I found myself struggling. I realized that I’d gotten used to having them around. Actually, I’d come to depend on them. We had even developed a little lunchtime routine: Catherine helps the baby eat her solids, Carmen amuses the toddlers and gives them snacks, and if the other girls are here they help me prepare the food. It occurred to me that perhaps their parents had come to depend on me as well. Most of them have single mothers who have to work long hours, and quality summer care for kids doesn’t exactly grow on trees.

I thought of what a beautiful scene this was, families helping one another in the ways that they are able, and it occurred to me: maybe this is how you build a community.

Back when I was reading through those discussions a few months ago, it all seemed so complicated. As usual, I had my head in the clouds and was focusing more on crafting theories and grand plans rather than looking at how I could take action right here, right now. I was so mired down in the details of how to work out a cohousing model or a small church community plan or a walking neighborhood concept with all the increasing diversity of lifestyles and values of modern-day America, that I didn’t stop to notice that I was surrounded by neighbors in need.

It’s been interesting to see what’s happened these past few weeks. Nobody set out to engineer some master plan for our little suburban street…and yet, it’s starting to feel awfully “community-ish” over here. The families involved have completely different setups and lifestyles and values from one another. Even as mothers, we’re not able to come together the way women traditionally have — I’m married and stay home, some of the moms are married and work, others are unmarried and work, etc. We don’t even know one another very well. And yet, as families, we’re helping one another. I have a safe, free place where their children can spend their time while they’re out of school and their moms are at work. They have older children whom they can encourage to help me around the house. We are united by the fact that we all have more on our plates than we can handle alone, and that we have a great need for one another’s help.

One of the hallmarks of a true community is mutual dependence on one another. If that is the case, then I think we have the beginnings of a community over here in our little corner of suburbia.

Could it be that easy?

Could the secret to revitalizing the American community be as simple as turning to God to ask for his guidance, and then looking around to see how we can immediately start giving help to — and accepting help from — the people who live around us? I really don’t know. As with everything else in life, there are complicating factors, and I don’t have a crystal ball to know exactly how it will all play out. But, so far, it’s looking good.

It all synthesized for me yesterday afternoon while I was loading the dishwasher while one of the girls took over feeding the baby. Catherine took a break from playing peek-a-boo with my delighted ten-month-old to turn to me and say, “Miss Jennifer, it’s going to be so fun to watch your children grow up!” And I couldn’t help but think: this is how you build a community.

* Not their real names.


  1. SuburbanCorrespondent

    Exactly. And, by the way, you are also seeing how it is possible to have 6 or 8 or 10 kids – as they get older, they help out and actually make things easier with the little ones.

  2. AmyDe

    YES! Being open to God’s gifts is an area I struggle with. Oh I’m good at GIVING – it’s the receiving I have trouble with. I’m afraid of not being perfect – or good enough when the fact is I know I am not, but HE is and me love ME!?!? I’m so glad that you have opened yourself to His blessings and are sharing with all of us. I found your blog at just the right time – a time when I feel like I’m all alone and sliding under. Thank you. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Christine

    What a beautiful post. As I began reading I was thinking, “Not in my neighborhood…” but the conclusion made me think that perhaps I just need God’s hand intervening too, and need to open my eyes to what He shows me. Thanks for this thoughtful and inspiring look into your “community”.

  4. Thia

    So often when there is some problem, like the isolation problem, we don’t look at ourselves as being the solution. We expect it to come from outside. I am new to the neighborhood we’re in, but I do know there aren’t families with children around, so I will have to look a bit harder, but I guess it’s the looking that’s important.

  5. Kim

    Thank you for standing in the gap for these little girls and their families! God answers our prayers in the most unexpected and beautiful ways.

    I read your book list and found it interesting. Have you by chance read anything by Brennan Manning? Abba’s Child perhaps or The Ragamuffin Gospel.

    Amazing reads!

  6. Amber

    I hope they do stick around in the neighborhood long enough to see your kids grow up! What a wonderful experience for everyone. Even if some people do end up moving on, I it is still a life changing experience for everyone and will reap blessings both now and in the future. I’m glad you’ve been sharing this story with us.

  7. Sue

    “Could the secret to revitalizing the American community be as simple as turning to God to ask for his guidance, and then looking around to see how we can immediately start giving help to — and accepting help from — the people who live around us?”


    Yes, I think it’s so terribly simple … and maybe sometimes we don’t want it to be because … well, because people suck basically, and we want to try to put in place a whole lot of models and formulas and plans to guard ourselves against each other, against being hurt by each other.

    And so we go further into ourselves, with less community …

    Sorry to be all moonish here, but it’s just so HARD being in community with each other.

    And that’s why reading this was just so inspiring to me 🙂 Thanks for posting.

  8. CanadianCarrie

    I love this post! It is so true, nobody can do this amazingly hard job alone. The experience these girls are having with you and your family will help guide them through life.

  9. Kerry

    I agree that the impact YOU are having on the girls is great. If your suburban neighborhood is anything like mine, babies won’t be a reality in their family, and siblings may be scarce.

    It’s a HUGE thing to show kids how they can be of service to others. That’s an immense life lesson.

    Keep us posted!

  10. The (Almost) Amazing Mammarino

    Great post! It is so amazing how God can work in situations that seem impossible to us. Sometimes we need to chuck our own grand schemes and simply let Him work!

  11. Bella

    I’ve been following this story…and I am in awe! God can do so much with so little….

  12. Creative Clayer

    In our community, there is a local message board where people of all walks of life can discuss local happenings, Politics, Religion, personal issues, etc. We often get together for lunch, a couple’s BBQ, or a girl’s night out. I’ve made so many great friends from it and even have people willing to watch my child if I need a break since my husband works on an offshore oil rig. (Talk about the internet being the town water well!)

    I think it is wonderful what you have started in your neighborhood. Those girls are going to benefit greatly from being a part of your family. I envy them, actually! It would have been wonderful to have had a family like yours growing up instead of being a latch-key kid sitting at home by myself all those years!

  13. asnipofgoodness

    Yes, it is very simple, but not even possible without the Lord’s prompting of your actions, the softening of your heart, and the willingness you have shone. Thanks for sharing yur sweet story of friendship!

  14. Marian

    I love the way so many of the themes you’ve been writing about lately are all converging and coming to fruition in your life! I wrote a post linking to these topics and encouraging people to visit, think about it, and engage in the discussion. It is definitely NOT the world’s greatest post, and I don’t know how many people will even read it, but I wanted to let you know!

  15. Pamela

    God has done the exact same thing in the same way in our neighborhood. We really wanted to build relationships with our neighbors several years ago but had no idea how. Our church asked us to be a host home for a summer backyard bible club. We did, the kids came…and they stayed. And stayed. Four years later and our home is home base for all the neighborhood kids and we have made friends with several of the parents. Now it isn’t unusual to find us in a neighbor’s backyard or at an ice cream shop with them in the evening. It all happened as a result of the neighborhood kids. And God, of course.

  16. maggie

    Too bad there are NO KIDS in my neighborhood or else I’d be trolling around the streets looking for my own little helpers! I think your situation sounds super fun.

  17. Mary@notbefore7

    It’s funny. I found your blog via rocksinmydryer and the post she linked to was “the girls” and how you opened up to God’s plan for that.

    I feel like I have gotten to see the beautiful story being weaved by God from there…AWESOME!

  18. co'

    Perhaps community can be as losely defined as “people who God puts in our lives to learn from.” If so then community is everywhere. We are as linked to our fellow church goers as we are to the patient sales girl at the mall and the little girls next door. Maybe we can depend on each other by hoping to share our gifts with each other, even in the smallest way.

  19. razzler

    This is so lovely. What you are doing for those kids, and their families, is brilliant.

  20. Chantal

    I will repeat what I have read over and over in your comments. What a beautiful thing you are doing. I read the “the girls” post, which somehow I missed the first time around and it really does give such a warm feeling. What you are doing is such a good thing. I am glad it is working out. And I am glad that their parents understand to instruct their children to be helpful. One of the main reasons I (and I think other parents) get exasperated when children are over is that they make such messes and expect to be waited on. And then they leave, leave you with a mess. But maybe I am being short sighted and I need to see things through the eyes of God. That is hard for me. I am trying.

  21. eally

    This is turning into a wonderful, amazing experience for all of you! Praise God for His mighty works!!

  22. Jennifer Merck

    I know this is an "old" story, but I found you via mylifeonthewildside a month ago and just tracked the story of you and the girls back to the beginning. So cool! There are so many terrific things about it. Today, though, the thing that strikes me is how absolutely amazing it is when God meets entirely different needs of people, just by bringing them together. The girls have become part of your journey, your story. And you have become part of theirs. Their lives will be different for having known you.

    You are being salt & light.

    One other thought. I set out, with one neighbor friend, several years back, to work on building community in our neighborhood. We distributed a flyer announcing a "Happy Hour" on a summer Friday night. We started at 6:30 in our driveway. The flyer said to bring beverages (wine, beer, Mike's, juice boxes, water bottles) and an appetizer. And the rule was we stay outside. This wasn't a clean-your-house-for-the-neighbors kind of thing. This was a come-as-you-are kinda thing. And, you know what? They came! It was an "if you build it, they will come" situation. What in the world had we all been doing on Friday nights? Our yard was full of kids and adults of all ages. Amazing! We asked someone if they would host next week, and a rotation began. We did this for many years and the neighborhood is different today for having done it. Just an idea!

Connect With Me On Social Media or Explore My Site



The "THIS IS JEN" podcast is on Facebook & all podcast apps


- Subscribe on iTunes or Google Play (audio)

- Get weekly bonus episodes on Patreon

- Sign up for my email list to be the first
to know about new tour dates