Ice cream social and curbside library

Often people ask us how churches can improve engagement with their communities. When this is motivated by a desire to save the church, there can be a risk of “outreach” activity inadvertently deepening the estrangement. But if the motivation flows from a longing to be a part of God’s work of reconciling and restoration, then it can be generative and bear fruit. Our societies have been damaged by decades of dehumanising and desacralising systems, and so the reweaving that needs to happen involves unlearning the habits of those systems, building relationships of genuine loving friendship, and leaning into the mystery and leading of God. Barry Jung is a lay person who, sensing the unraveling happening across the West, has been discerning God’s call to join in practises of reweaving in his neighbourhood. His story is a powerful and gentle witness to how genuine community can be formed in the places where we live.

Recently I organized a gathering in our neighbourhood. Our first event of the summer was an ice cream social, perfect for the spell of hot weather we were experiencing.

Days before the event I put a chalkboard sign on our sidewalk to invite our neighbours and any passers-by to the party. Before the event I was excited with the hope of connecting with old neighbours, new neighbours and strangers and was also curious to see who might show up.  There was anticipation in reconnecting and also making new connections.

On the morning of the party, I was tired. The enthusiasm from days prior was waning. I was telling my wife that I wish we could cancel but some neighbours had already replied to say that they were looking forward to it, so of course we remained faithful to the task of setting up tables, putting out chairs and getting the water cooler and ice chest set up for the ice cream bars.  Slowly but surely, the tasks were checked off.

At seven thirty on the dot, two young teens walked through the gate from the side yard to our back garden. My wife and I welcomed them as they entered. I introduced myself, not realizing that these two young adolescents already knew us. I hadn’t seen them in about four years, when they were much younger and more  timid. My brief reluctance to move forward with this party turned into delight and enthusiasm as many more neighbours came through that side gate throughout the evening. 

Many were first-timers to our home and some were not only new to the neighbourhood, but new to Canada. There were also several folks that we hadn’t seen in a long time.

Looking for connection

I’m sure ice cream was a draw for some, but I believe that they were looking for connection. Many are probably unaware that we live in an isolating and hyper-individualized city. Some are focused on studies or work and have little time, or are too shy, to venture out to meet neighbours, but they came anyway. Some came because of the email invitation sent a week earlier and a handful came at the last minute after seeing the sandwich board out front and the chalk arrows on our sidewalk pointing to to our backyard party.

Joy, curiosity, anxiety, awkwardness, dread, excitement and wonder – these are the emotions and feelings that we all experienced as over forty of us gathered in the backyard. Our garden beds, full of plump raspberries, emerging pole beans and lush greenery of tomato, garlic, peppers, cucumber and zucchini plants all created a space of curiosity and welcome, and maybe a sense of belonging. The pastelly row of poppies and bright yellow and orange calendulas, as well the old apple tree laden with slightly blushed fruit, ushered the ice-cream seekers deeper into the yard. Folks started to spread out and connect with each other and with the garden..  

The last of the guests hung around until ten, putting up with the pesky mosquitoes but enjoying the glow of stringed lights warming up the garden. The remaining few helped us clean up and that was a wrap. By all accounts, Joan and I felt this was a success.

The mystery and leading of God

After everyone had left and with only a few things left to tidy up in the morning, we began to take account of folks that came to the party. How many came? How many were new? How many came because of a lonely chalkboard sign proclaiming that there was a party? How many regulars came? How long did they linger? Who didn’t show up? When did the party end? What were the results of this first gathering?

I am learning that these are all the wrong questions to ask after a gathering, yet it’s been difficult for me to not look at metrics every time we host an event or activity, even years after leaving the world of corporate sales. We are immersed in a results-oriented culture. Statistics tell one story, but people tell a better story

I continue to unlearn the world’s default definition of success and try to lean into the mystery and leading of God. How God orchestrates the connections and relationships in these gatherings may be the most meaningful “metrics” which we may never be privy to. So why bother counting, tabulating and categorizing?

In some sense, I am objectifying those that attend. Am I attributing a number or a category to them? I learned that gathering for the common good is, well… good! The good is the healing, reconciling and restoration work of God in this imperfect world. The good is not in the numbers or in the objectifying of the people who attend. There’s so more much to these encounters than the numbers and metrics can measure.

The gift of someone’s story

One of the most meaningful ‘encounters’ I’ve had was when I found a note in our little book box at the front of our house. It reads:

“Dear stranger, Thank you for your roadside library and the old friend [a book] I found within, sadly I find myself down of life as of late…a “down” more challenging and soul-testing that I had ever thought to experience… The toll it’s taking is immense, and I’ve been so worried I was losing (forever) the parts of myself that I consider vital to who I am. However my “kid in a candy shop” reaction to this library showed me that I’m still here… that I’m still “ME” – just  a homeless heroin-addicted person of me. Thank you, Melissa. PS. your garden is also lovely. You’re my kind of people.” 

Melissa,  a hidden neighbour, a person with life challenges that many of us can’t imagine seems to have discovered some childhood-like joy from her past. I’ve read her letter many times, often shedding tears for her brokenness and also feeling hope from her joy in finding a treasured book in our front garden library.

What a gift to be able to receive this scribble of a note from a stranger, giving a glimpse of her story. It was a gift and it was transformational. A good gift!

The Hebrew meaning of good

So what would God call good? In Hebrew, “good” is “Tov” which means “Anything that produces life and contains the potential for more life within it. Think of a seed becoming an orchard. Or, more practically speaking, think of a conversation or story that stirred you to bring forth life from inside of you and offer it in a way that had the potential to call forth life in another.”[1]

In her book “A Very Good Gospel”, Lisa Sharon Harper writes: “In the Hebrew conception of the world, all of creation is connected. The well-being of the whole depends on the well-being of each individual part. The Hebrew conception of goodness was different than the Greeks’. The Greeks located perfection within the object itself. A thing or a person strove toward perfection. But the Hebrews understood goodness to be located between things.” [2]

There is goodness (“tov”) in Melissa’s memory of that book she found in the library, a memory from her past that pulled her out of her deep despair for at least a moment. There’s not likely any metric that can reveal that restoration of the soul. It’s mysterious, yet something good between her and the book exists. I have no idea who this woman is, or her age or state when she wrote this. Even in this mystery, her honest words, paradoxically full of pain and tinged with hope was transformational and life-giving to me. This word “tov” helps me understand what “good” really means!

From metrics to relationships

How do you quantify and measure stories that inspire and transform? Numbers and stats provide insights for sure but do they touch your soul? Do they make you weep over and over again, like reading a story or a treasured note or book from your childhood? Do they inspire?  At the heart of these stories are the relationships of the subjects in the story. It’s those relationships that transform us!

In the case of our ice cream social, how do I quantify the following: laughter from an impeccably tidy neighbour after finding chocolate stains on her bright yellow jacket the next day; the excitement in our neighbours’ voices as they exchange and plan a future jam session after learning about their mutual love for music; adults and children alike discovering that the tall stalks of leafy greenery in the middle of our garden are not corn but garlic.

What about the courage that it took for a young newcomer to enter into the awkwardness and unfamiliarity of her first neighbourhood party in Canada. Or the bonding between adults and teens as they competed and encouraged one another in the pickup lentil challenge with chopsticks. It was a privilege to hear bits of people’s lives and their interactions during the course of the evening. It’s ordinary and it’s life-giving.

It’s more than that even! It’s Good. Very Good and for the common good.

Barry Jung

Barry desires to know and be known by his neighbours. He has lived in the South Cambie/Oakridge neighbourhood with his wife Joan for over twenty years. They are members of Granville Chapel, an established congregation in a central part of Vancouver, Canada. In the last ten years they have explored how they can be more engaged in their neighbourhood and are learning what it means to follow Jesus’ command to love their neighbours.

Barry’s writing is online here 

[1] Scott Morrison and Mandy Nelson, Tov: An Explosive Word

[2] Lisa Sharon Harper, The Very Good Gospel: How everything wrong can be made right (Waterbrook, 2016) p31

This article was featured in T4CG’s Summer 2023 Newsletter. Subscribe to our newsletter here

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