Loving our Neighbours in ‘The Street’
during the pandemic 2020-2022
The Street is a mile long, single-track road with a pedestrian walkway that is also used as an area for vehicles to pass one another. It is surrounded by woodland and a conservation area which is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and runs into the main road to a large town.
The Street was historically part of a landed estate and a track serving a farm but has now grown into the means of access to parks, a school and nursery, care homes, some small home-based businesses, a number of older houses and several small housing developments: around 100 dwellings in total. Most of the Street today is privately owned by those residents who share equally in the costs of maintaining it.
When the Street was first developed from its more rural, farm-based setting, the newest houses were occupied mostly by residents from the town, which, being itself full of small, close-knit communities, created the context for neighbour relationships. Many of the new residents already knew each other, often by having been at school together, or having lived in proximity previously. For example, two immediate neighbours had also been neighbours in another part of the town before, several were members of the same sports club, and four of the houses in one development were bought by people who had not only been at the same school, but in the same year. This created a group of neighbours with a number of things in common: they were active and upwardly mobile, were families with young children and many, though of a number of different denominations, were active churchgoers. Another common feature was an interest in the environment (the Street has many trees with Tree Preservation Orders from the estate) and particularly had an interest in preserving the ancient estate hedgerows and the wildlife of surrounding woodland: foxes, badgers, bats, birds and insects. At the initial stage of housing development, the Street was surrounded by meadow and public footpaths which supplied a flow of local public interaction with known families and friends passing by. Another factor was that most of the residents spoke with the same accent and idiom and had living parents or siblings locally who all knew each other through common history within the town. Neighbour relationships began therefore with strong bonds of memory (such as the memory of a person who had been killed by lightning in the Street), common history and ‘voice’. The Street had some of the initially homogeneous features of a ‘plant’ in the ecclesiological sense.
Over thirty years, as houses changed hands, the population of the Street enlarged and diversified. By 2020, some of the larger houses had been bought to rent, bringing in more families sharing the accommodation or renting single rooms. There were also many more people of different ages, family situation, spoken accent, heritage, ethnicity and religious affiliation. Some of the first buyers had died or moved on, children had grown up and moved away and the networks of knowing one another and having a common history of town, school or employment experience, had diluted considerably. The meadows and public footpaths also disappeared, replaced by stone lions, brick enclosures and electronic gates.
Neighbour relationships also changed: from unlocked doors and inter-flow of people in and out of each other’s’ lives and dwellings to a different kind of looking out for one another. Instead of popping round, people put emphasis on the Neighbourhood Watch programme and with the development of the internet, a closed Facebook Group through which people shared news and information relating to the Street – lost or loose pets, local petitions, traffic news, missing parcels, and so on. Relationships moved from ‘looking in’ on people to ‘looking out for’ things going on externally: ‘who is out there and what are they doing?’ Instead of people coming round to ‘pick your own’ from people’s fruit trees, neighbours left out baskets of fruit for others to help themselves. The porous boundaries hardened into thresholds.
However, older residents from the first cohort, especially as they retired, put more effort into volunteering for outside care of the Street. More volunteers came to weed and plant the verges, to clean it of leaves and twigs, to mow the green spaces, and carry out routine maintenance. Volunteers cleared snow and gritted and salted the road during bad weather. The Street’s committee provided some of the tools and requirements. With houses more closed off to adults and children getting together, neighbour friendships became more about external groups operating outside, planting trees in memory of those who had died, visiting a Street smallholding together and feeding the animals, and organising street parties for particular occasions.
Younger people also provided services to the Street, but these typically came with a (small) financial cost, such as an exercise class in the park, and offers to build furniture or wash cars.
Christians in the Street
At the first phase of development, a number of the neighbours also knew each other because they were active in the town’s local church communities. Initially, these were Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and Baptist attenders. Many of the children attended local church schools. The local churches in the town are easily accessed and those going to church on Sundays would often give each other lifts or walk down to their various churches together. Christians in the Street would also put up posters in their windows or on Facebook about church events, and neighbours would attend charity coffee mornings in different homes, or organise visits by a local band to play Christmas Carols in the Street. Church attendance, then, was an established practice among a range of the families and very visible to the rest of the Street’s inhabitants. Established churchgoers were good at encouraging neighbours to come with them to church at Christmas, Easter and Harvest, and to social events such as fetes and bazaars, but less enthusiastic about encouraging them at other times of the year.
As the residents in the Street diversified and moved in from city outskirts, Christians now also included those from different independent Pentecostal communities which were newly meeting in halls and buildings in the town. Unsurprisingly, as the Street diversified, people of other faiths and no faith also became greater in number within the community.
Divisive issues prior to the pandemic
As with any community, the Street’s inhabitants have encountered division and disagreement. As houses were rented out to greater numbers of people, petty issues arose over vehicles and parking, the school run, and litter (litter-picking is undertaken by volunteers). The usual slights and injuries fractured a few relationships but these often mended naturally over time. One woman refused to attend a street party organised for the whole Street because a few people forgot to flash a ‘thank you’ whenever she gave way coming up the Street in her vehicle.
As more people bought the larger houses to run small businesses, issues arose over business waste, house modification and increased noise and vehicles, from (for example) a dog-grooming service. There was more serious outcry over the influx of drugs, unheard of in the early years of the Street’s development, with significant pressure to flush out the local ‘pharmacy’ and to discourage people using the dark, leafy corners to carry out transactions.
As the Street diversified however, religion and politics began to drive some deeper and more complex divisions. The local town developed a strong UKIP presence leading up to Brexit which also resonated in the Street. A UKIP hopeful canvassing in the Street, asked residents to list grievances about their lives, such as the state of the NHS, jobs and immigration, but racking up xenophobic remarks specific to neighbour relationships, from ‘curry smells’ to ‘foreign’ voices. Some residents made snide or disparaging remarks of the ‘this is a Christian country’ sort.
On further investigation, the presenting issues were not so much about having a faith other than Christian, but lack of participation in the general ethos of the Street. This focussed on things like families not putting up any lights at Christmas or refusing to entertain children at Hallowe’en: external, visible tokens of solidarity.
This background of neighbour relationships, in all their complexity and processes of change from open, fluid relationships and friendships, to external visible communal groupings, and then to judging people on the amount and quality of their participation, was suddenly and severely challenged by the pandemic affecting everyone, all at once.
When the first lockdown was instigated in March 2020, a number of interesting things happened in the Street. With people stuck inside their homes, and the visible externals of Street life suddenly lost, people began to think again of what the difference is between not wanting to visit neighbours in their homes or outside and being prohibited from doing so.
The Christians who were habituated to going to church together on a Sunday in particular felt deeply lost and disenfranchised from their support community and missed church dreadfully. Interestingly, it was this group, prompted by their churches, who immediately thought of their neighbours and what they might need. Using the Facebook Group, these neighbours, closely followed by other volunteers, began a system of piggybacking shopping trips, collecting lists from those who were shielding or afraid to go to the shops or for whom the long queues outside at the major supermarkets would prove difficult. When supermarkets began to have empty shelves and items could not be obtained, a ‘wish-list’ on Facebook was put up and the next person to go shopping would look for those items – or for the much-desired toilet rolls. Consequently, the first system put in place by the Christian friends in the Street was one of supply of essentials.
As lockdown continued, this same group of Christian neighbours drew up a list of people to visit by knocking on windows and checking visually that people inside were safe and well. People were encouraged to leave a note on their door or on the mat if they needed anything. Social distancing was maintained and physical contact kept to a minimum; nonetheless, people posted about how grateful they were to see their neighbours and to feel that someone would be along to ask if they were ok and needed anything. Encouraged by the Christian group lead, other people began to join a community of volunteers to get cash, medication or baby supplies.
Following this pattern, the same core Christian group made a point of contacting the care homes and offering support to the staff who were deeply concerned about the vulnerable people they cared for and for their own health and safety in the context of Covid. This was at the early stages of government advice, when no vaccines were available and it was quickly becoming clear that people in care homes were especially vulnerable. Because visitors were not allowed, Christian neighbours sometimes acted as halfway houses, taking messages from relatives and friends and passing them on, sometimes in sanitised packets through open windows or doors, or reading cards aloud.
Two people who had been typically active in providing things for church fetes and bazaars turned their sewing skills into pandemic response. After asking for old cotton cast-offs, they created between them masks for every single person in the Street who wanted one – gaily coloured creations which made everyone smile. There were many (socially distanced) conversations about the masks and how fresh and breathable they were.
The particular geography of the Street also had an interesting effect on neighbourliness. Because it was permitted to go for exercise, people went out and walked up and down the Street, typically to the park and back. But because the Street is so narrow and there is only one walkway, people had to pay particular attention to giving each other space to pass each other, but it was also impossible to avoid each other without saying something, especially if one person or group had to walk in the road. People who did not normally acknowledge one another began to find it impossible not to say hello, comment on the weather and briefly pass the time of day. As elsewhere in the country, more people acquired dogs and soon dog walking was not only a daily activity in which one would inevitably meet people but evolved into ‘Dog Meet’ a pre-arranged group meeting in the morning in which the open space of the park provided the ability to people to meet at a distance and talk with one another while the dogs ran around. Dog Meet grew so popular that new times in the afternoon and then in the evening and even late at night attracted different groups of residents to meet and greet each other and to ask after one another. When a group member did not show up, the other members made sure to check that they were all right. These new forms of social bonding brought different groups of neighbours together. Interestingly, it was a person for whom social interaction is especially difficult, but who has a passion for dogs, who became the source of ‘naming’ information for others. By means of his dog knowledge, he created all kinds of incipient relationships and networks which achieved extra importance at a time when people were otherwise separated from one another. This appeared in social media messaging, with messages for ‘Lulu’s owner’ or ‘Jasper’s house’.
In addition to this, with people furloughed or working from home, the person responsible for planting the verges and weeding in the Street discovered that more people wanted to join her to have an excuse to get out of the house and have a legitimate reason to extend their time in the fresh air. So many people wanted to join in and help, to feel they were ‘doing’ something, that she had to get cones and high vis jackets to ensure their safety while working in the Street. The Street now is full of plants and flowers and the area of planting has been extended backwards into the surrounding woodland, because of the number of people available to clear the areas. Although restrictions have now been lifted, those groups of gardeners have discovered that their bonds endure and their love of being outdoors, talking and working and transforming the look of the Street has a significant social value beyond the pandemic. Nonetheless, the numbers of volunteers has begun to decline again.
The Christian group initiated another phase of activity as regulations changed. When it was possible to meet outdoors, socially distanced, they started afternoon tea times on their front lawns (many of which are open to the road). Neighbours were invited to come along for a chat and tea and cake, as long as they brought their own cups and plates. Garden furniture was placed on the pavement and sanitised and, together with the excellent weather in Spring 2020, these occasions drew in a good crowd of people, especially elderly people (and their dogs) who were lonely or missing their families, clubs or religious communities. Again, the narrowness of the Street meant that people going for a walk or for fresh air could not miss these gatherings and would stop and chat if only to see what was going on and what hospitality was on offer, even if they were not actually intending to ‘go’.
Further, when Covid regulations began, the local paper, which had always been delivered to every house, stopped being delivered, though it was available at supermarkets. One member of the Street volunteered to collect enough copies for each household and delivered them herself so that people would not be cut off from local news. This delivery meant that people would talk to her about local news and events, so that she became much more than a delivery person, but a means of interchange and sharing of opinion. She still does this delivery today.
By summer of 2020, some of the Christians felt able to begin asking neighbours if they wanted them to pray about anything or would like the church community, meeting online, to include their petitions more formally in intercessions. Many people received this gratefully and began to talk about their own faith journeys, quite often beginning with why they either had never gone to church or had stopped going. The exploration of faith journeys, in the context of an existential threat like Covid, seemed a natural next step in conversation, once people had got very used to seeing one another and talking to one another about neighbour needs. A few people, interestingly, expressed regret for no longer meeting Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had, prior to the pandemic, been regular visitors in the Street, and had for the most part been good-humouredly indulged, if not necessarily invited in…
A number of things have happened to the character of the Street with two years of the pandemic having passed. One is an increased sense of community and neighbourliness which, interestingly is not the same as the neighbourliness borne of common town background and family experience, but one which has been burnished by the common experience of living through the pandemic. For example, this neighbourliness has crystallised into a really fierce need to protect the community of the Street against ‘the world’. Another small development proposed for the bottom of the Street has been fiercely opposed with hundreds of objections, based around the need to protect the infrastructure of the Street itself, but also the wildlife which has been once more greatly appreciated since lockdown when the animals and birds not only proliferated but were seen, heard and loved.
There has been increased knowledge and appreciation for visitors to the Street like the staff in the care homes whose presence was barely noticed prior to 2020. Now walkers say hello to them and stop and talk with real concern about the complexities of their jobs and worries they have. At the same time, there has been increased hostility towards unwelcome visitors: pressure for improved lighting and CCTV to prevent drug deals and ‘kids hanging about’ in the unlit parts of the Street.
The tone and type of posts on the Facebook Group has also changed with the increased activity brought about by the Pandemic. While prior to the pandemic, people posted factual information, or posed straightforward questions, many posts are more personal, with more saying thank you to others, shout outs to people who have given their time or energy, and many more posts with pictures, emojis and kisses. People feel more confident about commenting on one another’s posts and asking for ‘in-house’ help. The undercurrent of ‘let’s keep it in the Street’ has become particularly strong.
As the particular concerns of the pandemic have faded somewhat and been replaced by economic concerns and fears about energy price rises, people in the Street have started to talk about those who cannot afford to heat their houses. The urge to share and offer hospitality to those who might struggle is strong, but raises the question of relative affluence as a form of status: I can afford to heat my house and you can’t. This also raises the question of whether neighbour friendships and relationships can return again to open doors and people ‘coming in’ to others’ spaces. At the time of writing, this may feel like a good thing to offer, but a step too far.
Caring for one’s neighbour during the pandemic has been a hallmark of the Street. But it is interesting to note that many of the activities taken forward by Christian neighbours had their roots in everyday church life – knitting and sewing for the church fete became mask making; after service tea became teas on the lawn; Harvest festival or food bank shopping became shopping for neighbours; praying in church became asking if people wanted prayer or comfort. When church activities stopped, those energies found an outlet in localised social care for others. Churchgoing numbers at the present time are still down on previous levels, but activities in the Street are continuing. Does this mean that people have found a real validity in ‘doing church’ in their immediate neighbourhoods and communities and are using online church, for example, to sustain their spiritual lives? Or will going back to church suck up those energies into church community life with none left for the neighbour community?
Notwithstanding, the stronger social ties and friendliness has increased insularity and created new resistance to ‘outsiders’. The boundaries of the Street and its housing stock are now much less porous. The stone lions are stronger and less inclusive. Does this offer an insight into how cliques form in close-knit church communities, interfering with welcome and mutuality? As a greater sense of ‘us’ has developed among the diverse families of the Street, there is also a greater sense of ‘them’. One might speculate that people engaging with one another, especially when cut off from work colleagues and family contacts, has meant that the Street community has become a different kind of family or kinship from shared experience which has to be protected. Does this also tell us something about how churches with strong congregational bonds become less welcoming or tolerant if they are ‘disturbed’ by the presence of newcomers and strangers? The residents of the Street now show a strong desire to ‘Other’ those people who are unfamiliar – teenagers gathering in the park, walking up the Street (‘when they don’t live here’), strange vans or people hanging about. One person reported a suspicious person, complete with CCTV images, only to discover it was someone’s son (whom they knew) waiting for a cab. Also ‘friendliness’ and respect for the Street has become a measurement of entitlement for delivery drivers and visitors. Unfriendly people are more unwelcome.
Another interesting development is pushback against the very infrastructure of the Street’s management on grounds of fairness and care for others. Some people are now interrogating the management company as to why older, poorer residents are not treated by ability to pay rather than exacting the expensive flat rate for every household. Decisions about new lighting have engaged many more people on matters of social responsibility – using solar power rather than expensive electric and generating conversations about rising costs of living and the impacts on everyone, rather than just demanding better lighting. The neighbourliness and friendship bonds of the pandemic seem to have brought in a desire to look at ethical issues, justice matters and a big picture for everyone in the Street community, although not extended beyond the confines of the Street itself.
The Street has a background of roots in common experience and history which has formed a bedrock of community ties which prior to the pandemic were loosening through diversification of residents and less investment in that history, coupled by a number of dividing issues. The pandemic shook all of that up and reforged neighbour care and ties, not least because active Christians diverted the energy and skills they would have spent on churchgoing into neighbour care. These transferable skills penetrated into opportunities forged within Covid rules and have crystallised out into new neighbour relationships, community behaviour and considerable generosity. However, this has come at the cost of hardened boundaries, greater suspicion of ‘others’ and solidarity ‘against’ perceived threat or injustice. Additionally, while Covid permitted a kind of democratic sharing of time, money and effort, the economic crisis creates more complex problems about how to help out those who are poorest. This process might teach us more about how churches promise friendship, mutuality and welcome and yet come across as hostile and suspicious. Loving our neighbours might have an event horizon. Perhaps we should be aware of that in all Christian communities which promise welcome.