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3 ways to engage our neighbors during a pandemic

Neighboring is hard, especially in a pandemic. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31). Yet, the challenges of a pandemic have many of us shrinking back from our neighbors. 

Our family lives and ministers in New York City, a city that was once the epicenter of the global pandemic. At the height of our city’s grim struggle against the virus, I remember when my wife and I walked our kids to the park. It was a daily ritual, a small practice to keep us sane as we quarantined in our tiny Brooklyn apartment. We walked our three kids (now four) to the park only a few blocks from where we live. We nervously eyed other pedestrians. Were they carriers of COVID-19? Were we carriers? 

In the early days, before the mask mandate, we did not know who we could safely talk to or who we could stand face to face with. So, nearly every morning, we would go to the park before it filled up with people who, like us, were desperate for a refuge from quarantine life. We hustled our kids down the sidewalks, kept them away from others, and ushered them safely—we hoped—into the nearby park and its soccer field.

This is what we did to survive as a family, both literally and metaphorically. And yet, we came to Brooklyn to do more than survive; we came to plant a church and serve others. We knew that we had to engage our neighbors, even in a global pandemic. But how to begin?

1 Corinthians 13:13 is a cherished verse for many Christians. It is also a verse that shows us a template for engaging our neighbors in a pandemic. Paul ended his poetic chapter on love by reminding us that “these three remain: faith, hope, and love – but the greatest of these is love.” What if faith, hope, and love frame our response to a global pandemic and provide our pattern for engaging our neighbors during this strange moment in history?

1. We must model faith for our neighbors. 

Many of our neighbors are non-Christians, and they desperately need to see our faith in action. As Christians, we do not believe the sky is falling. Not now, not ever. It was not falling on Good Friday, and it is not falling due to COVID-19. We are the people who believe the gospel. We acknowledge that death and tragedy are a part of life, but we also believe in a greater reality. Good Friday is part of our story, but so is Easter.

We must demonstrate to our neighbors that we are not living in the grip of fear. We believe that Jesus is the King of the universe and that he rules over everything—including the deadly germs that we cannot see with the naked eye. It is this calm assurance that ought to characterize our life for as long as the pandemic lasts. Every Sunday during those early days, our neighbors heard through the thin walls of our apartment building. They heard us rehearsing the gospel as we sang, isolated, but never alone. 

2. We must provide hope for our neighbors. 

Early on, we decided that you cannot quarantine hope. I began to write a daily blog for our entire 79-day lockdown. My goal was to provide a daily dose of hope, to inoculate against fear and despair. We taped a sign up in our apartment building’s stairwell inviting our neighbors to read and find daily hope. We set sanitizer bottles outside of every apartment in our building. We told our neighbors we had to stick together.

New Yorkers are famously closed off, so neighboring is different here. Yet, when we left the sanitizer and messages for our neighbors they came and knocked on our door, even in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Why? Because we dared to offer the hope that they craved.

It was not a sentimental “we’re all going to make it” kind of hope. It was a hope centered on an old rugged cross and an empty garden tomb. Our neighbors need hope. It is up to us to provide it.

3. We must show love to our neighbors. 

A couple of weeks after the virus descended on New York City, we decided it was time to launch relief efforts. Many people could not safely shop for groceries due to their age or health condition. We began to collect names from leaders in our community (most of them non-Christians) and safely deliver groceries to these vulnerable neighbors.

We partnered with a non-profit and with other churches. We obtained a membership at Restaurant Depot so that we could buy groceries in bulk. In 2020, our church basically became a restaurant so we could love our neighbors as ourselves. Every week, nearly 40 people received a “Box of Hope” from our church. It was full of fresh vegetables, non-perishables, and meat. There was also a letter from me and evangelistic resources to point our neighbors to Christ.

We called them boxes of hope, but it was ultimately an exercise in love. Because, as Paul reminds us, faith, hope, and love go together. We gave away gallons of sanitizer and thousands of masks because we love our neighbors. Not as well as we should, but hopefully in a way that shows them the even greater love of Jesus.

Now that we have resumed church services, there is a new couple in our midst. People we met through our relief efforts. Neighbors that we engaged in a pandemic. I certainly do not have all the answers. Our church has been on a wild ride these last 12 months in NYC. But we are learning to embrace a lifestyle of faith, hope, and love. our neighbors need to experience all three of these ideals as they interact with us. Maybe, just maybe, God will use us—and use you—to draw our neighbors to himself. Even in a pandemic.

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