Welcome to the Neighborhood

by

As part of my writ­ing process I make it point to inves­ti­gate weird reli­gions and to nev­er turn down an invi­ta­tion to a new church when pos­si­ble.  How­ev­er, as I look around the dim­ly-lit base­ment filled with met­al fold­ing chairs and young peo­ple wear­ing a rainbow’s worth of cardi­gans, I’ll admit that I’ve nev­er seen any­thing quite like this.

This par­tic­u­lar church is locat­ed in East Nashville, or East Nasty as my local friend calls it, a neigh­bor­hood seem­ing­ly pop­u­lat­ed exclu­sive­ly by crack­heads and hip­sters.  As a con­di­tion of my invi­ta­tion, I’m not allowed to reveal the exact details of the loca­tion.  The whole set­up reminds me of the book Fight Club.  “When peo­ple need to find us, they find us,” explains a man in a for­est green cardi­gan who intro­duces him­self as Neigh­bor Ryan. That’s anoth­er quirk about this par­tic­u­lar church: every­body refers to them­selves as neigh­bors.  I repress the impulse to judge them as a cult pre­ma­ture­ly.

Just after ten in the morn­ing, a long-haired man with a shag­gy beard drops the nee­dle on a wob­bly 7-inch record. Out of the tin­ny speak­ers comes a famil­iar piano melody pulling me back to child­hood.   As if on cue, the group erupts into singing.  “It’s a beau­ti­ful day in the neigh­bor­hood, a beau­ti­ful day for a neigh­bor.”  Their smil­ing voic­es raise. “Would you be mine? Won’t you be mine?”   A young man with horn-rimmed glass­es walks up before the group.  He sings along as he exchanges a trim sport coat for a yel­low cardi­gan.   “Wel­come neigh­bors!,” he greets the atten­tive group.

He intro­duces him­self as Neigh­bor Alex and greets new ones while look­ing at me.  “Would you care to stand up and intro­duce your­self?”   I hes­i­tant­ly rise and offer my name.  “Every­one, wel­come Neigh­bor Antho­ny,” Neigh­bor Alex responds and twen­ty-three beam­ing faces intone, “Wel­come neigh­bor.”

I’m just vis­it­ing with Joel,” I explain. “I’m not a mem­ber of …” Mem­ber of what exact­ly? Mis­ter Roger’s Neigh­bor­hood?

Don’t wor­ry. Every­body is our neigh­bor, whether they know it or not.   If you have any­thing to add to our dis­cus­sion  feel free to speak up and share it. ” He turns to address the group. “Does any­one have any requests?”

Anoth­er song,” calls out a voice behind me, elic­it­ing laugh­ter from oth­ers.  “It’s You I Like,” sug­gests anoth­er.  The DJ swaps out the record and soon they are singing again.  Their joy is infec­tious and I find myself singing along from a wrin­kled lyric sheet passed to me by a guy with an elec­tric blue mohawk and col­or-coor­di­nat­ed sweater.

It would be easy to dis­miss the group as anoth­er exam­ple of quirky, hip­ster irony if not for their sin­cer­i­ty. After more spir­it­ed singing Neigh­bor Alex begins a short ser­mon on the val­ue of accept­ing peo­ple as they are. “Everybody’s spe­cial,” he says with a smile and a short girl with a crew cut begins to bawl hys­ter­i­cal­ly.  A cou­ple of her near­est neigh­bors are quick to come to her side. Neigh­bor Alex invites her to share her feel­ings with the group.  Through labored sighs she talks about how all of her life she nev­er felt accept­ed by her strict South­ern Bap­tist fam­i­ly due to her sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion.  “The one thing every­body wants is love and accep­tance,” says Neigh­bor Alex.  He places a hand on her small shoul­der.  “We love you just the way you are.”   As the girl wipes her eyes, a rap­tur­ous smile flash­es across her tear streaked face. For the next thir­ty min­utes the Neigh­bors share more per­son­al expe­ri­ences and offer tes­ti­mo­ny on the pos­i­tive effect of children’s tele­vi­sion star, Fred Rogers.

I guess it is not entire­ly unlike­ly for a reli­gion to spring-up around the tele­vi­sion luminary’s spe­cial brand of love, accep­tance, and child­ish won­der.  Reli­gions have start­ed ven­er­at­ing far less.  Mis­ter Rogers, as he was known to his tele­vi­sion audi­ence, con­tin­ues to res­onate with peo­ple long after his death. Recent­ly a peti­tion was made to the US Con­gress to make his birth­day a nation­al hol­i­day.  “The Catholic Church should make him a saint,” sug­gests a Miran­da, a His­pan­ic girl in a green sweater. I’m uncer­tain exact­ly what Mis­ter Rogers, who was a Pres­by­ter­ian min­is­ter, might think about that.  Per­haps he would gen­tly redi­rect the spot­light off of him­self and invite Miran­da to share what makes her spe­cial.

When I speak to him after the ser­vice, Neigh­bor Alex offers a stronger assess­ment,  “Mis­ter Rogers is Jesus with­out the Chris­t­ian bag­gage.”  He tells me how the major­i­ty in atten­dance iden­ti­fy as athe­ist or agnos­tic.   “Don’t get me wrong I love Jesus, but Chris­tians …” he shakes his head.  As we talk more, he tells me about his back­ground as a  youth pas­tor in what he calls a “mega-mall church.”  “You kind of lose your­self in the crowd,” he say, “and the mon­ey is anoth­er thing. Every­thing just goes to a big­ger build­ing.”  Neigh­bor Alex tells me how he takes no col­lec­tions and just encour­ages peo­ple to help meet the needs of their neigh­bors, be it emo­tion­al­ly or mon­e­tar­i­ly.  He thanks me for join­ing them and adds.  “If you enjoyed this, feel free to start some­thing in your own neigh­bor­hood. I’ve already heard of groups start­ing up in oth­er parts of the coun­try. It’s very organ­ic, very sim­ple.”

As much as I’m appre­hen­sive about reli­gions, I have to admit there is an extra spring in my step as I leave the dank East Nashville base­ment.  I doubt I’ll start a Neigh­bor­hood of my own, but I do think I’ll make an effort to reach out to oth­ers around me and let them know they’re appre­ci­at­ed.  Wher­ev­er Mis­ter Rogers is, I think he’d be hap­py about that.

¶ Despatched on Monday, April 1st, 2013 at 10:55 am and sorted in Essays. ¶ { ReTweet }

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