By: Stephen McAlpine
I got home from church last night and my neighbour diagonally opposite, Kath, was out in her garden. It was a mild evening, sun not fully set, so I wandered over for a chat.
Kath’s a great neighbour. Her house is one of the old non-gentrified ones in the area, with a great cottage garden that needs a lot of attention in summer. It’s a homage to the old country, roses, and the new, with some native grasses.
The fifty year old grapevine and its trellis are still in the back garden, testament to the original Italian owners who eventually subdivided the block. The grapes are excellent. There’s a lemon tree for good measure, a standard feature of this suburb back in the day before everyone realised it’s just a fifteen minute train ride to the city, and started subdividing the life out of it.
“How you doing?”
“Yeah, okay,” Kath said, pushing her hair from her eyes, and pausing her weeding, before adding “I just got made redundant.”
“That’s not good.”
Kath works – or worked – for a bank. A bank that has decided to move its training centre to Sydney, a mere four thousand kilometres from Perth. Kath’s not moving with the centre. Seven weeks severance pay, over Christmas, and start looking for a new job. Single, in her late forties, there’s no illusion that her job is adding to a household income – it’s all she’s got.
She seemed okay, but underneath? Not so sure. A few too many “I’ll be alrights“. We chatted on. Kath’s popped over a couple of times with grapes and flowers, and once to bring our dog home who had wandered off to see her. We always chat with her. We’ve made a point of knowing the names of all our neighbours. Do it early. Don’t go in hard. But do it. Just chill and let time do the rest.
“And how about you?” she asked, “You seem to be busy and away a lot.”
I agreed, and then we chatted a bit about church, me stepping down at the end of the year from my church role, and about the book I am writing. Kath’s always been keen to talk about my writing. I wonder if she’s ever looked me up. Wonder what she would think?
“What’s it about again?”
I said something about theology and culture and church and how it’s about Christians learning to live well when they don’t hold all of the cultural strings. I said it kinda neutral. I said it not apologetically, but not too forcefully either. I like Kath and Jesus loves Kath, and getting to know Jesus, not what I think about culture, is by far my preference for her.
But if I thought she’d wanted me to dodge the issue and stay on the polite side of the fence, then I’d gotten her wrong.
“We’re missing something without church I reckon,” she said. That surprised me. I leaned into it a little.
“Oh, yeah, what’s that?”
“Its the community side of things. I’m just not that convinced by the me too stuff, everyone’s out for themselves.” (I wasn’t sure if she meant #metoo, or just “me too” as an individualistic thing).
I circled a bit. “We haven’t got everything right,” I said, always conscious of holding out the caveat just in case there’s a hurt story in there somewhere, “But our church community has been amazing at helping people and being a family.”
And Kath kept agreeing with me. More than agreeing with me. Wanting to talk about it with me. She kept saying that something’s missing that church seemed to provide back in the day. Funny, but Jill and I have talked a bit about having Kath and our directly opposite neighbour, Ruth, over for drinks and nibbles. Both single women, both kind and chatty. We haven’t done it yet. We need to prioritise it.
A wise friend of mine who has moved to Australia to work in ministry said that the secular world has never been more hostile to the gospel, nor more open to the gospel, and both at the same time. Kath’s definitely not in the hostile category.
Jill pulled up into the driveway with a wave, and a cooked chook and bread rolls for the post-church dinner. Post-church dinner is usually an hour or two later than weekday dinners by the time we get home. Cheap and cheerful. Most Sundays Jill finds herself after church dealing with some of the same issues she sees day in day out in her clinical psychology practice. We end up after church kinda slouching in our chairs, exhausted, chilling out, comparing notes.
People come up to Jill after church is over and want to unload, or ask advice for a friend they are concerned about. Three or so on a given night. Last night the first cab off the rank was about a friend of someone losing their job. Being made redundant. One of our church people looking to help and looking for help. That’s the conversations Jill has after church. Every week. It’s a precious time. It’s a tiring time. It’s a community time. The kind of conversation that would refresh someone like Kath.
Church has been deep community. One couple came up to me to say they were leaving for the job in the North West that the mum had applied for. Getting into teaching for the first time ever. They’d come to us, unmarried with a young son, and living together. Then a relationship explosion that seemingly ended it all, before God in His grace brought them back, then married, then baptised, then another child, then serving God’s people in multitude ways. It’s a “good leave” if you can have one. They go with our blessing and our tears.
Kath needed to get back to the garden. Before the mozzies. Before the sun went down. She started to wander off.
“Hey Kath,” I said as she wandered off, “You’d be welcome to come to carols at church with us in a couple of weeks.”
“Thanks,” she smiled, seeming genuinely pleased, “I might just do that.”
And then I was back through the very big, very orange door of our gentrified house, on its subdivided block, clicking the lock and turning off the porch light, before walking into the cool.
“How’s Kath?” asked Jill.
“We gotta have Kath and Ruth over soon,” I said.
“Yeah, why’s that?”
So I told her the story I just told you.
Article supplied with thanks to Stephen McAlpine
About the Author: Stephen is the lead pastor of Providence Church Midland, and in his writing dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. Stephen and his family live in Perth’s eastern suburbs.