Steward Stories: Neighbors

What to do when a neighbor takes everything? This was Denise’s question. “It’s hard to put something there for ‘anyone,’ and say, ‘well anyone but this person,’” Denise said.

Folks don’t easily overcome the scarcity mentality of poverty. Seems logical even that those in pervasive need would take everything. But that isn’t the case with this neighbor, who may have been taking items to obstruct. Despite its being in one of the poorest towns in Western Pennsylvania, this part of town is “a relatively nice, safe little neighborhood, the people who live there protective and afraid,” according to Denise. Perhaps the neighbor saw Denise’s church as the nuisance, its ministries inviting the wrong sort—the hungry and sick (NA/AA meeting attendees)—into her buffer zone. She wouldn't be the only one. Denise described the NA/AA meetings as “a [neighborhood] bone of contention.” A week after someone witnessed the neighbor removing items from the pantry, the neighbor witnessed police responding to an attempted robbery of church AV equipment.  

Denise entertained the idea of a camera but did not want to compromise anonymity. Instead, she and others she consulted decided to get to know their neighbor. That meeting did not happen in the way they might have wished.

Delivering LFP donations collected at a community event, Denise pulled up to the project. Someone was already there. She writes, “I kept driving past, as I didn't want to make them feel self-conscious with my arrival. I could see that they were smiling as they took a few things, and my heart was full.” When she came back around the block, the visitors were gone, and the pantry, too, was full—not an inch of room left to put in any of the items she was bringing. She decided to organize the contents.

Someone yelling. "Just take it all!”

Realizing the same neighbor was yelling at her, Denise was stunned. "Excuse me? What did you say?”

"Are you gonna' take all of it home?"

"I don't understand why you're saying this to me.”

"You're takin' stuff home, aren't you?"

"No... I'm with the church and organizing the pantry.”

“Oh," the neighbor said with a dismissive waive of her hand. "You're puttin' stuff in it.”

Denise wasn't dressed up or wearing makeup. Her hair wasn't fixed. She was the wrong sort.

American author, entrepreneur, and marketer Seth Godin writes:

If you’re seeking to create positive change in your community, it’s almost certain you’ll be creating discomfort as well….Usually, when we’re ready to launch something, we say, “This is going to help people. This is well crafted. I’m proud of it.” What’s a lot more difficult (but useful) is to say all of that plus, “and this is going to make (some) people uncomfortable.”

“(Some) people” includes ourselves.

 Note: Those who had been planning to approach the neighbor went over immediately after the incident. They told her if she ever had a need for food or anything else, she just had to say the word and the church would be there for her. When they asked if she had a problem with the pantry, she said no. Since this time, no further incidents have been witnessed or reported. Thank you to Denise for sharing her story and to her pastor for the Godin quote.