The Need for Good Neighbors

Present at this year's General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was Roy Sanderson, our oldest surviving General Assembly moderator. When I asked this sprightly 93-year-old what he was doing these days, he told me he was taking a computer class at a college in East Lothian. I was full of admiration.

That same week, at a lunchtime get-together of Scottish graduates of Union Seminary (N.Y.), I learned that Robert McAfee Brown, who had been one of my teachers in the late 1950s, had at age 78 written his first novel, Dark the Night, Wild the Sea. Again I was full of admiration. Having fond memories of Professor Brown, and being the proud owner of many of his stimulating and helpful books, I got one of my computer-literate sons to order the novel for me. Unlike former moderator Sanderson, I have not yet learned how to surf the Internet!

In the opening chapter, Professor Brown tells of a visitor to our western isles. Meaning to compliment the locals, he says, “You have a beautiful island. But it’s so far away.” On hearing this, a man called Angus looks the visitor full in the face, and with his melodious voice inquires, “Far away from where?”

Angus’ question recalled a story from my years as minister in Dornoch, a charming little town in the north of Scotland, which boasts not only a gem of a 13th century cathedral, but one of the oldest and finest golf courses in the world.

A visitor was once overheard to say, “Dornoch would be a fine place to live, if it was not so far from the center of things.” A Dornoch lad viewed things differently. Returning from a spell of work in London, he told a friend, “London would be all right if it was not so far out of the way.”

Where is the center of things? That is not a question for astrophysicists or geographers. The center of things is where love is. We feel at home where there are people we love and people who love us.

Retirement and moving from Dornoch has convinced me that the converse also holds. The loss of friendly neighbors is a fundamental loss. It is like taking the mortar our of a brick wall.

In a new community you initially feel lost. Although people shake your hand and nod to you on the street and comment on the weather, you greatly miss those friends and neighbors who were genuinely interested in the details of your holiday and your family’s escapades. You greatly miss those people with whom you could let your hair down (or what remains of it) and just be yourselves; people who never laughed at your dreams or mocked your flaws and failures; people who smiled warmly when they opened the door and said, “Come awa’ ben.”

That Scottish greeting has its origins in the design of 18th-century Highland croft houses, those commonly known as “buts and bens.” They comprised two rooms. The “but” was the room into which strangers and more official guests, like the church elder or the insurance agent, were taken. The “ben” was the family room into which close friends were invited. This was what gave rise to the hospitable welcome, “Come awa’ ben.”

C. F. Andrews told how during the First World War a soldier was badly wounded in no-man’s land between the trenches. At great risk to his own life, his closest friend crawled out to try and help him. The first and last words the critically wounded soldier spoke were, “I knew you would come.”

Whereas an acquaintance gladly shares your prosperity, real friends insist on sharing your adversity.

How quickly one feels at home in a new community depends on how soon you make new friends, how soon you meet people with whom you can relax and talk about anything. What a bonus are kindly and understanding neighbors, people to whom you can turn when needing help and not feel a bother.

A Londoner on his retirement decided to sell his city apartment and move to the country. As the movers were carrying out his belongings, a businessman who occupies one of the adjacent apartments, a man whom he had never once met during the seven years he had lived there, rang his doorbell and said, “I am going to miss you. You have been such a good neighbor.” Apparently his definition of a good neighbor was someone who did not trouble you or make noise.

The decline of good neighborliness may seem a fairly inconsequential social change, ranking far behind things like drugs and crime and racism in the league of anti-social activities. But when you think about it, the disappearance from some communities of friendly, helpful neighbors is a major loss. The secret of many a life has been that of finding the right neighbor, or right friend, at the right time.

The question which was put long ago to Jesus was “Who is my neighbor?” What a sad day it will be if ever a child asks instead, “What is a neighbor?” or if the answer to the wounded person’s question, “Where is my neighbor?” is “Nowhere to be seen.”

In the past, Christians in Scotland who wanted to follow Jesus opened hospitals and founded schools. Today in many parts of Scotland the greatest need is for Christians who are willing to commit themselves to creating communities of welcome; communities where people can open their hearts to one another, where those who have been deeply wounded find support, where those who have known too little love, learn that they are accepted and loved, and that they in turn can love and enrich life for others.

What an impact for good the church could have if more of her members were to make what Paul Vanier, the founder of the l’Arche communities for the mentally handicapped, described in his address to this year’s Assembly as the transition from the self-centered outlook of “the community for myself” to that of “myself for the community.”


James A. Simpson, a former moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, is serving as interim pastor at Brechin Cathedral, Brechin, Scotland.