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Local salt and light

“Love your neighbour” is the second greatest commandment in the New Testament. But what does this look like practically in the physical spaces where we live? What if, in the words of Rick Abma, a missionary in Central Alberta, our traditional efforts to obey this command are carried out at the expense of the person next to us?

Abma is working towards a solution for that question through Neighbourhood Life (NL), a grass-roots initiative in Central Alberta that seeks to enable Christians to actively engage with their neighbours. After 20+ years serving as a CRC pastor in the institutional church, Abma recognized a problem – a shortfall of people coming to the church as an institution. Believing that the answer was not in adding more programs, he resigned from his position and began fundraising to work full time as a missionary in his back yard, building intentional neighbourhoods.

“In the context of church, I’ve observed a tendency for some of us to become so wrapped up in certain elements of the organization and the programs, that we miss the objective of actually engaging with the world we are called to serve,” Abma explained, going on to say that he desires to see less focus on the ecclesiastical aspect of church and more on discipleship.

God will orchestrate
Rick started by beginning to build relationships with people who had been his neighbours for 20 years, emphasizing that the goal is not to try to get people to come to church. Rather, the purpose is to simply live out the commandment, bloom where you are planted and see what God will orchestrate.

And God has orchestrated some pretty remarkable stories, as shared in Abma’s new book, out this month. The pages of Neighbouring for Life (Lulu Publishing) are filled with surprising and delightful anecdotes of the joy and small miracles that can occur when people simply start taking the time to get to know their neighbours.

It seems so simple, but for many people the hardest part is knowing where and how to start, and overcoming two big obstacles – busyness and fear. Calling himself a catalyst, Abma is currently working in over 10 neighbourhoods, helping people find ways to overcome these challenges and to be disciples in their neighbourhood.

“I’m operating from the assumption that most Christians want to obey the command to be salt and light in their community; to be disciples of Jesus,” Abma states, describing how he once used a map of his town to mark off all the areas where Christians lived, based on information from the pastors of each of the various churches. “Imagine the impact we could have if every Christian would do a little something in their neighbourhood!”

Believing that loving your neighbour should be no different than loving your children, Abma says that there are so many things you can do. “People will tell me ‘I’m not an extrovert. I can’t talk to other people as easily as you can!’ or ‘I don’t even have time for my family; how can I make time for my neighbours?’ but it doesn’t have to be big or complicated. The key is to go out with the mindset of searching for where God is already at work. Observe your neighbourhood; discern the beauty and the brokenness.”

Opening the door
The Neighbourhood Life website outlines “Steps to Start” – things like finding a willing neighbour to partner with you, praying for your neighbours and giving of your time, talents or treasures. Abma shared an example of one couple who loved to bake and decided to make five platters of cookies to bring to their neighbours. They didn’t get further than the first house, where they encountered a lonely older gentleman who was longing for company. They stayed and visited, and a relationship grew. Another family asked their neighbours to look after their house while they were on vacation. They returned to a big “welcome home” banner made by the children and two meals in their freezer!

Neighbourhood Life helps neighbours start by offering the free use of their “tool kit” – a number of items that can facilitate large crowd gatherings, such as a commercial size travelling barbeque grill and a meeting tent, which Rick and his partners will set up and clean up free of charge.

They also offer freshly roasted coffee in the form of a free, live event. What began as a fundraiser to bring in initial income for the ministry has turned into a full circle business whose profits now fund 20 percent of Neighbourhood Life’s expenses. The high-end raw coffee beans are purchased by a group of four people from Canada that support 55 farmers in Honduras including the Carpenteros group from Ontario, that Rick met when he lived there a few years back. The roasted coffee (goodneighbourcoffee.ca) is sold throughout Alberta in packages that contain stories of transformed lives in neighbourhoods across the region. As he demonstrates the roasting process at live events, it becomes somewhat of a “mini-pulpit” for him to share more of the stories of what is happening through NL and in Honduras.

“Wherever we go, and whatever we do, people ask us ‘Why are you doing this?’ and it opens the door for me to tell them about this big command that Jesus gives us in the Bible to love our neighbours . . . and it just takes off from there!”

Abma’s BBQ grill comes with wheels, fuel and two coolers.

New benchmarks
Rick receives some support through Christian Reformed Home Missions as well as from local churches and businesses. The biggest challenge in finding support, he says, is that it’s hard to measure success, since NL isn’t set up as an organized ministry model with stated visions and goals. The stories themselves, however, shout the success of lives transformed, and as NL continues to grow it is starting to attract attention from outside of the denomination. Rick has had numerous opportunities to teach and lead workshops in churches and with local city leaders. Currently, the cities of Red Deer, Lacombe and Sylvan Lake are actively promoting the work of NL.

Rick is excited to see where his so-called “grand experiment” will go next. “Everyone is dying to know what will happen. I am too!” he says with a laugh. At the end of his book, he encourages the reader to dream of what his or her neighbourhoods could become, to “Be creative! Be genuine! And think more of your neighbours than yourself.”

‘Rumours’ artist and inspiration (page 1)
Karen Tamminga-Paton is a painter, storyteller, teacher and community member. She lives in the mountains of the beautiful Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, where she and her husband, Dale, raised three daughter and wander the wilderness every chance they can (tammingapaton.com).
This piece graces the cover of Abma's new book. “We carry stories,” Karen says, “we carry secrets. All the while, we live side-by-side in our neighbourhoods. It is very possible to live our lives hidden. And yet, everyone holds echoes of something greater […] How well do we recognize that in one another? […] Imagine the rumours of glory that angels whisper over these same individuals – including you – because they know what God sees. How differently we would see one another!”

Author

  • Monica is a freelance writer and works as a Guidance Counselor at Abbotsford Christian School.

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