I’m writing this blog post right after getting home from taking a long walk through the neighborhood with my two boys. While we were on the walk, we bumped into a number of neighbors who were outside working on their yards or other projects. We usually stopped and had a nice 5 minute chat with each neighbor. Although we didn’t talk about anything terribly profound per se, I felt like I got a little bit closer to my fellow neighbors through each of these brief chats.
I had the same experience last week as I was walking home from a neighborhood baby shower. Most of the neighbors who came to the shower drove themselves there (even though they only lived a few blocks away). Now, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m criticizing my neighbors or anything—because a lot of them had valid reasons for driving to the shower. Nevertheless, I feel like they lost out on a great opportunity to talk to their fellow neighbors on the way home. Because as I walked back to my house, I was able to spontaneously talk to 3 different individuals that day. And it was really nice to chat with my neighbors and get to know them better.
I feel like these brief social encounters are important to the creation of a sense of community. As the Book of Mormon says, it is “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass” (Alma 37:6). Since I live in Utah County, most of my neighbors are also my ward members. And so these seemingly insignificant social interactions actually help to build ward unity. When I chat with my ward members, it gives me a feeling like I belong and am wanted—even needed—within this ward. And that feeling of being valued in my ward is often connected to how happy I feel within the church at large.
Chatting with neighbors can also be valuable if you live outside of Utah as well. When I lived in California, only a few people in my immediate neighborhood were members of the church. But because I regularly strolled through the neighborhood with my young baby, I got to know several of my neighbors. I met many new people that way, such as my neighbor with the beautifully xeriscaped lawn or the older couple who told me about how the local recreation center was offering some fun classes for children or the friendly woman from India who once gave me and my son a ride home when we got caught in a sudden downpour.
Even though these minor interactions with people of different faith may seem insignificant, they can have profound consequences. Harvard professor Robert Putnam and University of Notre Dame professor David Campbell (himself a Mormon) conducted a survey of thousands of Americans about their attitudes towards their own religion and other religions. They reported their findings in the book American Grace: How Religion Divides Us and Unites Us. They found empirical data to support a principle they called “Aunt Susan and my pal Al.” Simply put, if someone has a family member or a good friend who is a member of another faith, it automatically makes that person feel more positive toward that religion in general. And so, when a Mormon forms a friendship with a neighbor of a different faith, that helps their neighbor to have more positive feelings about Mormonism. And, perhaps even more surprisingly, it helps that person to develop positive feelings for other religions besides Mormonism too (as Putnam and Campbell’s research has shown). So, even if you never have a direct conversation with your neighbor about the church, just being their friend will help promote greater religious tolerance in your immediate community.
So, let’s get out and walk some more and shoot the breeze with our neighbors. Walking not only helps the earth, it helps your community too.