My Vertical Neighborhood: How Strangers Became a Community. By Lynda MacGibbon. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021. 160 pp. Paper, $17.00.
We are all surrounded by neighbors, but how do you get to know them? In My Vertical Neighborhood, former journalist Lynda MacGibbon tells the story of moving from rural New Brunswick to take a job in urban Toronto where she found herself living in an apartment building with hundreds of other tenants she did not know. As a Christian, MacGibbon understood that Jesus called her to love her neighbors. She also knew that loneliness was a huge problem in the modern world. As she says, “In both Canada and the United States, polls reveal that between 40 and 50 percent of people spend more time alone than they want to. They wish they had someone to talk to regularly—but they don’t” (p. 93). So how should she act on that knowledge? What follows is her easy-to-read narrative of how a relatively shy and private woman went about befriending the neighbors in her building.
Her efforts began with an open invitation to a regular Monday night dinner. It grew by adding a monthly Writer’s Group meeting. Neither activity was explicitly religious—just loving. And then, after some time, she nervously invited her neighbors to a Saturday morning Bible Study (“Will they think I’m a fanatic if I invite them?” [p. 70]). In each case, the key was consistency. Along with her friend Rachel, MacGibbon held these events on a regular basis, whether anyone else showed up or not. Sometimes they were alone. Other times they had only one other person. There never seemed to be more than 10-12 people at a time. It was small-scale ministry—the kind anyone can do. And over time she formed deeper friendships with some of the most unlikely people, most of whom were unbelievers.
One of her closest friends was an extroverted homosexual man she calls “Brian.” Unlike MacGibbon, who was shy about revealing details of her life, Brian was very open about his oftentimes shocking private life, such as his promiscuity and drug overdoses (pp. 49-50). Of course, she deeply disagreed with his choices and personal philosophy, but that did not stop her from continuing the friendship with him. “I had many questions, but surprisingly, whether or not to continue in friendship with Brian wasn’t one of them” (p. 50). In time, Brian proved to be one of her most influential friends.
He was also a key player in supporting the meetings, often inviting new people to attend. However, when MacGibbon started a Bible study, Brian initially refused. Not only did he not believe in God—he didn’t even believe Jesus was a historical person. But then, in an odd twist, Brian’s culturally Muslim boyfriend challenged him to join the study, which he did. And what’s more, Brian continued his practice of inviting others to attend. As MacGibbon reports, he would tell people, “Hey, we have a Bible study….I’m not religious—I’m just interested in history. You should come” (p. 71). And people did come. They took twenty-two months to go through the Gospel of John (p. 73). Although Brian did not come to faith at the end of that study, he apparently did start believing in God, and his relationship to MacGibbon progressed to the point of having spiritual discussions together, and openly praying. The needle moved, if only a little.
By the end of the book, there is no dramatic breakthrough or conversion stories. A revival did not break out in her apartment building, and no more than a few dozen people were involved. People came and went. Friendships blossomed and withered. There were missteps along the way. But what comes through the narrative, and what I found helpful, was how this ordinary Christian woman was stretched beyond her comfort zone to reach out and love her neighbors, just as Jesus commanded.
MacGibbon’s book brought back many memories of Canada. The secular culture, the privacy, the sense of social reserve, the hesitation at talking to other people about Jesus, and the fear of appearing crazy by inviting neighbors to a Bible study, were all very familiar. I was also not surprised by her experience of secular people accepting the invitation to study the Bible. I know first-hand that people who have grown up without Christianity do not have hard feelings against it and are open to learning more, if only for “historical” interest.
Who would benefit from reading this book? First, anyone who has looked out their window and wondered how to reach their neighbors. Second, anyone considering starting a house church but who might feel intimidated by that prospect. Although MacGibbon did not plant a church, the principles are similar. It starts by inviting your neighbors over to eat and then it grows from there. Recommended.
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society