I moved into our neighborhood kicking and screaming, at least mentally. It wasn't going to be safe, I didn't know how to relate to our neighbors, and most of all, our backyard had no fence to protect my children.
Okay - as an honest admission up front, I live on the edge of the real 'hood. While plenty of people warned us away from it - and I originally thought it was quite rough - it's really a good place to live and relatively safe. Yet for me, this neighborhood provided a needed introduction to living in urban, low-income environments.
When I moved to our West Charlotte neighborhood, one of my biggest sore spots was the lack of fences our yard had. I was a young mom with 2 little kids and 1 one the way. I didn't know how I was going to protect my children without 24/7 supervision. I dreamed about buying fences, researched the costs, and kept hoping that somehow, we'd be able to afford it. But before we could make the big purchase, my perspective on fences began to change.
It started with the neighborhood children. Once they realized we had kids, they began to appear in our backyard. Sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes more. At first, it disturbed me. They would play on our swing set, break my children's toys, ride their bikes, violate the personal space I felt we needed to have. When my kids had friends over, these neighbor children's philosophy was, "Su amigo, mi amigo." I grew increasingly frustrated. And in all honesty, I could be snippy with them. "Where's your parents?" I would sometimes ask. The kids would vaguely point down or up the street and would say, "It's okay. They know we're here." It was hard not to roll my eyes, because these kids ran in so many directions, I was pretty sure their parents had NO idea where they were.
Thankfully, it didn't take long for God to begin convicting me. When I decided to actually try to get to know these little offenders to my middle class boundaries, a new understanding grew in my heart. Sitting outside talking with these precious kids, they were so open, so much fun. When we started a game, they would join in eagerly. When I brought out crafts, they would all crowd around wanting to make whatever it was I'd concocted. These kids were so open, so ready to share about their lives. The fences around my heart began to fall.
I've never been great at hospitality, it's just not one of my natural giftings. And especially with my own house full of little kids, inviting someone over for a meal felt like a Herculean task. So if it had been up to me, and my dinner invitations, getting to know our neighbors would have been extra hard. But because we had no fences, they could easily walk into our backyard to chat whenever they came to check on their kids. It was no big deal, no awkwardness. When I saw them outside, I could walk over into their backyards and say hi. It was so relaxed, informal, and building relationships proved to be easier than I expected. Around this point, I began to realize I no longer WANTED a fence to protect my "privacy".
As my kids grew, and the crowd of kids in our backyard also grew, the lack of fencing between the yards meant we could play big games of Tag, water gun fights, soccer games. Yes, sometimes it would get chaotic. Sometimes we would lose toys and find them a week later in a different spot, but I had stopped caring so much about our possessions. I was realizing these relationships were much, much more valuable.
Though I'm thankful for the lack of physical barriers between my neighbors and me, it's not always comfortable. Living without fences has increased my trust in the Lord. We've had police run through our backyard. We've had total strangers use our yard as a way to cut through to the higher crime neighborhood behind us. We've had guard dogs wander into our yard and even chase one of my kids around our house.
Various circumstances are going to mean that we will need to move in the near future. As we've started looking at other houses, most of them already have fences. And that's actually made me a little sad. No longer will we be sitting at the table eating cookies when suddenly the neighbor kids appear at our back door asking to play. No longer can I just walk over to my neighbor's New Year's party without being invited and practice my Spanish. There's something about fences that brings more formality, more pre-planning and intentionallity. I hope that even if our next dwelling has physical fences, that I'll now have the skills to overcome them. God has used these last eight years without fences to remove the emotional and spiritual barriers that were in my heart.
That desperate prayer for fences this young mom prayed 8+ years ago? I'm SO glad now that God said, "No." He knew what I needed and gave it to me.
Fences photo taken by Phil Warren, used under a Creative Commons license.