The Key to Real Community: Tear Down that Firewall | Sojourners

The Key to Real Community: Tear Down that Firewall

Community gathered around online security. Image via Rawpixel/
Community gathered around online security. Image courtesy Rawpixel/

Yesterday morning at 5:30 I woke up to a disconcerting email:

Suspicious Sign-In Prevented. Please check your Google activity immediately.

In my half-asleep bleariness, I clicked the link and filled in my password.

Then I realized I'd been scammed.

"Recognize" was spelt "recognise" — and the account email was from, not Otherwise, the email was identical to those I'd gotten from Google in the past.

The next two hours were spent frantically re-securing my life. Changing passwords, adding two-step verification, application passwords.

I suddenly realized how much of my life was online. My Facebook page was a chronicle of my wedding, my jobs, my son's first 2 years of life.

Most people my age are the same way. Sometimes it's easier online.

The first people to find out about my pregnancy three years ago, besides my husband, were members of an online birth month group at Weeks before we told family or close friends, we shared intimate details about morning sickness, headaches, and faint lines on pregnancy tests.

Why do we do this? Somewhere, all of us, in Fantasy Football groups and pregnancy groups and dog lover groups and gluten-free groups: we're longing for Real Community.

With the advent of the Internet, Cable TV, security systems, and suburbia — community has changed a lot. Most of grew up with parents who were a little cautious about letting us run free in the neighborhood. We got caller ID. We weren't allowed to sell Girl Scout cookies door-to-door to people we didn't know. And increasingly, in our neighborhoods, we didn't know the people around us.

Trunk or treats in parking lots replaced trick or treating at our neighbors' doors.

Fear and wariness replaced openness and hospitality.

My parents have lived in the same neighborhood since 1980. I remember one summer afternoon, home from college, I had a terrible bike accident and an ambulance came to my parents' house to take me to the hospital. Days later, walking around the neighborhood, I couldn't believe how many folks came out and greeted my mom by name, asking if I was OK.

I didn't even know we knew these people!

In a way I'd rarely felt so loved. So secure. There was this whole community surrounding my home, loving me, watching out for me.

I've tried to recreate that community but it's tough. I haven't lived in one city longer than two-and-a-half years since college. I lived a whole year in an apartment near San Francisco without ever meeting my next door neighbors. Same for a townhome in Vegas.

In Florida in a gated retirement community for 2.5 years I never did meet a single neighbor.

In Minnesota my roommate and I baked cookies for our townhome neighbors and tried to share some small talk in the mornings. I at least remember one of their names, but that was it.

So many of us are desperate for real community, for real security—for that feeling I had as I walked around my parents' neighborhood, and people rushed out their front doors: "Angie? Are you OK?"

So often our first response is the one I had yesterday morning when I learned a hacker had gotten my Gmail password. In search of better community and more security, we build more fences and firewalls. We think the answer is more passwords, 2-step verification, separate groups for status updates on Facebook, private profiles — even applications like Snapchat that delete messages right after they're sent.

We probably do need more online security.

But in order to get that Real Community that so many of us are searching for, I think in real life the key to real community is making your life less secure.

Tear down the firewalls. Remove the passwords. No verification needed. Get to know your neighbors. See — eally see — that person in front of you, as even more real — more vital — than your iPhone screen.

This past weekend I did a little sociological experiment. I'm the pastor of a small church and also recently moved into a new townhome community. It's a pretty friendly place, and so filled with babies that I've taken to calling it the "fertile crescent."

We had a big event at church coming up, and I've been wanting to get to know more neighbors, so I decided to knock on some doors, introduce myself, and also invite people to our upcoming fair.

The look on their faces at first was usually one of dread. Who are you and why are you at my door on a Sunday afternoon?

Most people visibly relaxed when I said I was from the neighborhood. We shared a bond. A moment. We really were neighbors. I had the first password.

If they were parents of young children, the two-step verification went through easily. Oh, I have a 2-year-old!

Smiles abounded. Access granted.

I knocked on 150 doors. Most people opened them and were generally friendly. I had to swallow my own nervousness as well as my firewalls came tumbling down. I was talking — talking! — to complete strangers. Me, the one who usually buries my head in my phone screen while waiting in line at Starbucks, who wears earphones at the gym, who darts in and out of yoga class without making eye contact.

Lowering our person-to-person security is much more difficult than raising our online security. The passwords are more subtle, the two-step verification more unwieldy. Racism, sexism, and classism build fences in our interactions with the people standing right in front of us. We let garbage workers, delivery people, and construction workers blend into our surroundings as we read our Facebook News Feed.

Four days after lowering my defenses and knocking on neighborhood doors, and two days after upping my online security, what sticks in my head most are two interactions with my neighbors.

Three doors down from me, in the same townhome block, more than halfway done meeting my neighbors, I rang the doorbell.

A young guy about my age answered the door wearing a San Francisco 49ers shirt, NFL games on in the background. A pack and play for a young baby sat on top of the stairs.

I had the trifecta for access granted: we were the same age, the same race, both recent parents, both apparently transplants from San Francisco to Chicago.

"Hi, I'm Angela. I live three doors down from you."

His eyes narrowed.

"Do you need something?"

Flustered, I fumbled with my invite card.

"Looks like you have a baby! We have a 2-year-old, too. Maybe you've seen us out playing with him. He has red hair."

"Can I help you with something? I'm pretty busy."

Defeated, I backed away.

"Well I'm also the pastor of a nearby church and I just wanted to invite you to an event we're having next weekend for families."

He snatched the card and shut the door. I haven't seen him since. Hopefully I won't need to borrow an egg anytime soon.

A friend of mine tells a story about getting locked out of his apartment in 120 degree heat in Las Vegas in the summer. He had no one to call and no way back in, so he banged on his neighbor's door. He could see them inside, watching TV.

They ignored him for an excruciating 45 minutes, until his roommate came home and let him in.

"I was banging desperately. They just ignored me."

His story and my experience with my neighbor made me think about the people I've ignored — the times I've looked right through the person standing right in front of me.

As a follower of Jesus I try to put His words into faithful action, and imagine how he might respond in similar situations.

Jesus says the most important commandment is to Love God and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.

I've spent way too much time ignoring my neighbors. The pain of being ignored was real.

"Do you need something?"

What if I'd said then what I really felt?

"I need to love you, because you are my neighbor. I need to take down my passwords and firewalls and disable my verification settings and I hope we can let each other in and rely on each other when the road floods or my son is sick or my car breaks down or you need a babysitter for a few minutes while you run up the street."

"I know it might sound weird but I need to know you and I need you to know me because we're right here together and neighbors are meant to be loved."

Even as we reveal ourselves online we're building firewalls between us and our neighbors, and we can't see each other through them. We're blocked. Unfriended. From a chance at Real Community.

I had another experience four days ago, walking through my neighborhood and risking forever branding myself as that Crazy Christian Lady who tried to get us to go to her church. This experience makes me swell with joy and love even as much as the other fills me with pain, sorrow and shame.

I walked up to my neighbor's door and rang the doorbell. I'd never met her before.

She opened the door and extended her hand broadly: "Hello! Do you want to come in?"

She introduced me to her baby and told me about her life. She and her husband had been renting an apartment nearby after moving from Bolivia. She hadn't met many people yet. It was hard, she noticed. And she was looking for a park where she could walk with her sons. She said "Thank you, Thank you," so many times.

I told her about our church event and she cradled the invite card in her hands as though I'd handed her a bar of solid gold.

"This is a great opportunity for me," she said, looking me in the eye. "I will certainly be there."

When I walked away we had exchanged phone numbers and cleared our security settings and emptied out our cache. We had allowed each other open access. I took a risk and she let me in. She accepted me and even loved me, just because I was her neighbor.

In her eyes I was a person worthy of love and friendship. We shared a holy moment. Jesus walked between us and said do not fear, for I am with you always.

So I'm still working on it. My firewall surrounds my car when I block out the person next to me trying to merge in. When visitors come to our church I'm sure they're met with strange passwords and firewalls and verification codes that make no sense and leave them blocked from Real Community.

They don't know the hymns or where certain people sit week after week; how to pray at the right times or stand and sit down according to tradition. We're working on it. Jesus is helping us take down our security settings and showing us how to love our neighbors without firewalls.

And every once in awhile, by the grace of God, community happens. Firewalls come down. Hackers become friends. Strangers hug each other after a funeral. Children from different schools who speak different languages become friends. Believers and non-believers experience grace. And in the bosom of Real Community, I feel more secure than I ever did with even the strictest Facebook privacy settings.

Rev. Angela Denker is a former Sportswriter turned Lutheran pastor in Chicago. She covered the 2009 Super Bowl and published in Sports Illustrated in 2007. She's the mother of Jacob, aged 2, and blogs at

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