A house in the neighborhood was becoming an eye-sore. One junk car sat in the front, another in the back, and trash and weeds ran rampant. So a neighbor called Bob Frie.
"It looks terrible," the man told Frie, a friend who is also the mayor of Arvada, Colorado. He thought Frie might be able to help. He was right. The mayor knew the first step to initiate a response was to call code enforcement, and that's what he did.
But something didn't feel quite right to Frie. And that feeling stayed with him a few months later, in January 2009, as he drove with his wife, Candy, to a meeting convened by a group of local pastors and church leaders. The agenda for their time together was built around one question: If you could eradicate one problem in our community today, what would it be?
There was no shortage of ideas. Arvada, population 106,000 and located just 10 miles northwest of downtown Denver, enjoys good schools, clean neighborhoods and parks, and civic pride, but it suffers from its share of social ills, too. And that's where local churches wanted to step in.
At the meeting, after sharing his vision in which "no one falls through the cracks," Frie paused.
"Wouldn't it be great if Arvada could become a city of good neighbors?" he asked. "You could address a lot of these problems just by teaching the people in your churches how to be good neighbors."
For the two dozen pastors in the room, their minds raced. Could it really be that simple?
"God was using our mayor to preach to us," says Dave Runyon, the former teaching pastor of a local church who began convening regular meetings with nearby pastors in 2006. "It got our attention. He is basically telling us we could help the city best by teaching our people to do what Jesus said matters most and love your neighbor."
In the months that followed, they wrestled with a simple but powerful idea: Local churches might change the world if they taught their people to take Jesus' teaching in Luke 10 literally. The result is Building Blocks, a program which is growing in Denver and beyond.
In 2010, the Pew Internet and American Life Project asked more than 2,200 adults about their communities. Some 28 percent didn't know the name of even one neighbor. Only 19 percent said they knew all of them.
One summer evening, after an impromptu outdoor barbecue with his small group introduced him and his wife to numerous people in his apartment complex, Jay Pathak, pastor of Mile High Vineyard in Arvada, began thinking how to encourage the people in his church to meet their neighbors. He drew up a tic-tac-toe grid to visualize this situation. The middle box represents a person's residence, while the remaining eight boxes represent those surrounding them, be they houses, townhomes, or apartments.
"The diagram is so basic, but it helps people to realize they don't even know their neighbors' names," Pathak says. He and other Arvada pastors began using the grid with their church leaders and congregations, and usually less than 10 percent can name all eight neighbors.
When Runyon's wife, Lauren, tacked a grid for the first time on their refrigerator at home, they only knew half. "I call this the chart of shame," Runyon says half-jokingly as he speaks about Building Blocks. Then he turns serious. "What does that say about how well we're doing about the most basic thing Jesus told us to do?"
"We all need a place to start," Pathak says. "The challenge is realizing where we are starting from."
Building Great Neighborhoods
A few months after meeting with the mayor, the church leaders met with Vicky Reier, the assistant city manager for Arvada and herself a member of the Arvada Covenant Church. She told the leaders that she and other city leaders saw no noticeable difference between Christians and non-Christians in terms of their interactions with neighbors. How could they help their congregations grasp the basic teaching by Christ about how to meet neighbors and relate to them?