It’s so nice to finally meet my neighbors. I haven’t met any neighbors in the past 10 years I’ve been living here.”

I vividly remember the radiant smile on my middle-aged neighbor’s face as she told me this. It was at our third neighborhood house party, and she was excited. Twenty neighbors filled our house snacking on finger foods, chatting, and listening to me play Rachmaninoff on the piano.

We had moved to the quiet suburb of Park Ridge seven months earlier, away from the bustling streets of downtown Chicago that we were used to. Initially the idea of hosting big parties never crossed my mind, but in the mostly white, affluent neighborhood we found something missing: community.

Thus began a six-year journey of knocking on doors, meeting neighbors, and entering into their lives. Yet just as we were building strong friendships, COVID-19 hit and we ended up moving more than 9,000 miles away to Penang, Malaysia. With lockdowns, tighter security in our apartment, and a smaller living space, we had to change the way we interacted with our neighbors. Instead of big parties, we ministered to the individuals who entered our home. Instead of a largely homogenous demographic, we broke bread with people of all different religions, ethnicities, and socioeconomic levels.

God taught us through this journey that we can be missional no matter where we live in the world, whether it’s on a short-term mission trip to Haiti, in a Chicago suburb, or on a Malaysian island. As mission strategist Alan Hirsch writes in The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating Apostolic Movements, “as God sent the Son into the world, so we are at core a sent or simply a missionary people.”

Getting to know the neighbors

One year into our marriage, my husband Tony and I moved to Park Ridge to be closer to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he pursued a PhD, while I still commuted downtown to teach at Moody Bible Institute. With its high ratings for education, amenities, and safety, Park Ridge seemed like a great place to start a family.

Through my research, I knew Park Ridge was 96 percent white, but I didn’t truly realize how out of place we’d feel as a young, childless Asian couple until we moved there. When we went to the neighborhood parks or grocery stores, we stood out.

Despite the differences, Tony and I wanted to get to know our new neighbors. It was more than just wanting to make new friends: We wanted to be missional wherever we went. In Hirsch’s words, “We must actually become the gospel to the people around us—an expression of the real Jesus through the quality of our lives.”

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For the first few months, Tony and I dedicated a few hours every week to knocking on doors and saying hello to our neighbors. Most of them looked surprised. Some people didn’t want to talk to us. Before we could say a word, one person said, “I’m not interested in whatever you have.” There were several who wouldn’t answer the door, although we could see them sitting in their living room.

But to our surprise, many of them were happy to meet us. When we knocked on a 90-year-old woman’s house, she said, “In my 40 years of living in this neighborhood, you are the first ones to knock on my door as new neighbors.” She quickly welcomed us into her home, gave us cookies and soda, and we talked for an hour. As a recent widow living alone in her house, she shared that she felt sad and lonely at times.

Tony and Esther hosting a party for their neighbors.
Image: Courtesy of Esther Shin Chuang / Edits by CT

Tony and Esther hosting a party for their neighbors.

Some interactions were brief, but other encounters blossomed into meaningful conversations. When a middle-aged neighbor learned Tony was a preacher, he started sharing about his spiritual journey. We then talked for an hour about our faiths and different religions.

Then there was a man in his 60s, who was in tears when he answered the door. He told us that his mother recently passed away and started sharing about his heartache. That was the beginning of our friendship: He later became one of our closest friends in the neighborhood.

Over the next few years, we knocked on 122 houses (thanks to my Excel-obsessed husband, we have the exact numbers). Of those, 80 houses opened their doors and we visited 58 of those families more than once. Of those, we spoke in-depth with 16 households and became close friends with six of them.

After knocking on doors for two months, Tony and I decided to host a neighborhood party. We heard from neighbors that there used to be an annual neighborhood party until the host passed away, and people missed those gatherings. It also fit with our larger mission to bring the neighborhood together and to build a community.

Inviting neighbors into our home

Since I’m a concert pianist, I invited my neighbors to a free performance at our home. We printed out invitation cards and as we dropped them off at every door on the streets near our home, we prayed that they would hear the gospel one day. By then, we knew that most of our neighbors were not Christians.

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I still remember how anxious I was before our first house party. Most of our guests were still strangers to us. What if someone crazy comes to our home? What if someone comes in and harms us? The funny thing is, I found out later that our neighbors had similar thoughts: “Who are these people inviting us to their home? Are they part of a cult?”

Everyone took a small leap of faith, and much to our astonishment, about 20 neighbors showed up to our first party. At our second house party two months later, we had 55 neighbors. We started asking guests to bring food to share so that they felt ownership of the event and so that we could keep the parties financially sustainable.

The neighborhood Christmas party.
Image: Courtesy of Esther Shin Chuang / Edits by CT

The neighborhood Christmas party.

When Christmas came, we held a white elephant gift exchange. Neighbors began looking forward to the next neighborhood house party, which took place several times a year. We started asking our Christian friends to join the parties, and they not only served our neighbors but began spiritual conversations, prayed for them, and even met with some of them afterward.

We also got more and more bold in our house parties. Tony shared that we are Christians and that we are here for them. “If you need help with moving the trash can or picking up mail while you’re traveling, we would be happy to do that,” Tony said. “If you would like us to pray for you, we would love to do that too.” They began taking us up on our offers.

As time passed, our neighbors who were once strangers became our friends. We got to know them over spaghetti dinners and BBQs. We attended classical music concerts and comedy shows. My next-door neighbor became one of my closest friends, as we both enjoyed making pottery together. When I was pregnant, my neighbors threw me a baby shower. I saw that they had become a big blessing to us.

As we did life alongside our neighbors, hardships inevitably came. When one woman was going through multiple miscarriages, Tony and I visited her with flowers, cried with her, and prayed for her. When another neighbor grappled with the loss of her father, we listened to her and prayed with her. In moments of vulnerability, we shared about the one who can give them true peace and comfort.

While most neighbors rejected our invitations to visit our church, two neighbors ended up coming. The aforementioned man in his 60s started regularly attending our church and is now part of a faith community. Although many of our neighbors are still non-Christians, one told me, “You both are the first Christian friends I have. I can tell that you really have this love in you and that you’re true Christians.”

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A transition to a new neighborhood

Our neighborhood house parties stopped abruptly when COVID-19 hit. During the pandemic, we decided to move to Malaysia, as Tony received an offer to oversee a manufacturing business in Penang. We sensed God was calling us to move there, so we said our sad goodbyes to our beloved neighbors outdoors and six feet apart.

When we first arrived in Penang, I expected to get to know my neighborhood the same way I did in Park Ridge. But there were two problems: First, we moved during the pandemic when Penang was under a strict lockdown that left most people stuck at home.

Second, we lived in an apartment building with an around-the-clock security guard and elevator fobs that only gave us access to our floor. Due to the security measures, there was no way for me to roam around our building and visit our neighbors.

I struggled with this. How can I love my neighbor as myself when I can’t even meet them?

As the COVID-19 restrictions lifted, I started making new friends who lived nearby and invited them to my home. I hired Indonesian housekeepers to clean my home once a week. Musicians and dancers crammed into our apartment for concert rehearsals.

I then began to see how different my new “neighbors” were from my neighbors in Park Ridge. In Penang, my neighbors weren’t the people living in the same building as me, but rather those who stepped through the threshold of my home. My new neighbors come from different religious, ethnic, and financial backgrounds. Whereas Park Ridge was fairly monocultural (affluent and white), Penang was multiethnic and multireligious.

Only about four percent of the population in Penang are Christians, trailing behind Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. Reflective of Penang’s multiculturalism, my new neighbors included Indian Hindus, Indonesian Muslims, Chinese-Malaysian Buddhists, and more.

In the two years we’ve lived here, we haven’t hosted a big house party like we did in Park Ridge because of the limited space in our apartment. But Tony and I hosted smaller gatherings. I cooked Korean food for the wives of rich businessmen who are now my friends. With my part-time cleaner, I’d invite her to share a meal with me or pack some food for her to take home. At times, I used my translation app to tell her, “I’m a Christian and I care about you because I know God loves you.”

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Our babysitter, a single Indian Hindu woman in her 60s, told me about her health problems and her family struggles, and, to my surprise, she let me pray for her. Most of these people who come to my home are not Christians. But as we become friends, the gospel is naturally brought up in our conversations.

My neighbors in Park Ridge and Penang couldn’t be more different. But I realized that God’s heart for them is the same. Whether affluent or impoverished, well-educated or uneducated, American or Malaysian, they are all people God loves and cares about. God doesn’t show partiality toward them, and they are all people we are called to love. That is why, regardless of the environment, Tony and I consistently invite our neighbors to our home and into our lives. When we open up our living room and our hearts to them, many of them do so in return.

The question I ponder today is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “How can I love my neighbor?” Be it through my cooking, house parties, piano playing, or a listening ear, I am striving to love my neighbors as myself. I hope to embrace the neighbors God brings into my life with love, kindness, and care, for God has also embraced me with his hesed, his faithful and steadfast love.

Esther Shin Chuang, who holds a doctorate in worship studies, is an award-winning concert pianist, worship leader, and faculty at six seminaries throughout Southeast Asia. She and her husband are pastors at Georgetown Baptist Church in Penang, Malaysia.