by Jim Killam | 5-minute read
Before First Free moved to its current location in 1980, it was a fixture in a vibrant Rockford neighborhood called Midtown.
Today, Bob and Jill Campbell spend most of their waking hours continuing to invest in the spiritual health of that neighborhood — their neighborhood.
For most of the last 30 years, the Campbells have been part of the Christian Community Development Association. One of the organization’s keystone values is to live in the neighborhood where you serve. Bob and Jill have lived in two Rockford neighborhoods: first for 10 years in Coronado Haskell and now for the past 15 years in Midtown. Bob serves as executive director for Zion Development Corporation, the ministry working to transform Midtown. Jill serves with CRU (Campus Crusade for Christ), running a newsletter mailing service from a Seventh Street office.
One block, four languages
At Katie’s Cup, the coffee shop started by Zion, Bob and Jill talked about the joys and challenges of raising their three kids — now 18, 16 and 12 — in an ultra-diverse neighborhood.
“Our street has Laotian, Hispanic, Congolese, African-American and white people,” Jill says. “That’s at least four different languages, just in our little block.”
Language barriers mean the neighbors don’t interact as much as some, but the Campbells have bridged cultural boundaries and gotten to know most of them. That’s been through no grand design nor carefully planned events.
“It’s just more interacting with people who are out about,” Bob says. “Maybe you’re working on your house, and the guys next door to us do construction so they’ll send their kids over because the kids speak better English, and they’ll say, ‘Hey, if you need anything, let us know.’ So I borrow stuff, and vice versa.”
In winter, Bob snow-blows the sidewalk up and down the street when time allows. That’s not without self-interest; he often walks to his job at Zion Development. But it also builds relationships with neighbors.
One neighbor has foot problems and usually uses a motorized chair. A couple of weeks ago, on garbage day, Bob was driving by and saw him, on crutches, struggling to haul his trash can to the curb. So Bob pulled over and helped.
“It’s just about being a nice person,” he shrugs. “That’s really all it takes.”
Things do go deeper than casual, front-yard conversations. Way deeper. Friends of the Campbells’ kids sometimes stay overnight — sometimes quite unexpectedly. For some of the older teens, their cultural norm is: If they don’t get home on time, their parents lock them out of the house until the next day.
“So we end up with kids sleeping on our sofa,” Jill says.
“Or in Isaac’s car,” Jill laughs. “and he doesn’t tell us until the next morning.”
Don’t worry. The Campbells are quick to remind their son that his friends can always come inside, especially in cold weather.
Being a safe place for kids and teens keeps the Campbells’ house and yard jumping. They do impose a few rules, like no swearing and no fighting. “If we ask you to leave, you leave,” Jill says. “If we tell you not to come back, you do not come back.”
They also establish boundaries, including times just for their family. Jill laughs about one neighborhood kid who needed a visual aid. “We had to tell him, if the flag is up on the front porch, you can come over. If it’s not, you can’t.”
“If you’re at our house we treat you like we would treat our children.” Jill adds. “We expect from you what we would expect from our children. But we will also give to you what we would give to our children. So if there are kids at our house and we’re running to McDonald’s, we buy it for everybody.”
“The bottom line for us has always been that we’re going to pray for the community that we live in,” Jill says. “We’re going to pray for the neighborhood that we live in. And we have really seen dramatic changes in our immediate surroundings because of that.”
Like what? Well, people move out and take their behavior with them.
“We’ve seen problems go away,” Jill says. “When we moved away from Haskell, we had several people tell us that it wasn’t going to be the same when we left.”
Bob adds: “They were like, ‘Oh, no. You were the reason why this was an improving neighborhood.’ Which we were not. Prayers might have been. So we answered that with, ‘Yeah, so that just means you need to be praying more, too.’”
And by prayer, they mean informed prayer. Prayer where you have skin in the game.
“I think a big part of why we’ve chosen to live in a neighborhood is because you know what the issues are because they’re your issues,” Jill says. “It’s not someone else’s problem.”
When your neighborhood is 70 percent rental homes, stability is one thing you pray for. Rather than dismissing the notion of befriending neighbors who might be gone in a few months, the Campbells have opted to double down.
You know: Lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness.
One mom in crisis needed a place for her two oldest boys to stay. Bob and Jill opened their home to them for a week.
“Making it a point to develop those relationships is important because they don’t have any stability in their lives,” Bob says. “So when they need some sort of stability, they know the Campbells’ house is where you can find some stability when there’s a crisis.”