“The Neighbors No One Wanted,” Ensign, June 2004, 48
My family and I had thoroughly enjoyed living in our quiet, peaceful neighborhood. Everyone on our street was friendly, and we were all happy to welcome new neighbors. But then the McMillans (all names have been changed) moved in.
Sandra McMillan, a single mother, worked nights at a 24-hour bar and grill. The person who stayed overnight with the children always left early in the morning as soon as Sandra got home from work. The children were sent out to play at the beginning of each day, while their mother tried to sleep. Frequently the children’s laughter—or fighting—brought her to the door to yell at them. More than one judgmental thought crossed my mind as I watched what I considered very poor parenting.
The family hadn’t lived there long when two of the children started a fire in my next-door neighbor’s trash can. A few days later the youngest, Carl, let the air out of another neighbor’s tires. This was the beginning of a series of incidents between the McMillan children and the neighborhood in general that began to change the neighborhood atmosphere. A pall of hostility was settling over the street.
We were the only members of the Church in the subdivision. My family and I had always felt that good relationships with our neighbors were of utmost importance. We knew most of the neighbors by name and felt comfortable stopping and chatting with any of them. We welcomed the neighborhood children into our yard and home. We took meals when someone was sick, mowed lawns when others were on vacation, and watched children when parents got in a pinch. We had made a sincere, constant effort to be good friends and examples to everyone in our subdivision, and it had been easy. But now the whole neighborhood equation had changed with the addition of Sandra and her undisciplined offspring.
I didn’t detect neglect in the legal sense in the McMillan household. The children seemed well fed and their clothing was usually presentable, but there was little doubt they were growing up like wild grass. They were disruptive—at times even destructive—and their mother was hostile toward reported complaints, regardless of how well founded.
Because of her nocturnal schedule and her low threshold for negative information concerning her children, I had not made my usual efforts to get to know Sandra. I had heard accounts of a number of verbal confrontations that had taken place when neighbors had approached her about the children’s behavior. Honestly, I don’t believe I really wanted to know her. She seemed too unpleasant and, underneath it all, I resented the changes her family had brought to our happy little neighborhood.
One day while listening to a neighbor tell of finding the McMillan children showing off an adult magazine, I could feel my dismay and frustration grow. I was tired of this unrest and contention. As I half listened to all the details of the latest affront to our tranquility, I was surprised by a sudden thought, as clear as if spoken to me: “She is doing the best she can with what she understands; be patient with her and her children.”
Shame and concern washed over me. That idea was so different from what I had been feeling that I immediately recognized it as the Spirit instructing me. I suddenly remembered a passage in my patriarchal blessing. It counseled me to remember to be kind and patient with those who are not members of the Church, for by kindness and patience I would do much missionary work that I would not be aware of. Clearly, I had a responsibility to do the best I could to learn to love this neighbor, and I felt ashamed that I had needed to be reminded. Yet I was still unsure exactly what to do, so I decided to make the issue a matter of prayer.
I asked my children if they minded playing with the McMillan children. To my surprise, they readily agreed that when the McMillans were behaving themselves, they were fun to be with. But they also agreed that the siblings were an unwelcome challenge at times. As we talked, I felt an inner assurance that the McMillans’ behavior was not going to have a detrimental effect on the choices my children made.
When I suggested that we pray for the McMillans and pray for ourselves so that we could be better neighbors to this family, my children and husband agreed. Considering all the past problems, I was not under the illusion this was going to be an easy change. But I felt determined.
As I sincerely pondered the situation, the Spirit kindly gave me some insights into Sandra’s struggles—even her exhaustion and loneliness were made known to me in a very powerful way. These insights were a great gift to me, especially when the McMillan children were over in our yard most of each day. I found that if a feeling of impatience or resentment arose, the Spirit reminded me in a kind, gentle way that as inconvenient as it was to me, I was doing what the Lord would have me do in this situation.
When the children began to come over on a regular basis, I sat them down and explained the yard rules. I let them know they were always welcome as long as they followed these rules and that they were the same rules my children had to follow: no hitting, no name calling, no bad words, and absolutely no fire. The McMillan children solemnly agreed.
As I had assumed, our efforts to be kind were not problem free. But as long as they were in our yard, the three children did try very hard to behave. Perhaps they did not want to be banned from the last place that welcomed them in the neighborhood.
We occasionally invited the children over for family home evening, took them out for ice cream, and even took them with us to the zoo. I never spoke to Sandra directly though—I’m not exactly sure why. I always wrote a friendly note asking permission for the children to come with us, and she would reply with a note of permission, usually just a simple yes. Occasionally I sent over fresh bread or cookies, but she never responded.
One day I was sweeping the front steps while the children were playing in the yard. Carl became upset with his brother and began to yell at him. Before I could intervene, Carl picked up a rock and threw it at his brother. Only five years old, Carl had poor aim and fortunately missed his brother by many feet. The rock hit the windshield of my car instead, creating a long chip on the driver’s side.
Carl turned pale, looked at me, and took off for home. I called after him: “Carl McMillan, come back here!”
At that, the other McMillan children made a hasty retreat. I had not yelled at Carl in anger but had raised my voice to get his attention. I can’t explain why, but I honestly didn’t feel angry at him. I had just wanted to talk to him about not throwing rocks at people.
I was certain that Carl wasn’t going to come back to talk to me, so I went back into the house to ponder how to handle what had happened. As frustrated as I was by the incident, I knew that I did not have the will to go over and inform Sandra—this was hardly the ideal time to have our first face-to-face conversation.
A few moments later, I heard a knock at my door. Answering it, I found myself looking into the eyes of Sandra McMillan. Standing beside her—or rather trying to hide behind her—was a trembling, crying Carl. I said a quick prayer and braced myself for the unpleasantness I was sure was coming. I was caught off guard when instead of an angry attack, Sandra, nervously looking down at her feet, said, “My son Carl has something he wants to say to you.”
She then pushed Carl toward me, where he sobbed out a soft “I’m sorry I threw a rock and hit your car.”
I knelt down so I could look him in the eye, and I was taken aback when he fell into my arms and cried as if his little heart would break. My soul was filled with a powerful love for this child. I knew these feelings of love were a gift to me to help me understand Carl’s importance to our Heavenly Father.
I sensed Carl was afraid he had done the unforgivable, so I reassured him. I explained to him that I wasn’t angry and that I had just wanted to talk to him about the danger of throwing rocks. When he could see that he was still going to be welcome in our yard, he calmed down.
I stood up and was surprised to see Sandra fighting back tears. She had not said anything the whole time I was speaking to Carl. When I finished, she took him by the hand and simply said, “Thank you; it won’t happen again.” She then walked back across the street with her son. Shaken by the incident, but knowing that the Spirit had attended all of us, I felt peaceful about what had just happened.
A short time later, on a weekend when we were out of town, the McMillans moved away. No one knew where they had gone or why they had left. In spite of the tender moment I had shared with them, I felt a certain sense of relief to be out from under the stress of that situation. The months passed, and I seldom thought of the McMillan family.
The neighborhood gradually settled back into its previous calm. About a year later my family and I moved to another wonderful neighborhood, where we again made many good friends.
Another two years passed, and I was serving as Relief Society president in my ward. It was the practice of the bishopric to have the auxiliary leaders stand at the chapel doors and greet ward members and visitors before sacrament meeting. One Sunday as I was greeting people, I was taken by surprise when Sandra McMillan and her children walked up to me. I was astounded by the transformation. Here was a lovely, modestly dressed young mother, her pretty face free of most of the stress I remembered it bearing, and her scrubbed and cheerful children in tow.
I returned her smile, uncertain she would remember me; but to my surprise, she threw her arms around me as if we were long-lost friends.
I asked why she was there, and she informed me that she had joined the Church about 10 months before and had just moved into the ward. Her eyes were misty as she recounted how the missionaries had tracted her out one afternoon when she had been feeling about as low as she had ever felt. She then said something that caused me to catch my breath in surprise.
“I let the missionaries in partly because of your family and how you treated us, especially how you treated my children. I didn’t know you were a member of the Church—I didn’t even know the Church existed. But I had seen how you lived, and I saw what sort of neighbor you were. I didn’t know why I felt what I did around you, but because of watching you, I knew there had to be a better way to live. When the missionaries knocked on my door, I knew somehow they could show me that better way.”
I was speechless—I had done so little, and not all of that with the best attitude. She went on to tell me of how the gospel had brought her peace she had not thought possible, even though life was still a great struggle for her and her family.
As we spoke, a powerful impression swept over me. I realized what could have taken place if I had given in to my frustration and anger at the behavior of the McMillan children. As a fellow Saint or as her Relief Society president, I would not have had any credibility with her. All of the difficulties that could have been created if I had not loved my neighbor paraded before me, leaving me shaken and so grateful that I had heeded the Spirit that prompted me to remain patient. This was immediately followed by peace at the joyous reality that this wonderful family had found and embraced the gospel.
Sandra really had been doing her best under her difficult circumstances, and when she was ready, the gospel came into her life. How grateful I was that I had not been a stumbling block for her and that my family had tried to reach out to love a difficult neighbor.