It’s not unusual to invite friends for lunch. It is unusual to invite strangers to lunch, and even more so when 40 of them turn up!
Welcome to my first ‘Soup for Neighbours’ event and the beginning of a nine year community building initiative.
I live in Victoria, a small city on Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada. That first year, I didn’t know a single person on our street. Nine years later, I know 90 of my neighbours by name, and last November, I won an award for community building after several neighbours nominated me.
It all began a decade ago when my husband and I bought our first house in Victoria. Becoming a new home owner brought back memories of Laghey, where I grew up in our village pub, a hub of community itself.
In Donegal, we didn’t need to create community. We were surrounded by it and knew our neighbours for miles around. That network was continually reinforced with friendly nods on the street, shared cups of tea and attendance at wakes and funerals.
So, when we bought our house in Victoria, although very different from a Donegal village, I wondered if we could still connect with neighbours. On a street of strangers, I quickly realised to have a community meant we had to consciously create it, or it wouldn’t happen.
So one snowy December nine years ago, my husband and I decided to hold a soup event, and invite all our neighbours for lunch. We created a colourful invitation and delivered them personally to 50 houses.
We had no idea how many would show up. So we made three large saucepans of yam and pineapple soup that filled the kitchen with a sweet, steamy aroma. We tidied up, pushed the kitchen table back against the wall and then we waited.
There was a sense of relief when the first neighbours rang the doorbell. We welcomed them and served the soup. Gradually more came and the house filled up. Groups stood in the kitchen chatting while others sat by the living room fire, with soup bowls perched on their laps. There was a moment of panic when we ran out of soup bowls, but we borrowed some from next door.
By the time the last person left, we had served soup to 40 people. Since then, we have organised the soup event every winter, and added a barbeque the following summer. Then last year I started a monthly neighbourhood women’s support group. As we meet for tea and get to know each other better, our connections deepen. And these were the women who honoured my efforts by nominating me for a community award.
So what are the benefits? We have borrowed and loaned everything from a single egg to a truck. Baked goods have been exchanged and house keys entrusted. In the summer, trays of home grown figs, plums and peaches from neighbours’ gardens are often left on our back deck.
At a recent award ceremony in Victoria, I was thrilled to win the community award and have an opportunity to give an acceptance speech. I used the speech to encourage my audience to get to know their neighbours like we had done, and to do it when times were good so that in times of disaster, they could turn to their friendly neighbours for help. Facebook friends will be no use when the power goes off.
But first I thanked and acknowledged my first teachers in building relationships, my Irish roots. This is where I learned the qualities of the heart – the warmth, kindness and desire to reach out to others, and what I draw on most to build this intentional community in Victoria.
West Donegal may be a long way from Western Canada, but friendliness is the same no matter where you go. And it’s an honour to carry these lessons across the sea to my new home.