We settled into the couches surrounding the coffee table with the puzzle that Greg and I had finally outlined after two weeks of half-heartedly shuffling around pieces. I pulled out my laptop and made a new copy of the minutes, and Noah glanced around. “Let’s get started with highs and lows.”
I got to the section where we schedule upcoming events and saw “July 1st — Alex going home 2 AM.” I hit enter and wrote “July 17th — Alex coming home” and then realized with a start that neither of those made sense despite both being true. On July 1, I would be going home to Massachusetts, but on July 17 I’d be coming home to Nizhoni.
When I applied to Project Neighborhood as a junior, I was looking for a way out of choosing people to live with. I, a senior, a chronic overcommiter, and a soon-to-be student teacher, made the decision to live in PN, a program that demands twelve hours a week of commitment to the house. “I’ll figure out what things I need to drop,” I said to myself as I signed the acceptance form.
In late April, we had a house meeting with the mentors, current students in Nizhoni, and four new students who would be moving there in the fall. Jill, Eddie, and I piled into Jake’s car, and my dread deepened as they all played a version of Calvin Dutch bingo to suss out their connections. “What am I doing here? I’m just going to be the odd man out again,” I thought as I gazed out the window.
That thought abated after I officially arrived in late August and was immediately invited to help make dinner—vegan butter chicken. After we all sat down for our two-day house retreat and Nic said, “Alright, what we’re going to do now is share our stories,” and I was expected to recap my entire life for these complete strangers in under ten minutes. After we all dressed up (even me, who was a grump about it) and drove around to every PN house on Halloween to trick-or-treat. After the third night in a row of Shira looking at Jill and I and saying, “Girl talk” and us giggling in the dark on our bunk beds for the next hour. After the night my mom died and I decided to stay in the dorms with my sister but still drove the twenty minutes home to sit in devastation with my housemates because I didn’t know the next time I would see them but I knew I needed them right then. After I loved this place so much that I decided I would live here again, even if it meant giving up a job that fit me perfectly in Massachusetts.
At the start, PN was a way for me to live with good people who I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I’ve had housemates who are on the opposite end of the political spectrum from me, who believe in God but not the whole Christian thing, who are content to talk my ear off every day as we putz around the kitchen, who want to sit in the living room in silence, who listen and nod and then ask the question that shifts my issue into focus for me, who thrive off of spontaneity and suggest playing Mario Kart every night, who have experienced blatant racism, who go out with their friends every weekend, who love to go running, who rope me into trying out new recipes from cookbooks borrowed from the library, and whose idea of a good time is volunteering at the cat shelter. But midway through that first year, I realized that the other side of PN had snuck up on me: I had become rooted in Grand Rapids as well.
The house is, by nature, transient. But the people at Creston CRC, the downtown bus route, the neighbors on Buffalo Ave, the Creston murals—those didn’t change. I found that I liked the person I was growing into around these constants. Someone who said “yes” to strawberry picking, to volunteering to weed the community garden, to inviting a new neighbor over, to participating in house workouts, to joining a church small group, to trying out new local restaurants, to getting halfway involved with local community politics. Someone who could not wait for 9 a.m. Sunday morning, whether that meant teaching Sunday school or watching the YouTube virtual service, and who glowed with excitement over 6 p.m. Sunday night dinners where everyone—who had already spent nearly every moment of the week together in quarantine—gathered to eat and talk and laugh for another hour.
The plan was always to move back to Massachusetts after graduation, and honestly my life may have been easier if I had followed it. But even this year after a job that put me through the ringer and a global pandemic, there was something in Nizhoni and something in Creston that I couldn’t let go of. Despite every rational bone in my body tugging me east, I signed another year lease.
When I woke up in my childhood room on July 2, I felt like I was watching the world through a warped mirror—watching the news (Nizhoni doesn’t have cable), eating breakfast at a crowded kitchen table, and planning the menu for a weekend trip with family. I was off-kilter. Despite having looked forward to this trip for the past month, I realized that I missed my housemates.
That night, I zoomed into house devos. Sitting there, the voices of my housemates filtering into the house I grew up in, I felt like how I feel on Sunday afternoons in Grand Rapids when I call my family: like two puzzle pieces snapping together, like two halves of myself becoming a whole.
Alex Johnson (‘19) is a virtual computer science teacher and a proud resident of the Creston neighborhood in Grand Rapids. When she isn’t reading Young Adult fiction, she’s playing board games with her housemates, listening to podcasts, scrolling on education Twitter, and preaching the gospel of intentional community to anyone who will listen.