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Linda Bergquist on the New Suburban Poor

Today, I am glad to have Linda Bergquist, a New Church Starting Strategist in San Francisco and co-author of Church Turned Inside Out. She is sharing today about the suburbanization of poverty.

Did you know that the Bible specifically references suburbs? The division of lands among the tribes of Israel (Joshua 21) references cities with suburbs around them. The word migrawshaw used here is often translated to mean suburb. Animals and their keepers inhabited these suburbs, while most people lived in cities and towns. Clearly, this is not today’s suburb.

I was born in the city of Hempstead, New York, close to Levittown, birthplace of the modern suburb. William Levitt had just invented an assembly line type home building process that enabled mass-production of affordable, high quality houses on the outskirts of cities. The new burbs provided security and normalcy to Americans who had recently endured two World Wars and the Great Depression. The primary residents of these communities were middle class families where Mom stayed home and Dad commuted to work. Everybody was white, and nobody was poor.

This stereotypical suburban community is becoming extinct in the United States. Today, a million and a half more poor people live in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas than in the center cities. It would be easy to blame the change on the recession or to ignore the facts by proclaiming that the recession will soon be over, but that would be negligent. By 2005, when the economy was prospering, there were already more poor people living in suburbs than in U.S. cities. In 1970, only 20.5% of America’s poor were suburbanites, and by 2000, the number increased to 35.9%. Between 2000 and 2008, the poor population in the suburbs of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas grew by 25%, almost five times faster than in the cities they surround. At the same time, the suburbs are also becoming much more ethnically diverse. Why the change? Here are a few theories:

a. Employment decentralization. Major employers in every sector have moved their bases of operation to the suburbs. Population sprawl followed job sprawl.

b. Immigration. Some new immigrants now select suburbs as their primary points of entry into the country because the jobs for which they are most qualified exist in suburbs rather than in city centers.

c. Gentrification. The status of status is changing, and the upper middle class is choosing high-rise city living over suburbia. There is a values shift from ownership (automobiles, large homes) to accessibility (public transportation, proximity to work, arts). As cities become more attractive to them, housing costs rise, thrusting the poor down into the streets and out into the suburbs.

d. Perceived cost of living. Sometimes, poor people move to suburbs because it seems more affordable. However, while housing costs are less, there are hidden expenses, such as car ownership and less access to human services.

e. High unemployment rates. Certainly, the recession economy is a factor. It has not brought the poor to the suburbs, but it is the reason why many middle-class people are suddenly poor and in need of assistance. The most challenging aspect of poverty’s suburbanization is that it has caught social sectors by surprise. Governments, nonprofits, schools, healthcare systems, and churches lack the infrastructures to help the way they do in the cities. Funding agencies are prepared to help the “urban poor” but have no mental category for the suburban poor. Money and volunteers flow inward to the city cores. Many nonprofits have lost the grants they need to provide wages for employees, yet have long lists of newly poor who need their services. Suburban schools are also unprepared for new kinds of students who enter the system from non-English speaking or reading impoverished backgrounds. Health care providers are serving new constituencies that lack insurance. Likewise, some suburban churches are facing membership declines and their congregations can no longer help fund programs. They seek causes, but are often unaware of shifts in their communities.

In the face of radical change, it would be humanly understandable for suburban Christians to assume a defensive posture. However, for such a time as this, the church is being called to a proactively biblical, missional, and ethical response. To begin with, most Christians are aware of God’s commands to care for the poor (e.g. Proverbs 17:5, 21:13, 28: 27; Ezekiel 16:49; Matthew 19:21,25: 31ff), but in the suburbs, poverty is less dense and, therefore, less visible. God not only demands giving to hoards of visible poor, but to any one with need: “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother…therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”  (Deuteronomy 15:7,11) Another face of caring is simply not abusing: Some of the Diaspora stand on street corners seeking work, and admit it or not, sometimes Christians employ them at below minimum wage. The Bible forbids it: “Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns.” (Deuteronomy 24:14) Second, suburbs are becoming home to a new Diaspora that includes new immigrants and refugees, as well as former urban poor who fled the cities. Many are a true Diaspora of God’s faithful people (John 7:35; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1). They have a message to share with secular suburbanites, and they belong to the church’s missionary team.

Remember the story of Joseph who entered Egypt as a stranger and a slave, but eventually saved Egypt from famine? (Genesis 37-41) This is a good time for suburban churches to become reacquainted with humility. Destitute people have often learned lessons about community, simplicity, and sharing that are vital lessons for Christ’s followers. Others newcomers are scattered peoples of the world. Though not a true biblical Diaspora, they represent people groups with the least access to the gospel and an Acts 1:8 spectrum of local/ global mission. New churches are needed among those for whom the gospel is not accessible because of language or cultural differences. Suburban churches can generously host new congregations and partner with them prayerfully and financially. The opportunity to share Jesus is not the only reason to welcome the strangers. Hospitality and justice are ways of life for Christians (e.g. Genesis 18:1-15; Leviticus 19:15, 33-34; Deuteronomy 1:16-17, 24:17; Matthew 25:35; Romans 15:7). Churches have potential volunteer banks for which other service providers long. Their buildings can serve as food distribution centers, job training centers, or provide counseling around domestic violence issues that often skyrocket with the stresses of poverty. They can offer transportation to government services and teach English. All of these, as well as the opportunities for Christian families to open their homes, are ways of practicing hospitality.

Speaking mostly for the immigrant farm worker, Cesar Chavez once said: “What do we want the church to do? We ask for its presence with us, beside us, as Christ among us. We ask the church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice and for love of brother and sister. We don’t ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don’t ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood.”

The poor are among us in the suburbs. We cannot and must not shut our eyes to their needs. How do you see suburban churches already beginning to address their new socioeconomic and cultural realities? What other thoughts and ideas do you have?  

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches; trained pastors and church planters on six continents; earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates; and he has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the Editor-in-Chief of Outreach Magazine, and regularly writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. His national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates. He serves at his local church, Highpoint Church, as a teaching pastor. Dr. Stetzer is currently living in England and teaching at Oxford University.