Each week, my church family serves a free meal after our 11 a.m. service. The meal is open to any one who would like it. Afterwards, a market is set up where patrons can receive a number and "shop" free of charge. The entire operation exists to serve those who find themselves materially poor and cannot afford groceries. People who could use a meal once a week.
While this may not surprise you, it surprises some people in our community because of one simple fact: our church is in the middle of a pretty wealthy suburb outside of Portland, OR.
I was telling a friend of mine (who knows the demographic of our community) about this. "Who even uses it?" he asked.
"Many different types of people" I said. "It's packed every week."
The numbers get real
Recently, Brookings researchers released Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. It's a lengthy report on a staggering new number: there are 16.5 million poor people living in suburbs compared to 13 million in cities. Perhaps more telling, the number of poor people living in suburban areas rose 67% from 2000 to 2010. Serving in suburban church ministry for the past seven and a half years, I have witnessed this, but now that the numbers are in the scale of it all seems a bit more real.
Too real, if you're one of those numbers, or a neighbor. So how can ministers and churches in the 'burbs respond?
It's easy sometimes to feel embarrassed about the number of lavish megachurches that exist in these communities. But it's not just an issue of scale or budget, it's an issue of education and awareness. In my experience, many ministers and churches in the suburbs are unsure how to serve the poor in a consistent way. We know how to rock your face off at Easter and make sweet videos, but we lack experience when it comes to being present amongst the poor.
That's not intended to bash the suburban church (as I said, I serve in one). It's intended to highlight the fact that we can serve the poor well too. There's an assumption of caring for the poor found in most of the early Christian communities that we've largely lost in the suburbs. That's everyone's loss.
To be a blessing
There's a very big church just down the freeway from us. From the outside, it is a daunting building. They built it back in 2006 with a big plan to make an enormous kids area and multipurpose rooms downstairs. But as their community changed and their congregation changed even more, God changed their plans. Now, instead of a well-furnished and finely-finished children's area to be used once a week, the staff converted the space into a utilitarian food bank and pantry for the less fortunate in the community. It must have been a difficult decision to leave the plans they once had, but who can argue with converting space and changing plans so that it would better benefit the poor?
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