Little boxes...
Serving the Suburban Poor
We're all richer when we realize that poverty is in the cul-de-sac too.

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?

Displaying 1–6 of 6 comments


December 14, 2013  6:19am

Jason, I agree that there's a disconnect between most suburban churches and the poor. Let me tell you a story. Sally (not her name) was rear-ended in an automobile collision by a wealthy couple from another country who left the U.S. immediately thereafter. There was no doubt of their guilt and they had insurance, but lawyers are clever and dragged out the issue for many years. In the meantime, Sally's shoulder was so badly damaged she had to be on pain meds all the time. The pain stayed at a level 7-9 most of the past 5 years. As a certified nursing assistant, she could no longer lift patients. She lost her job. She now does elderly care at minimum wage. She was not a sophisticated person and so she trusted her attorney, who never advanced more than $1000 total to her in 5 years, despite her desperation. In the meantime, her wages dropped in half, and being a single mother of two she became chronically poor. She asked for help from the church and received it one time in the five years, but the church had a policy to never "help twice." Last month the case was settled for $120,000. I'm horrified to say that her attorney kept $110,000 of that. She is permanently disabled, but continues to work to eek out a living. She cannot afford Internet or a computer at home so her children don't have anywhere near the kind of skills the average kid has. This is what the poor put up with. No wealthy, well-educated person would tolerate this injustice, but Sally doesn't know any better and she's learned that there's no point in fighting. She trusts a system that lets good sharp lawyers run over innocent victims. This story represents 4 poor families I know, almost every one of them due to auto accidents or injuries that weren't their fault. Sure, there are people who are poor due to bad decisions or bad character, but it's not the majority. In years of working with the suburban poor at my very rich church and being intimately involved in Bible studies with them, I know that layoffs, auto accidents, disability, and divorce are the biggest factors.

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Headless Unicorn Guy

December 12, 2013  1:40pm

Re John's two-pronged effort: I live in Anaheim – you know, the upscale resort town around the original Disneyland? Well, blue-collar pay is so low and housing prices/rents are so high we have hundreds of working poor families who have to live in motels. We also have a very upscale Italian Restaurant called "The Anaheim White House" that's doing something about it on both prongs, under the name of "Caterina's Kids": Prong 1/Meeting Urgent Needs – The restaurant and associated foundation serve meals to almost 1000 "Motel Kids" every night. Prong 2/Break Free of Circumstances – They also assist 50 families a year in securing an actual apartment. Reason I know this is they're having their annual donation drive today and I stopped by this morning with twelve kilos of tomato sauce and eight of spaghetti. Might want to check them out on the Web and give some support.

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December 12, 2013  11:44am

Oops, meant to direct my comment to Jason, not Janey. :)

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December 12, 2013  11:33am

Jason, you are right to think in such terms. We all must. I believe what it really comes down to is a two-pronged effort. 1) Meeting urgent needs and 2) Helping people break free of the circumstances that cause the need (whatever those may be). In some cases it would be helping people learn to budget, in others it might be helping people get a GED, retrain for a new job, or break an addiction. Doing anything is better than doing nothing, but you are right...unless we look at the whole picture of a person's need we are not loving them as we should.

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December 12, 2013  8:40am

I'm glad Chris and his church are serving a meal each week. That's great. And it raises a question. Is that the extent of "serving the poor"? Seems that doesn't solve the problem of poverty. Does it solve the problem of "is the church doing something"? Yeah. Is it enough? No. So when can a church declare itself faithful? I've never gotten a good answer to that–and I feel the tension regularly. Because my church is in the same situation. I try not to think about it.

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December 12, 2013  8:21am

Bravo to Chris Nye. I'm so glad he's doing something about this. I hope he also tells stories about the "typical" family and why they are in this situation. Most Christians simply assume that people are poor due to bad decisions, and while that may be true in some cases, it certainly doesn't represent all. Lay offs, major auto accidents, injury, divorce, etc., can decimate a family. I've seen it happen 3 times in the past 5 years. And what's even more shocking is how uncaring the church can be. I've seen legitimate requests by devout Christians in need turned down by pastors who have more than $50,000 of benevolence funds at their fingertips. I hope more pastors follow Chris's lead.

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