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The Problem of Suburban Poverty

The terms “suburban” and “poverty” are often ones you don’t see next to each other, much less ones that go hand in hand. But interestingly enough, there are growing pockets of poverty in suburban communities. To look into this issue further, and to hear from a voice on the frontlines, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rev. Daniel Meyer of Christ Church of Oak Brook (CCOB) in Oak Brook, IL. CCOB is a non-denominational congregation founded in 1965. The church has an average weekly attendance of 2,500 and is located on a 25-acre campus in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Please listen to the full interview (below) if you have the time. Throughout this three-part series of posts, I’ll include some of my own remarks—summarizing points made by Dr. Meyer or my own commentary. In this post I’ll look briefly at Meyer’s thought on suburban poverty and CCOB’s place in alleviating it.

[pq]There are more people living at or below the poverty line in suburban areas than urban communities.[/pq]

Meyer noted the increasing population of those in poverty who reside in the suburbs.  Typically we think that poverty is reserved for urban areas or remote rural areas, but this simply isn’t true. Not only has he witnessed this firsthand, but for support he cited a study by the Brookings Institute that found that there are more people living at or below the poverty line in suburban areas than urban communities. There are a number of factors for this phenomenon, including but not limited to: expansion of the suburbs, economic recession, structural changes to the economy (such as the loss low-skilled jobs overseas), the collapse of the housing market, and an influx of immigrants. Lastly, Meyer noted that it can be difficult to spot suburban poverty because it exists in small, distributed pockets rather than in one major area. He said, “This is a phenomenon that we really need to tune into and start responding to more intentionally.”

Oak Brook, IL is an affluent community in the western suburbs. Even DuPage County, where CCOB is located, has long been the wealthiest county in the Midwest. It seems, therefore that CCOB might have a difficult time reaching the poor. But to the contrary, it is specifically located with good intentions. Dr. Meyer stated it nicely:

We focused in on the Joseph of Arimathea’s and the Lydia’s of our day with the belief that if those people became mobilized for the Gospel that they would have a profound blessed affect on the Lazarus’s of this world.

Indeed, over the 50-year history of the church, the congregation has provided over $30 million to ministries that provide food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education, and spiritual support to the poor. Annually, the church gives roughly $1.5 million for these causes.

Meyer noted particular areas that touch the heart of those at CCOB, including the needs of women and at-risk children, disaster relief, and systematic community development.  The first of these three, fits well with the instructions in James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

But the financial aspect isn’t the only concern that needs to be met. There is also the relational aspect. Meyer noted that it’s one thing to write a check to help someone in need, but it’s another thing altogether to build a personal relationship with someone whose economic or cultural experience is very different from ours. I believe this aspect to alleviating poverty (not merely fiscal poverty but spiritual poverty) is crucial to the success of a free society.

In my next post, I’ll look at the roles of the Gospel, government, and capitalism in alleviating (suburban) poverty.