Monthly Archives: January 2011

Understanding the Suburban Poor

One of the surprisingly refreshing parts about being a church planter is found in leaving the environment of the seemingly “known” and being forced into a world of “unknown”. It’s refreshing to recognize how much we have to learn. It’s refreshing to get beyond our arrogance and pride and to be a learner again.

Not surprisingly, today I learned something new about the very people I hope to serve: The poor.

Although I’m aware of the common observable cultural shifts, I’ve remained pretty oblivious as to the depth of demographic impact by the gentrification of city-centers, and it’s impending influential waves. What I forgot to consider was the where, why, and how it impacts BEYOND the city-centers themselves.

Linda Bergquist, a New Church Starting Strategist in San Francisco and co-author of Church Turned Inside Out, wrote a recent post on the LifeWay Research Blog about the suburbanization of poverty. Here’s just a taste:

“The 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; Mt 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).”

You can read the rest of the post as well as some pretty insightful comments and dialogue HERE.


Missional People and the Missional Institution

Blake Coffee, author of “Trusting God’s People… Again” and the “Church Whisperer” Blog wrote a worthwhile read on the difference between being a missional church and a missional people. As a leader in a missional church focused on developing missional people who engage both their neighbor and the marginalized, I thought this to be a good reminder and perspective. Here’s some of what he shared:

“You see, there is more to the missional mindset than just becoming a missional institution.  The missional lifestyle is a lifestyle for each of us as individual Christians, whether or not our particular church is ever seen by its community as being missional.  The attitude at my own church provides a great example.  Not that long ago, my church was literally blazing trails in the area of social ministries.  We owned and operated a restaurant run almost entirely by volunteers, the profits from which went to feed people in our near-by soup kitchen.  We provided leadership in some of our community’s homeless shelters and clothes closets.  We had a strong presence in several of our city’s project housing complexes.  We provided Christmas meals to between 400 and 500 impoverished families each year.  In this area of social ministries, our institution was a well-run machine.

So, over the last 30 years, each of us as church members could pat ourselves on the back because our institution was doing great things in this area and we each had the good judgment to be a member there.  Mind you, the vast majority of us were doing next to nothing in these ministries (other than supporting them financially), but when confronted by conviction about caring for the underprivileged, we could each conveniently check this item off…instead of “I gave at the office” we could say, “I gave at church.”

But if Christianity really is to remain the revolution Jesus intended (instead of just the institution we tend to make it), then whether or not my church is seen as a “missional church” does not define me one way or the other.  Only I can define me, through my own actions and through my own heart and mindset.  If I am seen as a person who genuinely cares about people less fortunate than I, then I am seen as “missional” in that respect.  If not, then I have work to do irrespective of whether or not my church offers me this opportunity through one of its ministries.”

Good words. Thanks Blake. To read the complete post click HERE.

Empowering Refugees Through Social Enterprise

Here’s a recent guest post from our Restore Austin blog by Leslie Beasley, one of the founders of “Open Arms”, a ministry that empowers Refugee Women here in Austin through social enterprise. I love this stuff.

“In January, 2010, I took a trip to Uganda. I focused much of my time visiting orphanages in the area, feeling inspired by the work done there. By chance (but really, is anything by chance?), I also spent time with a group of refugee women from the Acholi tribe. These women had been abused by rebel forces resulting in 80% of them being HIV positive. I marveled at the resilience of their spirits as we sang and danced together. Their dignity in the face of trials moved me deeply. I left them knowing I wanted to do something to help refugee women. But how could I do it from the States?

Upon returning to Austin, I was drawn to the rapidly growing yet largely invisible refugee population in my own community. I had completed a training program to help their families and began enrolling their children in school. As I got to know one refugee family in particular, their experience with fear and isolation convinced me the time to act was now and the place to help was Austin, Texas.

I set up a meeting with the director of Refugee Services of Texas and asked the question, “What is the biggest need for the refugees living in our community?” Her answer kick-started this social enterprise. She said that most of the refugees end up in jobs where they are overworked and underpaid and get caught in a cycle of dependency and despair. What they need, she explained, are sustainable jobs that provide a livable wage. So, I set out to start a business that would employ refugee women at a wage that would allow them to provide for their families……a company with a conscience!

I started asking some of my friends if they wanted to join the adventure of starting such a company and was pleased but not surprised at their positive responses. Lacey Strake was the first to say “yes”, which fit well with her heart and the fact we’d discussed doing something like this over 10 years ago. (We even referred to it as Open Arms in those long-ago conversations.) We were quickly joined by several other friends and seemingly overnight, we had a seven-woman team overflowing with passion and complementary talents. It was like watching the perfect puzzle pieces fall into place. Our team launched into the unique challenges of creating a business that offers a compelling product, pays a reasonable wage and matches the skills and experience of our refugee employees.

The product……..
As we wracked our brains about what to make and sell, we researched and spent time on product development for several ideas that ended up falling short. My husband, Robert, and I even got into a nightly ritual of “business brainstorming.” (I know…very romantic). One night, with our brains tired from going down too many rabbit trails, we asked the simple question: “What do people have a lot of…but don’t really need?” The answer came like a lightning bolt…T-SHIRTS! As our minds raced, we talked about how t-shirts and refugees share a similar story: created with hope, but often tossed aside. With Open Arms, refugees (and countless shirts) will get a new start, a new lease on life.

From the start, we determined to do business differently. What if our company offered enrichment opportunities where the employees could participate in brown bag lunches with experts on relevant subjects? What if they had the option to attend an ESL class during the workday? What if we offered a childcare co-op for our mothers so they could bring their children to work since childcare is often cost-prohibitive? What if we offered job-share opportunities for those who need to get home to be with their kids? What if we instituted an early literacy program for pre-school age children of our employees, giving them a solid start as they enter school? What if we invited the community to join us for lunch once a month to talk about poverty issues and ways to help break the cycle of poverty? What if…….

I’m convinced the passion and work ethic of our team (Alexia, Diane, Katherine, Lacey, Linda, and Trina…..not to mention the spouses who have been roped into countless hours of work on our behalf) and our growing network of friends and supporters will make Open Arms happen.

To find out more click HERE.

Safehouses for Victims of Human Trafficking

According to a recent article at on child sex trafficking,  13 is average age a child is targeted and tricked by a pimp.  Advocates, law enforcement, service providers, and survivors have all come together to sound the alarm and reveal the brutal reality for the victims who are under pimp-control.  Federal initiatives such as the FBI’s Innocence Lost Task Forces, which have recovered over 1,200 child victims through four law enforcement operations shows the severity of the problem.  And the stories shared by courageous survivors expose the methodical tactics used by pimps to recruit and trap their victims.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act states that any child, under the age of 18, involved in a commercial sex act is a victim of sex trafficking.  This law and many human trafficking state laws, which align with the federal standard recognize that children do not choose to be prostitutes.  These children are victims who deserve rescue and access to specialized services and shelter.   Unfortunately, to date there are limited federal resources available for American child victims of trafficking.  Even more shocking is the dearth of shelter options for these victims who have survived the unimaginable.  The Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victim Support Act 2010 attempted to bridge this gap by providing funding for six pilot shelter programs. This proposed piece of legislation received unanimous support in both the House and the Senate and was moving forward quickly.

This is a good thing. But only a start. And is still in opposition. Let’s be in prayer… let’s be active… let’s consider how we should act.

Click HERE to find out more.

Click HERE to get your church involved.