A couple weeks ago, there was a letter in our mailbox addressed to “Resident.” I nearly tossed it into the garbage: usually important mail comes from people who know my name. I opened the letter, though, and did my best to decipher the legalese language as I climbed the stairs to my apartment. One line in the first paragraph caught my attention: the Village of Glen Ellyn—the suburb where I live—is proposing a redevelopment plan for an area that includes my residence, and they are obligated to invite me to a public meeting on the topic because the proposed redevelopment project “may reasonably be expected to result in the displacement of residents.”
Our apartment complex—which includes 120 apartment units and probably is home to between 300 and 500 people—is one of two residential areas included in the proposed redevelopment area. My wife and I immediately began thinking about what “displacement” would mean for us: we absolutely love this neighborhood, where I’ve lived for seven years and Diana for four, where we celebrated our wedding reception, where we’re surrounded by good friends, a strong community, including the folks we pray with on a regular basis, and, thanks to my neighbors from various parts of the world, the best food available anywhere in the Midwest. Diana—fully nine-months pregnant and perhaps a bit more emotional than normal—burst into tears as she contemplated how our life would change if we were forced to move. This is our home: it’s hard to contemplate raising the new daughter that we’re expecting any day now anywhere else. (My wife then made me watch one of the final scenes from Fiddler on the Roof, where the Jewish residents of the Russian town of Anatevka are forced out of the town that had been their home). We were saddened by the idea, and then quickly motivated to do whatever we can to stop the possible displacement.
Ultimately, though, as devastated as we would be to lose our community and the home we’ve built together, we have places we could go. We have good credit. We have some savings. We have decent-paying jobs and master’s degrees that would help us get new jobs, elsewhere, if it were to be necessary. We have family nearby who would take us in. We were born in this country and grew up in middle to upper-middle class homes, raised by parents with doctoral degrees, who in our childhood wondered where we would go to college, but not if. We know a lot of people, some of whom have a lot of influence. Relocation would be tough, but we would manage.
For many of our neighbors, the situation would be much starker. Most of our adult neighbors were not born in this country; in the course of my seven years in this apartment complex, I can think of neighbors who were born in more than thirty different countries of origin, mostly in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Displacement from this neighborhood would be all the more traumatic for them, because most have already been displaced once, in one form or another.
Many were born into situations of extreme poverty—not the poverty most of them live in now, “low-income” by suburban Chicago standards, but the desperate poverty that forced some to choose whether to pay school fees for their children or for medication to keep them healthy, to choose between adequate food for a day or adequate clothing for a cold night. Ultimately, they felt they had no choice but to leave that poverty in search of opportunity. They ended up as my neighbors, working far more hours each week than most Americans—often behind the scenes in businesses up and down the main streets of our community, in the kitchens of the restaurants where I go to eat after church on Sunday or in at the dry cleaner where I casually drop off my suit to be dry-cleaned—but grateful for the opportunities that this country provides for them and their children. They’re not doing great economically by the standards of many in our larger community—some have three kids sharing a single bedroom, and their families don’t go on elaborate summer vacations—but they’re grateful for what they do have, particularly for the opportunity for their children to be educated in really excellent public schools. We’ve seen several kids graduate from Glenbard West High School in recent years and go on to college—even to really great colleges like Wheaton, Calvin, and Notre Dame. That’s a huge reason that so many of my immigrant neighbors have stayed here for so long, some for more than twenty years.
Others of my neighbors were displaced by war or by persecution. Many were admitted to the United States as refugees, having fled persecution on account of their political beliefs, their faith, or their ethnicity. One friend lost her eye—and most of her family—during the genocide in Rwanda. Many fled the brutal attacks of a tyrannical government in Burma, targeted because they were ethnic minorities and, as Baptist, Anglican, or Catholic Christians unwilling to renounce their faith in Jesus, religious minorities as well. Some have been displaced for generations: they were born into refugee camps, the children or even grandchildren of those who were forced to flee Bhutan, or Burundi, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many were resettled here by World Relief, working in partnership with both the U.S. government and various local churches—and at last they are safe. This apartment complex is not perfect—we have maintenance issues that aren’t always attended to as quickly as they should be, and many hope to someday be able to afford more space—but it is home, and it would be devastating for my refugee neighbors to be displaced again.
For many of our foreign-born neighbors, displacement from this apartment complex would mean displacement from this larger community. There are very few apartments within Glen Ellyn that most of us could afford, and many do not have the credit history necessary for some other apartment complexes. Many earn just enough—working at minimum wage or, in the case of some those who are undocumented, even less—to pay rent here, and cannot afford a more expensive monthly payment. Some apartments won’t allow two siblings of opposite genders to share a bedroom—but many of our neighbors cannot afford a three-bedroom unit. And, though it sounds to me like a likely violation of federal fair housing laws, some landlords around here simply do not return your call inquiring about vacant apartments if you have a heavy accent.
There are other municipalities where my neighbors could likely go, but we love Glen Ellyn. We love our schools—by many measures, far superior to many of our neighboring communities—and the teachers who invest in the kids of our neighborhood. We love the public library and the parks. We love the local churches, of which many folks in our community are members. We love being close to relatives: we have several extended families living side by side here. We love the proximity to many of our jobs: many walk or bike to work, which is vital since cars are expensive and public transportation in the suburbs is very limited. More than anything, we love our community itself: a unique place (for the suburbs, at least) where neighbors of various backgrounds know and greet one another, watch after each other’s kids as they play outside together in our courtyard, share food together, pray together. It’s why my wife and I live here, though we could probably afford somewhere else, and why we’re so excited to raise our daughter here.
We don’t really know much about what the Village’s intentions are for this redevelopment district. We’ve talked to lawyers and done research, and basically we’ve found that this sort of redevelopment could have either very positive or very negative impacts upon low-income residents. Being included in this district does not necessarily mean that residents will be displaced or the apartment complex razed to spur retail or commercial development—though it could mean that. What we do know is that our neighborhood is coming together like never before to make sure that the Village knows that we love this community and that we do not want to be displaced. We’ll be walking together from our apartment complex to the Village Civic Center on June 17 for the public meeting.
Here’s my hope: that when our community shows up at that meeting, the various churches of our community are well-represented there with us, communicating to our local elected officials that the residents of the Village of Glen Ellyn—where 87% of residents are white, the average home costs more than $400,000, and median household income is about $90,000 per year—value and love the foreign-born and the under-resourced of their community, and that they stand with them. The well-off Christian folks of Glen Ellyn would be outraged if the Village decided to “redevelop” a subdivision and displace 500 people, and my hope is that we raise just as much concern for the proposed redevelopment of my neighborhood. The Church has to stand with the poor in our communities, lest it “shows contempt for their Maker” (Proverbs 14:31). Scripture teaches that God has “chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him” (James 2:5), a reality we see manifest in the strong Christian faith of many of our neighbors.
If you’re in the Glen Ellyn, Illinois area, my neighbors and I have put more information about the June 17 meeting—and a place for you to let us know you’re joining us—up on a website, which we’d urge you to share as widely as possible. For those who live elsewhere, please learn from our situation and pay attention to the operations of local government and their impact on the immigrants and the under-resourced in your community. We absolutely need to pay attention to, advocate for, and pray for those deciding federal policies, but our local elected officials need our prayers and our engagement as well.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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