I live in the suburbs. A lot of folks in the suburbs of Chicago—and probably in many other suburban areas around the United States—tend to think of immigration as an urban phenomenon. Churches often think of immigration as an “urban ministry” issue. In reality, though, immigrants are just about everywhere in the U.S., including, particularly in suburban areas: in Chicago, for example, there are now more immigrants living in the suburbs than in the City of Chicago.
That stat comes as a surprise to a lot of white suburbanites like me, though. Many just don’t see immigrants. They would probably acknowledge that, if they thought about it, they see immigrants working in various sectors of our economy. Where I live, this is particularly true in industries such as restaurants, hotels, dry cleaning, lawn care, and construction—but many suburban Christians would be hard pressed to think of any immigrants they know by name. For many white suburbanites, most if not all of the people they work with, socialize with and go to church with probably look and talk pretty much like they do. Immigrants, particularly the immigrants working in low-wage jobs who are most likely to be undocumented and least likely to be well integrated into English-speaking society, are invisible to many.
The ugly truth of the suburbs is that we—the suburbs—exist in many cases because we (or at least our parents or grandparents) did not want to see people who looked different than us. The “white flight” that occurred as African-Americans moved north in the “Great Migration” of the first part of the 20th century led to the explosion of the suburbs. Whether over concerns about the effect on the values of their homes or simply out of prejudiced fear, many middle-class Caucasians left urban areas and moved outwards, creating the suburbs as we know them.
The irony is that the suburbs “as we know them” are, to some extent, a misperception of what they really are. In DuPage County, where I live, about one in five residents is foreign-born, and one in four speaks a language other than English at home. In many neighborhoods, like mine, a large apartment complex easily visible from a major thoroughfare but never noticed by many white suburbanites, the vast majority of the residents are either immigrants or their children. I have started to realize immigrants are all around me, not just in my neighborhood, but at the grocery store, our local public elementary school, and at the Laundromat. I have often told eager white church folks wanting to befriend immigrants in their communities but unsure where they live to start hanging around a laundromat.
It’s time for white suburbanites like me to start seeing immigrants. When we stand before Jesus someday, he might ask why we did not welcome him when we saw him as a stranger (Matt. 25:41-45). And when we ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger?,” his reply might very well be “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” And if we say, “well, when did we see the ‘least of these,’” he might judge us because we chose to “ignore [our] own flesh and blood” (Isaiah 58:7).
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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