Cities Concerned about Declining Populations

The Blessings of Foreign Born Friends

The “Rust Belt.” The phrase brings to mind abandoned buildings, crumbling infrastructures, demoralized and unemployed people. Those that remain complain about the declining quality of life, police protection and the schools their children attend. What is a city to do when industry and people abandon their properties?

The Wall Street Journal on May 19, 2016 shared census statistics of the declining populations in US cities. Mayors and city councils are concerned with these trends. My city of Louisville would have declined in population over the last ten years if not for foreign born people moving to our city. Cities have seen what happened in northern cities when the steel and auto industries left. Some city councils are already being forced to address abandoned housing which attracts rats, vagrants, and crack-houses. Chipped paint, trash and tall weeds drive down property values. Declining populations mean a decreasing tax base and a smaller labor pool to attract new industry.

These trends are driving a growing competition between forward looking cities to get immigrants to move to their cities. Foreign born citizens open businesses at twice the rate of local born, maybe because they have trouble finding employers that can see their skill sets. Some cities are realizing that we need to embrace the foreigners among us as a matter of practicality as well a matter of principle. It is a coming trend noted by those who have the wisdom to discern the times. Those who realize this trend early have the best chance of adjusting course and saving their cities from stagnation.

Can you think of a scripture that would support this idea of embracing the foreigner? The first one that comes to my mind is Paul on Mars Hill in Acts 17. My paraphrase runs something like this, “God made from one man all the nations and he determined the times and the places that they would live. He did this so that people could find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” Why are all of these “foreigners” moving next door? Because God determines the times and the places in which they live, and he does so with a purpose, to help people find him. For those who oppose immigrants moving to their city, it seems short sighted. Not only are they hurting the economic opportunities for their city, they very well may be opposing the hand of God moving among us.

I find great joy in looking for the image of God that is present in every human being, at least when I think to do so. It is especially fun to look for how God has formed and shaped the lives of people who have grown up in radically different circumstances. At one point, God told the Jewish people to welcome the stranger among them because they too were once aliens and strangers in Egypt. It sort of reminds me of the Native Americans helping the pilgrims.

As Susan and I have moved to different parts of the world, we have been incredibly blessed by the kind neighbors that helped us navigate unfamiliar systems. I remember the Turkish woman who made sure the clerk registering my car in Turkish Cyprus did not over charge me. Apparently my broken Turkish did not infuriate her. She was a complete stranger who showed compassion. I also remember the professionally dressed woman on the sidewalk of Maputo, Mozambique who could not take the time to decipher my Portuguese to help me find a doctor’s office. Believe me, my Portuguese, though not good, was better than my Turkish.

Why do some people instinctively help and others refuse help? I suspect there are a variety of reasons, but as a person of faith, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto to you” rings in my ears like a bell through the fog. As I encounter the foreign born neighbors among us, I hear Jesus’ saying, “In as much as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” Washing the smelly feet of the tired and weary and giving cups of cold water are the teachings and example of Jesus. What would Jesus do if he encountered my Somali neighbor? Maybe a better question is, “What should I do when I encounter my Somali neighbor?” I suspect we will all be better off if I embrace him as a friend.