My friend Stina (hey, remember her? She blew up the internets with her "I'm a Downward Mobility Dropout" post) asked me if she could interview some friends of hers. I said yes, of course (and I would love to have a few more interviews like it!). Matthew and Diana's story is very encouraging to me, and I resonated with so much of what they had to say about joy, community, and sustainability (and bedbugs and expensive rent). Actually, it made me miss our apartment complex in Portland something fierce (currently, we live in apartments where there is zero community space and very few families due to the small sizes of the apartments). I just adore these pockets of kingdom people and kingdom communities, which are all over our cities and suburbs. Let's keep sharing these stories!
Downward Mobility Interview: Suburban Edition
Interview by Stina KC.
Matthew and Diana Soerens and their daughter Zipporah live at Parkside, a low-income apartment complex in an affluent suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Diana worked as a public high school teacher for seven years and is now working part-time at their church, Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. Matthew works as the Field Director for the Evangelical Immigration Table, a national coalition of faith-based groups seeking to encourage changes to U.S. immigration policy consistent with biblical values. He's also the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009). Matt and Diana met while both students at Wheaton College, and they held their wedding reception in the courtyard of their apartment complex in 2011.
Stina KC recently interviewed Matthew and Diana about their downward mobility journey in Glen Ellyn, a wealthy suburb where the median household income is nearly $90,000. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Q: Tell me about your experience with downward mobility. Why did you decide to move into Parkside?
Diana: I spent six months in a rural village in Mexico and I loved the simplicity of that lifestyle. I took a lot of joy in doing things slowly and in the relationship with other women in the village. I wanted to go back overseas after college but the doors were shut firmly so I started getting involved with World Relief, a local refugee resettlement agency. Our church was helping a refugee family and they were resettled in the Parkside neighborhood. I started coming to Parkside all the time and hanging out with Matt because he lived here. His roommate Jonathan had a vision for an intentional community and they recruited me to move into the neighborhood. Then I married Matt! And we never left.
Parkside reminded me about everything that I loved about living overseas without having to leave the suburbs. I loved the neighborhood, I loved that there were people outside all the time, and I loved the hospitality of the neighbors. It was the culture I was searching for, the place I was looking for. It was home.
Matthew: That’s an important point for us. We don’t live here because we want to make some kind of virtuous sacrifice. It’s not that we are focused on living in the most low-income place; we just love living here. If we are going to live in the suburbs of Chicago, this is where we want to live. The culture here is different from the suburbs, it’s much more community oriented and this is where we want to raise our daughter.
My story is somewhat similar to Diana’s. I had come back recently from living overseas for six months and I was living in this really nice house in Wheaton but it was killing my soul. I have been here for a long time, over seven years now.
Q: What is the structure to your community? Is it just the two of you or are there others living at Parkside who are there for the same reasons?
Diana: We do Bible studies with the middle school kids. We do basic discipleship with them. I’ve been meeting with the same group of girls for over two years now. It has been great to see how they’ve grown.
Matthew: We have a community meal on Monday nights, which is mostly our intentional community. There are about ten people in our community who live at Parkside who, like us, went to Wheaton College. We have a rotating meal, which is an opportunity to host outsiders and entertain guests. We also have a community prayer time Monday through Thursday evenings.
Q: Why do you continue to choose to live at Parkside?
Diana: It would be easy to live in the suburbs and never leave my Christian bubble. I could go to moms group at church and just hang out with my church friends. One reason is to interact with a diverse population and get out of the white Christian bubble.
Only one in ten immigrants have ever been welcomed into the home of an American and I find that really sad. I want to change the way immigrants are received into this country. Being hospitable to our neighbors and receiving their hospitality in return is a big value I have.
Matthew: This is important for me because my job is focused on immigration policy issues. I fly in and out of this community way more than anybody else who lives here; I’m not a typical resident. I work with pastors and politicians, so it’s important when I get home that I am still interacting with immigrants on a relational level.
Q: What do you does “downward mobility” mean to you?
Matthew: We aren’t downwardly mobile as much as not upwardly mobile. We haven’t consistently downsized; we just moved into a bigger apartment. But we have stayed in the same apartment complex and don’t plan on leaving. Mobility implies a direction and I don’t think we are systematically becoming less affluent or consumeristic, but hopefully we are capping where we’ve reached.
Q: How has your experience with downward mobility changed since becoming parents?
Diana: I have a lot more street cred as a mom with the other moms at Parkside. It opens up a lot more doors for relationships. I love staying at home with my baby here. I think I would go crazy if I lived in a big house; I would die of loneliness. One great thing about living in this neighborhood is that I don’t have to be lonely if I don’t want to be. There are always neighbors to talk to, I can go and knock on somebody’s door, there are kids playing outside all the time.
The most difficult thing is bedbugs. They are horrible and drive you crazy. They have bitten my five-month-old daughter. The level of infestation in the complex means we’re never going to completely get rid of them.
Matthew: It’s difficult because the best way to get prevent getting more bedbugs is to not to let any of our neighbors into our apartment, which defeats the purpose of living here. We have a bunch of kids in here twice a week and after they leave we say a prayer over the space to try and keep the bedbugs away.
Besides the bedbugs I feel like we are doing downward mobility lite, or at least incarnational living lite. We’re in the suburbs. We don’t have a lot of crime. We don’t live in a food desert; we can walk to four different grocery stores. We have friends who are living in desperate urban areas where there are shootings and crime. We don’t have to worry about getting shot.
Diana: Also, rent is expensive here. I struggle because we could be paying this much for a mortgage and building equity. That responsible financial thinking starts: “Maybe we should buy a house because we’re in that stage of life.”
Q: What did your friends and families think when you decided to live at Parkside? Did you get pushback?
Diana: Yes, from my parents. They were scandalized by how much we were paying for rent that goes toward a crummy apartment. And they said, “You’re going to walk out to your car and find it on cement blocks! They’re going to steal your tires!”
And the truth is there is no real crime at Parkside. It has had its fair share of issues in the past, like gangs and drugs and prostitution, but the neighborhood has cleaned up since World Relief has been resettling refugee families here. Our neighborhood is really vibrant and safe and family friendly.
Q: Do you have any words of encouragement/resources/advice for people considering downward mobility in a suburban context?
Matthew: There is cool downward mobility, and then there is halfway downward mobility where you live within walking distance of a Starbucks. No matter where you are, in a rural context or suburban context or urban context, there are communities like the one we live in. There are almost certainly people in your neighborhood who are living at or beneath the poverty line.
Diana: I know it sounds cliché, but we receive more from our neighbors than we ever give. Even if you don’t live in a diverse or under resourced area, get to know your neighbors and build a community.
Matthew: I don’t want people to feel guilty, like they have to live in a neighborhood like ours, because we are living here because we want to. I think if more people tried it they would discover that they really love it. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a better way to live, but for us it’s a better way to live.
Thank you, Matthew and Diana, for sharing your story. Feel free to ask more questions in the comments!