For our final meeting of the 2018-2019 season, we gathered at a new-to-us space: St. Mark's Episcopal Church. It was new to us, but not at all new to Grand Rapids--it has been a downtown presence since 1836. Its Deacon, Rev. Jan Glockerman, has been part of G-RAP for a long time, and its Rector, Rev. Christian Brocato, has recently started coming to our meetings. Father Brocato came to Grand Rapids from ministry in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he said there was no pastors' association, so he is glad to be part of G-RAP. He was also glad to share St. Mark's mission with us: in our meeting room, they feed 125-150 neighbors every Sunday morning, they partner with Degage Ministries, and support 12 social service agencies downtown. They also host a Families Against Narcotics group to help those in recovery from opioid addiction and their families.
Rev. Kate Kooyman led this meeting of debriefing from the past year and looking forward to next year. We had quite a few new people at the meeting, from ministry interns to people fresh out of seminary, so she spoke about who we are as an organization:
It's always good, when you're trying to accomplish something, to take a minute to make sure: Are we doing the things we want to be doing?
These are the speakers we heard from this meeting year:
Rev. Kooyman opened up the floor for suggestions for what topics the pastors would like us to continue to pursue, and whether there are organizations we should hear from: "We're better when we speak together. We're even better when we know what we're talking about."
Pastors would like us to continue to call on the city to challenge developers about what is "affordable" housing, and to make sure that the city is proactive about making affordable housing part of every development plan. They suggested that we invite Ryan Ver Wys of ICCF (Inner City Christian Federation) back; he last spoke to G-RAP in November, 2017: Housing Crisis in Grand Rapids: What Are People Already Doing? What Can We Do? And also Grand Rapids Homes For All, a grassroots organization for housing justice.
Not just local officials
A few pastors suggested that we look beyond the usual local officials, to officials who make decisions that affect lives in Grand Rapids yet don't receive many invitations to speak to groups like ours. Names mentioned included David LaGrand, Winnie Brinks, the Planning Commission Director, the new School Board Director (when chosen), Senator Gary Peters (who has expressed a desire to speak to us), County Commissioners, Senator Peter MacGregor, Representative Mark Huizenga.
Some pastors would like to see us address mental health issues by hearing from Network 180, or the opioid crisis, which is hitting many of our congregations, by hearing from Families Against Narcotics.
Executive Team member Dr. Tim Harris asked a pointed question: "What can we focus on to offer change and not just conversation?"
This prompted a wide-ranging discussion about how we don't have a way to measure what we've been doing--something we were frustrated with the police department about a few weeks earlier. Many pastors were pleased that we are being invited to more tables as community stakeholders, and that's a positive development, but acknowledged that they are disappointed that some of our past conversations didn't go anywhere.
In the course of our discussion about ways to improve follow-through (including writing a letter that details things that we'd talked about and offered to the GRPD in the past), we discovered that the police department doesn't have even one chaplain right now (Walker's much smaller department has multiple chaplains). This led to a conversation about how we could offer to meet that need for the GRPD, even while we continue to be a voice for justice and reconciliation in this city. After all, more than one pastor noted that trauma is a problem for police officers, and if their brains are being triggered by unaddressed trauma, the officers can't do the de-escalating, community policing that we are asking of them.
That was an unexpected direction for the conversation to take, and felt proactive instead of reactive, which was welcome.
We will be on summer hiatus, so we will see you again in September for our new meeting season.
Until then, have a safe summer, full of fun ministry ventures and vibrant worship.
On April 25, the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors met at Grace Christian Reformed Church to hear from the Grand Rapids Police Department's Interim Police Chief David Kiddle and Deputy Chief Eric Payne. Chief Kiddle noted that he'd been with the GRPD for 26 years, with assignments in administrative and investigative "sides of the house." He isn't from Grand Rapids, but grew up in Sparta, New Jersey, which, he noted, "was not the armpit of the U.S., but a lovely spot." He came to the state go to Michigan State University for their criminal justice program. Deputy Chief Payne has been with the department for 32 years, and has held a similar breadth of assignments, including being in charge of the South Service Area for 7 years. He is from Dowagiac.
Police Chief Selection Process
After the introductions, the first topic Chief Kiddle addressed was the timeline for selecting the new police chief. Applications were closed on April 19 and they started phone interviews soon after that. The city's goal is to have "someone in the chair" on August 1st. He said that he is not a candidate for the position; however, Deputy Chief Payne is a candidate. Payne said, "The important thing is that the best person to be in the community and to lead the police department is chosen."
A recent study determined that the GRPD had a sufficient number of sworn police officers to handle current call volumes, but that they could use some reorganizing and some more civilian personnel. Chief Kiddle explained the GRPD perspective on that study. He said that, "we had to decimate the department of civilians when we had the economic downturn to keep the sworn personnel, so they took those [previously civilian-held] jobs." They have not reorganized since that time, so the implication was that the GRPD needs civilian employees so they can transition sworn officers to the operations side.
Kiddle said there were several options in the proposed 2020 budget for policing positions, including starting an evening community policing team, hiring a crisis intervention specialist, and creating a new public safety liaison position to increase oversight between the city manager's office and the police department. The budget has now reached the next step, but we haven't learned what, if anything, might have been cut from the public safety portion. We will post any updates about this as they become available on G-RAP's Facebook page.
Policing at the Speed of Trust
This is a program in which a police officer is paired with a community member, they go through a four-hour training together that teaches communication and trust-building exercises, and then they commit to have six 10-15 minute conversations over the next six weeks. It is designed to both build trust between the community and the police department, and to improve the police officer's communication skills.
Kiddle said that, of the 295 officers in the GRPD, 80-90 still needed to go through the program, and they are in need of community members to partner with. He offered to bring the program to any church that is interested. If you have 10-15 people at your church who would be willing to meet one-on-one with a member of the GRPD as part of this program, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will send it along to Chief Kiddle.
In response to a question about whether the GRPD has statistics about the effectiveness of the program, Deputy Chief Payne responded:
When we announced it, people thought it was the magic bullet that would bring harmony between the police and the community, but it teaches people how to have a conversation. It's about building relationships and developing communication skills and empathy. We have feedback, but no numbers.
One of our pastors who participated in Policing at the Speed of Trust and who holds an annual public safety day at his church, when they worship with public safety officers, values the rapport that these efforts have built. But another pastor who went through the program thinks that a different kind of training that more overtly addressed issues of implicit bias would have been more effective.
Citizen Police Academy
The GRPD offers a 10-week program, four hours, once a week, for civilians to come into the police department and get to know what they do very well. They are also trying out mini academies: one day, 9am - 4pm, lunch included, where they would cover use of force training, traffic stop training, internal affairs, and community engagement, and more. Chief Kiddle offered to do a mini academy just for pastors, if we were interested.
There are three different bodies that have differing levels of oversight and review over the GRPD that Kiddle spoke about: the Internal Affairs Department, the Civilian Appeals Board, and the Michigan Civil Rights Review Board.
The Internal Affairs Department has a lieutenant and a sergeant assigned to it, and there is an annual report available on the city website. (Go here to download it; the Internal Affairs section is the 9th page.) Kiddle said that anyone can make a report--you do not have to be a victim. There are also a number of ways you can report it: in person (1 Monroe Center NW), online, via a letter. (Go here to access the form and find out more about filing a report.)
Chief Kiddle noted that the Civilian Appeals Board (CAB) exists and that "everyone who makes a complaint gets a certified letter about their rights to appeal." He did not want to get into whether the CAB should have subpoena powers or whether it should do more than it currently does.
About the Michigan Civil Rights Review Board, Kiddle asserted that, "We open ourselves to outside objective review." He said, "We always assign someone one rank higher than the person being complained about" to investigate it, and acknowledged that they are "going back over some complaints."
Recent Use of Force
The conversation moved on to a couple of recent use of force incidents (some of which involved juveniles and open investigations, so we will not share details publicly), that resulted in a discussion about the training of GRPD officers. Kiddle defended their training:
Our training is excellent. It keeps our officers safe, but it can come across as too aggressive at times. We use scenario-based training for everyone we hire. They get 1,000 different scenarios in 8 weeks. We had 503 use of force incidents out of 13,000 arrests in 2018. That's less than 4%. 17% is the national average.
Pastors continued to ask about the training, to what degree it encouraged de-humanizing of the people officers interact with and to what degree it taught officers to de-escalate situations. Kiddle spoke to the Speed of Trust program: "We see people at their worst. Speed of Trust works because it reminds us that not everyone is a criminal." Payne said that their training is about de-escalation and told a story about someone he met who went through the Civilian Police Academy who had been negative towards the police: "I asked him how it went and he said he shot the baby, that he went through a scenario and panicked."
Despite recent GRPD and ICE interactions being in the news, Kiddle did not talk much about this beyond extending an invitation to G-RAP to send representatives to a meeting on May 22 for community stakeholders to provide feedback on the ICE cooperation policy they were developing. Three G-RAP pastors attended the meeting; hopefully we will hear from them soon.
The pastors expressed their concerns for the Hispanic community and their congregation members, and what it means for their safety when they fear the police in their own community.
Chief Kiddle wanted to mention that the police department does training for their officers in how to deal with people who are having a mental health crisis. They recently did a training that taught them about people with autism. The GRPD has a Network 180 liaison officer and they will sometimes try to get someone to Network 180 instead of arresting them.
The GRPD is hoping to start a campaign to educate the public about what they should do when they are stopped by the police and they would like input from community stakeholders.
GRPD and G-RAP
As the question and answer period wound down, we discovered that some of G-RAP's previous conversations and meetings with former Chief David Rahinsky and other officers and representatives of the police unions hadn't made it farther than those individual conversations. Pastors' offers to help in certain situations went unheard and both parties could not take advantage of situations that could have built trust. This was disappointing and frustrating, and became a topic of discussion at our May meeting. At that meeting we resolved both to follow up conversations with the GRPD with letters in hopes that a record of the discussion would help build something more lasting and concrete, and to offer our services as on-call chaplains, since the GRPD is without a chaplain.
We closed this meeting as we do all meetings with city officials: by praying for them, their work in Grand Rapids, their safety, and for our ability to work together so our community can thrive.
On Thursday, March 21, Rev. Dale Dalman and his culinary team welcomed Grand Rapids-area pastors and Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young to Esperanza Covenant Church (and introduced a few pastors to the deliciousness of horchata, the sweet cinnamon rice milk drink).
LaJoye-Young was appointed sheriff in 2018 to replace retiring Sheriff Larry Stelma, making her the first female Kent County sheriff. Before that she was the county's first female undersheriff, chief deputy, captain, and lieutenant. She joined the department 30 years ago, fresh from Michigan State University, working there while she got first her Master's in Public Administration from Western Michigan University, and then her Associate's Degree in Law Enforcement from Grand Rapids Community College. Her appointed term will be up in 2020 and she plans to run for an elected term that fall.
Before she educated the pastors about the job of sheriff and told us about her priorities, she wanted to say thank you: "I am very, very grateful for the opportunity to talk about the sheriff department's work with people who are doing good work, who are doing things in the community. What's often lost is that we are representatives of the people. If we're not working in unity, on the same track, then neither of us can do a good job."
She also said that she's aware that she deals with people at what might be the worst time of their lives, either when they need emergency services or when they enter a corrections facility. That awareness, coupled with the acknowledgment that "people's actions are one thing and their heart is another," affects her decisionmaking when it comes to staffing and programming.
The Kent County Sheriff is a constitutional office, so LaJoye-Young's job is governed by the Michigan State Constitution. She is mandated by the constitution
For example, for the last point, a city like Lowell has a very small police department, so she said that, "if something significant happens, they call us." In places like Wyoming, Walker, and Kentwood, the sheriff's department has supplied forensic and supplemental investigative services.
Grand Rapids is a large enough department that they help train each other and work together on task forces. The largest use of sheriff department resources in Grand Rapids is the correctional facility: "sixty percent of people in our facility were arrested in Grand Rapids."
Kent County covers 850 square miles, with 750 of those patrolled solely by the her department. LaJoye-Young said,
"It takes a lot of analysis about where to have people staged to where they can get to calls. For priority one and two calls--where there is a threat to life and safety now, or threat of substantial property loss now--we try to get there within eleven to thirteen minutes. We try to distribute cars in that timing because people deserve that help on the worst day of their lives. That's my priority."
She noted that, unfortunately, there are a couple of places in the corners of the county that currently take them 30 minutes to get to, and she's working on getting the resources to lower that time.
There are nine levels of priority that they give to calls that come in from citizens, depending on the severity of threat, damage, and the immediacy of the problem. For lower-priority calls, to reduce the time officers spend on the road (for example, when someone needs a police report for insurance purposes when their car's been broken into), there are a number of ways citizens can make a statement: over the phone, online, or by coming into an office. This frees up officers for those priority one and two calls.
Her "worst day" awareness filters through to her 911 operators as well. She worked to simplify the dispatch when there were problems with the 911 system, and she said, "customer service is our number one priority. The person calling 911 is having the worst day of their life--we have to treat them that way and give them the right information."
Community Services Unit
Another way the sheriff's department tries to cover that 750 square miles from a law enforcement perspective is to work with businesses, churches, and community groups to reduce opportunities for crime. The Community Services Unit works with churches and businesses to make sure that they're following best practices. Examples LaJoye-Young used were, "Church, don't keep your weekly collection in the unlocked desk drawer in the pastor's office. Also, a lot of churches are worried about hate crimes, so we ask, 'How can we help keep you safe?' We ask businesses, 'Is this the most safe way to store your firearms?'" They also run things like child safety seat checks to reduce the chance of injury in an accident.
There is a school safety officer assigned to every school district except for Kentwood. This officer acts as a liaison, to educate staff and students. LaJoye-Young emphasized that one of the roles of this officer is to foster a relationship of trust with the students, and they've found that, where those relationships are built, students do come to the safety officer to tell them about things that are happening at home, and to tell them about break-ins at school.
Kent County Jail
The sheriff is constitutionally mandated to operate and maintain a jail, and the Kent County Jail takes 60% of LaJoye-Young's budget and staffing. Life in the jail has changed a lot since she started 30 years ago:
In 1989, I first heard those bars clang behind me and I thought, "what did I do?" I saw the people in cages and thought, "we can do better." I was part of a concept project in 1991-2 for direct supervision; in 2012-13 we finished it and are now set up in pods, in day rooms instead of in cages all day. We are the best jail in the state of Michigan because we have the best programs. We have a captive audience in the jail and that's an opportunity to pour into them--they won't all listen, but it's an opportunity and I feel called to pursue it.
She noted that 70% of people in the jail are there pre-trial, accused but not convicted, so they are eligible for programs if their behavior allows it. The remainder are convicted of multiple misdemeanors or a low-level felony so, as she said, "we know exactly how long we have to pour into them." The department encourages people to take advantage of their many programs "to learn to make better decisions, to have a better life" when they get out. She mentioned the God Pod, a life principles pod, a work release program, and medically assisted treatment program for opioid recovery. The people who take part in the God Pod are 50% less likely to recidivate.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
Since LaJoye-Young and ICE have been much in the news lately, I want to let her explain the situation in her words:
2010 was my first orientation with ICE, and things haven't changed significantly since then. I want to point out that the Obama administration had the largest number of detainers filed, larger than the Trump administration's, so this isn't a Democratic or a Republican question, but a people question.
She noted that there are three immigration laws that are criminal offenses that ICE could get a judicial warrant for:
She wants law enforcement to be able to pursue people "who come back over our borders and preys on people," but she would like to see ICE's procedures brought into line with constitutional due process: "Our system is set up so that it can't be just one person's opinion, just one set of eyes, that there has to be review. That's for the protection of our citizens."
LaJoye-Young acknowledged that the problems stemming from immigration go deeper than she can address with any change in policy at her level. She said her priorities are getting to people who need help and trying to prevent crime; she knows that there are people in Kent County who are afraid to call 911 because of their immigration status, but for that problem to be truly fixed, there need to be immigration solutions at the federal level.
Towards the end of our time together, one pastor asked her about how the sheriff's department worked with communities of color. Her answer was part cultural and part practical:
Start with listening and everyone's better served. I want my officers to walk into every situation thinking they have to learn. We've contracted with a cultural intelligence group, and we learn about implicit bias on many different levels. I mean, I'm the only acting female sheriff in Michigan, one of 2% in the country! If you have a problem with law enforcement, become an officer and change the culture. We want to recruit people who want to help people.
Rev. Dalman closed out our question time by asking LaJoye-Young what she, as the first woman to hold so many different jobs at the sheriff's department, would say to a bunch of male clergy. She said:
Help every young lady believe in herself. Self-love keeps her less likely to be a victim of a crime. Take every opportunity to encourage her to love herself. A lot of women don't see themselves as leaders. I say, "I'm a team of one and I'm a leader." Encourage women to say that to themselves and they'll behave differently and they'll try to fix things in a way leaders do.
We closed our meeting with Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young as we do all our meetings with elected officials, by praying for her and for the community we all serve.
We are grateful to Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and to all the pastors who resisted the call to hibernate during our endless cold snap and came out for G-RAP's February 21 meeting. Thank you, also, to Pastor Jathan Austin and his One Church Empowerment Center team for their warm hospitality.
Mayor Bliss started the meeting by giving us some updates on major issues in Grand Rapids, and then she took questions, but first she gave a shout out to the pastors in the room she had worked with in city government: "I'm so grateful to serve with such an awesome group of public servants, people who truly have servant hearts."
Bliss had come from a sustainability summit earlier that day, so that topic was the first she addressed. She noted that the city has aggressive goals to eventually use 100% renewable energy. One of the tools she's most excited about is the biodigester the city is building to turn waste into clean energy. The city is also looking into adding solar arrays around the waste water processing plants. They are looking to move some yard waste composting into the city, instead of trucking it outside the city limits.
One of the highest environmental priorities for Bliss is lead poisoning. She has been working on that issue for 14 years, since the Granholm administration, but that has moved into a higher gear since last year, when 49507 had the most children who tested for high blood lead levels in the state of Michigan: "That is not the number 1 list I wanted to be on," she said. To address that jump, Bliss has created a Kid's Commission, and the city is working with the county and with a researcher in Chicago. One of the major issues is how to get funds for remediation, and she's hopeful that the new governor will work with us, since Whitmer has said that environmental issues are a priority for her.
Grand Rapids is in the middle of searching for a new police chief. However, it is City Manager Mark Washington who will be hiring the new police chief. As Mayor Bliss said, "I don't get to do that." She does, of course, have hopes for the person who is hired: "We have a long way to go to have a partner who can work with the community." There will be community surveys and meetings to solicit community input about the position, and she hopes that pastors will participate in those. She also noted that she will be getting briefed on violence prevention measures and the Cure Violence and Ceasefire proposals.
Mayor Bliss noted that Grand Rapids has come a long way from 10 years ago, when it was in a foreclosure crisis:
Now we have one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, but with that comes families priced out of homes and neighborhoods. So we've changed zoning codes, we've created programs to help those facing evictions, we're going after low-income tax credits. We just had the ribbon-cutting for the Genesis Non-Profit Housing Corporation's project at St. James School.
The majority of the 52 units at the old St. James Catholic School will be set aside for those earning thirty to sixty percent of of Kent County’s area median income, with 13 units reserved for persons with special needs. The elimination of the Kent County Land Bank in December of 2018 has meant that the city can no longer rely on its assistance in creating affordable housing, so "We're looking at what our options are how that we don't that those tools," Bliss said.
Equitable Economic Plan
"The flipside of affordable housing is wages," Bliss said. She's committed to making sure that the city is making an impact with its policies where the need is greatest. City Manager Mark Washington's previous city, Austin, was a Racial Equity Here site, and Bliss is grateful for the knowledge he has brought with him to Grand Rapids. The city has a team looking at ordinances and policies to see whether city practices are having a heavier impact on certain neighborhoods. For example, they found an unexpected effect of having a complaint-based system when it came to getting things like streetlights fixed. She said that they noticed that residents who tend to call about streetlights out tend to be in affluent neighborhoods; in neighborhoods where people struggle more to meet their basic needs, they don't call, and the light never gets fixed.
Two years ago, Bliss announced the formation of the Grand Rapids Racial Equity Initiative, which is chaired by her and Dr. Bill Pink of Grand Rapids Community College. They have pulled together 35 large employers and are looking at how they can be intentional about hiring a more diverse workforce. They are involved in training companies to build evidence-based hiring practices. As Bliss said, "It's our policy to lead by example, so it's key to have people to work with like Nate Moody and Mark Washington."
River Restoration Project
Bliss smiled as she said that she's learned more about the snuffbox mussel, an endangered species that lives in the Grand River, than she knew there was to learn, but assured the pastors that the river restoration project is moving ahead--just slowly. They are submitting permits and plans and making sure that the snuffbox mussel population won't be negatively affected and that lampreys won't be able to swim upstream. Next, state and federal agencies must review those permits and plans. Once that review has happened, Bliss said that they will add another level of priority: "When we start bidding we want to give priority to local, minority, and women-owned small businesses."
In the meantime, the city is working with the John Ball Zoo, the Public Museum, and the Wege Foundation to plan how to use the project as an educational experience for children.
In response to one of the pastors asking about immigration issues, Bliss said,
One of the most infuriating issues has been to see the impact of national policies on our immigrant communities. There is a frustrating lack of ability of local authorities to have any impact on the practices of ICE. Lots of mayors are struggling with this. We recently had an issue with an American citizen arrested by ICE and we're looking at what happened, but we are happy with the changes the county made.
[Kent County ended its practice of holding people in jail for Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless a judge has signed an arrest warrant.]
Bliss pointed out that Grand Rapids "came out years ago and committed to being a welcoming city. We will not ask for your status when serving you." The city is working at analyzing how it welcomes immigrants and at developing a strategic plan for honoring and celebrating diversity.
An issue related to this that concerns Bliss is the 2020 Census and the danger of not getting an accurate count because of the citizenship question that will likely be part of it--an inaccurate count would affect funding and representation. She and City Commissioner Nate Moody have started a Complete Count Committee to get the word out and work towards making sure everyone gets counted.
Bliss said that Grand Rapids, along with other cities, is suing three large pharmaceutical manufacturers because "money impacts practices." She noted that all of their police officers and firefighters carry Narcan and Naloxen, which can reverse an overdose. With the hiring of a new police chief on the horizon, she is hopeful that we can take another look at how we treat those who are in a mental health crisis or having an addiction issue: "Can we divert them from jails? There are innovative and creative models out there."
The city has been partnering with a number of organizations to help returning citizens. She was excited that the CLEAR program (Coalition, Leadership, Education, Advice Rehabilitation) started serving women in the last year (this is a program housed at Oakdale Park Church, which has multiple pastors active in G-RAP). The city is working with NextStep both for employment and for housing for returning citizens.
Bliss is passionate about the issue of "banning the box": removing the question on applications about whether a job applicant has a criminal record. She said, "The city needs to be the model for hiring and banning the box. I'd love to ban the box locally, but the state pre-empted us and prevented us from doing that."
She's also working with other mayors on these issues:
I'm part of an urban core mayor's group in Michigan and we've been talking about returning citizens for a long time. There are several pieces of legislation out there to reform corrections that are good practices that we're supporting.
One of the pastors asked Mayor Bliss about how she leads in these divided, contentious times. Part of her answer was to call on us, community and faith leaders, to continue to build relationships with each other and with elected officials so we can have tough conversations with each other and hold each other accountable. But, she also pointed out,
You also can assume that we know what we're doing and we'll never make a mistake. We have to get back to seeing people as brothers and sisters and giving each other grace. We have to do that because we respect each other. It's easy to make your circle smaller because things are so nasty out there, but that's the worst thing to do.
Bliss practices what she preaches: when people post terrible things about her or about the city on social media, she makes a point of calling them and inviting them to speak with her. She did that recently, and the woman came and they spoke; they don't always wind up agreeing with each other, but the tone of communication becomes less heated and more respectful.
We closed our meeting with Mayor Bliss as we do all our meetings with city officials, by praying for her and for the community we all serve.
If you are a Christian pastor in the Grand Rapids area and you are interested in issues of justice, unity, and reconciliation, please join us for our next meeting: Thursday, March 21, 11:30am - 1:00pm, at Esperanza Covenant Church, 1933 Tremont Blvd. NW, when our guest will be Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young.
If you are interested in seeing more from Mayor Bliss about many of these same topics, below is the State of the City address she gave less than a week after our meeting:
The Grand Rapids Association of Pastors met on January 17, 2019 at Oakdale Park Church to talk with Pastor Nate Moody and others about what we can do as a diverse group of pastors in the aftermath of the racist and threatening phone calls and emails sent to Brown Hutcherson Ministries and Brown Funeral Home last year.
Rev. Emmett Harrison, senior pastor of Oakdale and member of the G-RAP Executive Team, opened the meeting. He noted that there had been a cross-denominational meeting of pastors at Calvin Seminary on December 13, 2018 to begin talking about how those calls have affected Pastor Moody's church and other churches in town. This meeting was our chance to be more focused on what we can do next. Rev. Harrison said,
"The composition of this group is positive in and of itself. We've made some ground as far as unity goes. But what we ought to do now in response to this issue in places of worship and as leaders of faith?"
Rev. Nate Moody led the remainder of the meeting. His first plea was for prayer for the young man who left those messages:
"Pray for Todd Jamison. Pray for him because I don't think he understands the impact of what's taken place. Pray for him because he, too, needs to be ministered to. Sometimes we do things out of anger and frustration and our pasts come out. I think that's what happened to him. I don't want to see him go to prison, but I want him to understand the impact of what's happened here and around the country."
Rev. Moody also asked for prayer for him and his ministers, staff, and congregation at Brown Hutcherson and the staff at the funeral home.
"This opened a door for me and for us to minister and to talk about the disparities that exist for us as ministers. I'm glad it happened to me because it gives us a chance to minister and to talk about our divide. One of the biggest issues that we have is that you as white clergy have to be willing to talk about these issues in your churches."
He noted that he knows some white clergy have to be careful about what they say in their congregation, but that he doesn't have that choice. He said, "When you look at history, the Christian church supported lunching because the pastors did not submit themselves to the Word of God--we cannot have that today."
The threats also served as an unexpected connection point. Rev. Moody said that he's talked with people from white churches that have received threatening phone calls from other white people. They didn't make the news, but it made him feel like we're in this together--it could be any of our churches next, because people get angry at churches.
Brown Hutcherson is having varying reactions to what happened. The staff is afraid. Senior members who moved to Michigan from the South "took a fright." Younger members are angry and prepared to defend themselves.
Pastor John Matias, a minister at Brown Hutcherson and member of G-RAP's Executive Team, told us of his experience:
"As a minister at BHM, I talked with members frightened for their kids, themselves, and our broader community, and after praying about what should be our response, after asking the question, 'What is God doing here?' I had a vision of a combined service. God is giving us a unique opportunity to come together and to practice being one and to live and to breathe that we are one. It's time to talk about this with our leadership and with our congregations."
So what can G-RAP do?
The discussion crystallized into four possibilities that the group will continue to discuss:
1. Citywide unity worship service
2. Every church mention BHM and Todd Jamison in their prayers for a month.
3. A citywide unity march
4. Each pastor commit to meeting a pastor who isn't of your tradition or background for lunch, breakfast, or coffee before summer
Rev. Jack Kooreman noted that this desire for unity, this pull to be together as pastors and act as one during times of racial strife were exactly why G-RAP was started in 2015. Several people at the meeting reiterated Rev. Moody and Rev. Matias's words: this is an opportunity.
Rev. Moody invited Rev. Byron Salguero of Mision de Fe Church to pray for Todd Jamison, and asked Rev. Colleen Squires of All Souls Community Church to close the meeting with prayer.
In many ways, this meeting beautifully demonstrated who we are as a group: we were led by African American, Hispanic, and white pastors of very different denominations as we sought to not only understand the experience of BHM's pastors and members, but also to forge a path towards action, towards showing our city what it can look like when pastors and congregations come together with common purpose for the glory of our common Lord.
The Grand Rapids Association of Pastors met on Thursday, November 15 to talk about immigration--both to work through some myths about it and to hear from Hillary Scholten of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) about two local issues.
Rev. Kate Kooyman and Rev. Adam Lipscomb led the discussion of immigration myths, their facts rounded out by stories from two pastors of Hispanic congregations, Father Steven Cron and Rev. Dale Dalman. They talked us through a True/False quiz that we took before lunch. You can download the blank quiz with the link below. As Rev. Kooyman said, "It's very hard to have a discussion about immigration if we're operating with myths."
While being willing to work was once good enough, it is no longer. Now, you have to already have a job. In addition, the visa is not owned by the immigrant, it is owned by the employer, so if the immigrant loses that job, they lose the visa. The employer has to go through a lengthy, expensive process of proving that they've tried to hire Americans and have been unable to before they are given a work visa for an immigrant. One notable exception is if an immigrant is an investor with at least $500,000; they can get a visa on that basis.
Asylum Seeker is a technical term. Here is the definition from the American Immigration Council:
Asylum is a protection granted to foreign nationals already in the United States or at the border who meet the international law definition of a “refugee.” The United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol define a refugee as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Congress incorporated this definition into U.S. immigration law in the Refugee Act of 1980.
Immigration is federal law, and it is not part of the criminal code, so it is Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) responsibility to enforce it, not local police.
Immigration Court is not a criminal court, so the rules of criminal courts do not apply. Representation by an attorney is neither required nor will an attorney be supplied. This is how we've seen three-year-olds in court representing themselves before immigration judges.
As a general rule, if a person is not a U.S. citizen, she is not eligible for most welfare benefits unless she has a green card and has been in the U.S. for at least five years. And if he has a temporary visa or no visa at all, he is not ever eligible for those programs. There are two benefits an undocumented immigrant can receive: a K-12 public education, and emergency medical care. Father Cron noted that as of recently, they can get married in Kent County; it used to be denied if they didn't provide a SSN, so even though it is now allowed, there is lingering fear in the immigrant community.
There is no law barring ICE access to these places, but there is a memo that advises ICE not to enter these "safe zones," a kind of good-faith agreement that it is best for the community if people can worship, seek medical care, drop their kids off at school without fear.
Until 2008, a driver's license was a state ID and undocumented immigrants were able to get them, but that year, Michigan decided to make our driver's licenses comply with the Real ID Act (passed after 9/11) so they could be used for federal purposes, such as flying. Father Cron noted that local police officers will accept valid driver's licenses from other countries (including Mexico)--officers have told him that their desire is to know who you are, so any form of ID will be helpful, even better if there is a translation supplied.
This statement is false on two counts. 1. It can take decades for an immigrant to get a visa for a family member. 2. These visas are only available for immediate family members: spouses, parents, children, siblings. An immigrant can never petition for an extended family member. If an immigrant has a green card, then they can only petition for their spouse and young children.
This is in addition to sales and gas taxes they pay with every purchase. As Father Cron said, "There is no express lane that is cheaper for the undocumented."
DACA gave Dreamers temporary protection from deportation and the ability to work: they do not have legal status and their in-between status is not permanent.
Rev. Kooyman noted that people's fear of immigrants is stoked by the media, that the reality is that those under the shadow of undocumented status do not want to draw attention to themselves. Father Cron noted that working with ICE ruins the relationship of local police with the lower-crime neighborhoods where lots of undocumented immigrants live.
Rev. Kooyman said, "Less than 1% of the world's refugees are ever resettled into any country and we have the most rigorous process of any country." It is a lengthy process that involves background checks, long administrative waiting times, and retinal scans. The conservative Cato Institute found the following: "the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year while the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year. By contrast, the chance of being murdered by a tourist on a B visa, the most common tourist visa, is 1 in 3.9 million per year."
Kooyman noted that, especially in West Michigan, many people's grandparents or parents had a relatively easy time immigrating to the U.S. because they came from Northern Europe, which gave them an advantage. Now the system is not country-based, but depends on the kind of visa a potential immigrant is trying to get.
Now that we were no longer harboring myths about immigration, we were ready to hear from Hillary Scholten, an attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC), which is both a law firm that represents immigrants in court and a statewide advocacy organization. She spoke about two issues they are focusing on:
Kent County's contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
Earlier in November, MIRC and several other local organizations including the ACLU and Treetops Collective, petitioned the Kent County Board of Commissioners to end the county's contract with ICE. She clarified what this contract is and what it is not: Kent Country has contracted to always do a search for federal immigration status with every person they arrest, no matter what they arrest them for. This means that if someone is stopped for having a tail light out and it is discovered that they are driving without a license (a particular problem for undocumented immigrants) and local charges are pressed, that person's fingerprints are run through a national database, which will alert ICE. Kent County will then voluntarily hold that person for ICE until ICE collects them. Scholten said that this is, in effect, "instigating a new arrest," holding a person when, if they posted bail, they would normally be released.
Holding the person for ICE is not part of the contract; that is voluntary. Scholten told us that, "The courts have unanimously held that holding people is entirely voluntary." When MIRC has spoken with the outgoing and the current county sheriff about this, their response is that, "We're just trying to keep our community safe." To which Scholten responds, "Does an immigrant pose a greater danger to society merely because they're an immigrant? If you'd release another person in that same situation, why not release the immigrant?"
Other counties that do not have a contract with ICE determine danger to society according to the local charge and through their usual bond process. An undocumented immigrant does not get a different process than a U.S. citizen--they are each held and released according to the same standard. When Kent County chooses to hold someone for ICE, the hold takes effect right away, before any conviction for the local charges, so it sometimes happens that a person is deported even though all local charges have been dropped.
In addition, the federal government pays Kent County $85/day for holding someone--the actual cost of holding a person is $100/day. This frustrates Scholten because, "We have so much need in our county that our money should be going to instead of going to holding immigrants for ICE."
It would be possible for ICE to pick up a person after they'd served their time for the local offense, but some law enforcement officials object that release times are changeable, so that isn't practical. Scholten also noted that MIRC doesn't prefer ICE to wait for the person to get home to arrest them because that can be so traumatic for children and families to witness.
Scholten also corrected the myth that ICE operates like other law enforcement agencies:
There is no due process and there are no checks on their power. They can arrest someone on the mere suspicion that they are here illegally. When ICE issues a detainer, the warrant is not checked or overseen by anyone--unlike when a police officer requests a warrant and a judge has to look it over. And then it is six weeks before someone taken in by ICE can even speak to a judge about their situation.
MIRC remains committed to reaching a resolution with the Sheriff's Department and with the Board of Commissioners through conversation, rather than through the courts. Scholten recently participated in a 6-week discussion with past Sheriff Larry Stelma, current Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young, and the Kent County Commissioners, to try to figure out what they could do. She found LaJoye-Young to be "receptive and open to listen."
Driver's Licenses for Immigrants (and others)
As we found out in the myth-busting activity, Michigan used to issue driver's licenses without checking citizenship status. This meant that undocumented immigrants used to be able to have a legal license, and used to be able to get auto insurance. After Michigan made their driver's licenses comply with the Real ID Act so they could be used as federal identification, undocumented immigrants were left without the ability to drive legally.
Scholten asserted that it does not make Michigan safer to have unlicensed people driving cars without valid license plates or insurance. Besides the legal impact (being pulled over for a minor driving violation can turn into a major problem, including deportation), there is also economic impact. Workers who are undocumented are unable to drive for their employer. And all of our auto insurance rates are high because of incidents involving unlicensed and uninsured drivers.
There is support for a state driver's license among a wide array of groups, including advocates for the elderly, who often have a hard time providing original birth certificates, and thereby renewing their licenses. There are two bills in the Michigan House that support a state driver's license: House Bills 4794 and 4795. They have been co-sponsored by a Democratic and a Republican representative, and are supported by a further 12 Democrats and 1 Republican. Unfortunately, they are in a committee where one pastor joked, "bills are sent to die."
To encourage the current leadership to move Bills 4794 and 4795 out of committee, Scholten encourages pastors to contact their local state representative to let them know that this is an issue for people in their congregation and that they'd like to see the bills get voted on.
What Can a Pastor Do?
Scholten encouraged pastors to educate themselves and to be prepared to correct myths about immigration that their parishioners may express. While MIRC has already presented a copy of a letter calling on Kent County to declare itself as welcoming to immigrants, pastors are still able to add their names in support. Find the letter here.
If a pastor is interested in having her or another immigration education expert come to speak at his or her church, please contact email@example.com and we will put you in touch with the right person.
Pastors can also vote, and speak with their local state representative, telling them how these state contracts and laws affect the people in their congregation. Find your state rep. here.
And pastors can pray. As Scholten said, "This is hard work. Really hard work. Right now we're representing a 6-year-old boy who's been separated from his parents--family separation is not over."
In the interests of not over-burdening pastors with yet another thing in the busy Advent and Christmas season, we will not be meeting in December. We look forward to seeing you again on January 17, 2019 at 11:30am (place to be determined). Mark your calendars for our meeting on February 21 when we will host Mayor Rosalyn Bliss.
On October 18, the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors hosted Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington and Voters Not Politicians representative Rich VanderMolen for a wide-ranging conversation about gerrymandering, the police department's youth interaction policy, medical marijuana, housing inequity, lack of diversity within police and fire departments, and the role of education in the economic vitality of our community. We are grateful that so many pastors and city leaders came--and grateful that City Life Church could roll out extra tables and chairs when we needed them.
Washington got the group laughing right away when he said, "It's dangerous to give the floor to someone who is not only the city manager, but also a minister!" He is ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, and has been bi-vocational, pastoring a church, for his entire 23-year career in government. Although Grand Rapids will be the first time he will not be bi-vocational, he intends to continue working with congregations. He said, "I've always viewed both my ministry and my vocation as a calling. I've always worked with faith communities, both in critical times, and to find out 'what the streets are saying.'"
He came to Grand Rapids from Austin, Texas, the 11th largest city in the United States (Grand Rapids is around 120th). But one thing both cities have in common is growth. Austin grew by 200,000 people between 2009 and 2017, and Grand Rapids was determined to have the 7th fastest growing economy in the country. Washington said, "Growing so fast, we would deal with the same issues, like housing, transportation, economic opportunity, social justice."
Although he had only been on the job for 3 weeks, he was already in thick of some of those thorny issues: "I did not quite anticipate that everything would be hitting at once, but I know we can collectively solve some of these social equity issues in our community."
Issue number one: the Grand Rapids Police Department's (GRPD) youth interaction policy. The GRAP meeting took place three days before a scheduled open forum with the GRPD Chief David Rahinsky County Commissioner Robert Womack. Washington sees possibilities to improve the current policy, and wants to learn from other communities about what is working for them, and also from school districts about how they handle difficult situations with their students.
Issue number two (that affects all the other issues): the budget. He said,
"We have a lot of fiscal challenges. With public safety, do we have the right resources allocated in the right way, with awareness that not every public safety call needs a uniformed response? We have a housing trust fund set up and now we have to do governance to make sure Grand Rapids is accessible to all residents. I told my executive team that we need to make Grand Rapids a livable city for everybody. We have vibrancy in some parts of the city, but it needs to cascade to all parts of the city. We need to make sure that the budget aligns with the values and priorities of the community--and make sure of that earlier in the process."
Issue number three: housing. Washington is looking at housing from a land-use standpoint, particularly because Grand Rapids has a limited physical area in which to grow. So even while the city looks at empowering property owners to more easily make changes to their properties that can increase housing density (row houses, accessory dwelling units, etc.), he is also keeping in mind the concern of residents in historic neighborhoods about parking and neighborhood character.
Issue number four: economic opportunity. In Austin, Washington worked with universities, community colleges, and high schools to make sure that they were preparing their students for the kinds of jobs that were driving the economy. He is looking forward to doing a workforce analysis to discover what kinds of jobs are driving the economy in Grand Rapids, and then working with educational institutions to make sure that we have a homegrown talent pool for those jobs. Initiatives like the newly-announced Academy of Hospitality & Tourism that will open at Ottawa Hills High School in Fall, 2019 will help; he said, "These businesses are booming and we need to develop our talent pool."
Our conversation was not all heavy, however. One of the pastors asked him what he was reading, and what books (besides the Bible) have influenced his leadership. He did sneak in the Bible, particularly since he just finished preaching all the way through the Old Testament, but after that, his list was wide-ranging: "I love Philip Yancey's Reaching for the Invisible God. I love Martin Heidegger. I love liberation theology. Cornel West. James Cone. Michael Dyson is very provocative and opens my eyes in different ways. Dr. King is classic. Dietrich Bohoeffer. Paul Tillich. Soren Kierkegaard."
We ended our time with Washington by having his new pastor, Rev. Dr. Willie A. Gholston II, of First Community AME Church, and the Executive Team of G-RAP surround him and pray for him in his new role, and for our city.
We also heard from Rich VanderMolen of Voters Not Politicians, the group that sponsored the anti-gerrymanding ballet proposal--Proposal 2--that we will get to vote on next week, November 6.
Gerrymandering is the result when politicians draw the boundary lines of voting districts to benefit the party in power, creating "safe seats" and representatives and senators that are essentially chosen at the primary level, not at the general election. Both parties do this. VanderMolen said, "Everyone running in Michigan is running in a gerrymandered district." Voters Not Politicians would like the voters to decide the shape and make-up of districts rather than politicians, and for the process of redistricting to be transparent.
VanderMolen noted that "communities of color are disproportionately affected by gerrymandering. Either by packing people of color into as few districts as possible, or by cracking up their influence by dividing them into as many districts as possible. Their power is either concentrated more than it should be or so dispersed that they lose their influence."
Voters Not Politicians is proposing that, after each Census, Michigan sets up a 13-person independent citizen's redistricting commission. It is made up of four Democrats, four Republicans, and five Independents. The invitation to be part of the commission is open to every registered voter in Michigan who isn't part of the political power structure. A general invitation to apply will be made, and then 10,000 invitations will go out from the Secretary of State--those 10,000 will be randomly selected voters throughout the state so there will be both full demographic and geographic representation. They will have to meet certain criteria:
* Submit a completed application.
* Be a registered voter in Michigan.
* Identify the party (if any) that they affiliate themselves with, to ensure a balanced commission.
* Not be, or be closely related to, a current or former (in the past 6 years) political insider, including a candidate for partisan office, elected official to a partisan office, registered lobbyist, and party officer.
* Not be otherwise disqualified from office.
Once there is a pool of qualified applicants, there will be a series of random selections until they arrive at the final commission of thirteen. VanderMolen said that, "In other states that have done this, they've found by and large that, because citizens were interested, the work was done very competently. Any lack of expertise they had was balanced by their authority to hire expertise needed, for example, to do the computer work."
There will be 10 public hearings before the commission even starts redrawing the districts; 5 public hearings after their first draft, and then 45 days of public comment on the final proposal. If a challenge to the redistricting goes to the Michigan Supreme Court and the court finds it unconstitutional, then it would be sent back to the commission for more work. In the past, the Supreme Court could approve a gerrymandered district, but if Proposal 2 passes, they would no longer have the authority to do so.
To find out more about Proposal 2 and to see some maps of current gerrymandered districts, please visit Voters Not Politician's website. And vote on November 6.
We look forward to seeing any Grand Rapids-area Christian pastors who are interested in unity, justice, and reconciliation at our next meeting on Thursday, November 15, at 11:30am (location and speaker to be determined).
The first GRAP meeting after our summer hiatus presented a unique opportunity: one of our founding pastors, and member of the Executive Team, Rev. Nathaniel Moody, is now the Grand Rapids City Commissioner for the Third Ward. He was our guest on September 20, speaking with us from his perspective as a pastor and a city official.
In case anyone there was uncomfortable with a pastor talking politics, he laid out his point of view: "Some say politics is the devil's work, but if Christians don't get into it, how are we going to keep the devil out?"
Many of the issues he spoke about stemmed from inequality--both of opportunity and of economic impact. In terms of housing, he said,
"The city of Grand Rapids is doing a whole lot of changing in terms of housing and in terms of business and economics. It's a housing crisis to some and a housing boom to others. People are displaced because they don't have economic opportunities to stay in the place they've lived for many years."
For the Third Ward in particular, he noted that it has received less funding than the First and Second Wards, and that businesses there are not booming the way businesses in the other two wards are. When asked why this was, he said,
"The more I see the big picture, the more I see it goes both ways. Some of that is bias--we have to call that out. But some of that is not enough people in the Third Ward advocating for what they want. People have to demand action, as well as their commissioners. Neighborhood Associations are really important. When they know what they want, and show up at meetings, then they are very powerful in the city. We want to see the funds go to things that are concrete, not just another event, so businesses grow and startups take place."
He also noted that pastors carry a lot of weight in City Hall:
"Grand Rapids still looks for pastoral leadership--we're not using it as effectively as we should. When GRAP got involved with the police unions, they took a look at their policies. We took the summer off, and now [negative] things are happening again. Our voice is important. Write letters, make phone calls, attend meetings, talk about what the people in your church are dealing with. You've got more power to make change than you know."
Rev. Dale Dalman encouraged pastors to take action, as well: "I've met with with Mayor of Kentwood and the Chief of Police in Walker about experiences of my people and I was the first pastor who'd ever called them. We heard the stories, and we need to pass them on."
Rev. Moody sees one of his roles on the City Commission as pointing out how connected the wards are, both in terms of decisions that have negative consequences for some parts of the city, and in demonstrating how increased economic opportunity in the Third Ward can positively affect other wards, particularly in those business districts that straddle two wards.
There are some thorny issues coming up for the City Commission. He spoke about zoning decisions regarding medical marijuana facilities in the city, as well as the upcoming state-wide vote about legalizing recreational marijuana. He said, "It'll be big business--people are coming in from all over to open marijuana businesses in Grand Rapids. A lot of people are going to take advantage of this big money, and we want to make that Grand Rapids people get in on the ground floor. And, of course, other people don't want it here at all." This tension was apparent at our meeting, as well, with one pastor sharing Network 180's Board of Directors' statement against legalizing it, and other pastors speaking about the difficulties of young people who wind up with a felony record because of marijuana use, and the benefits of the drug for those with chronic pain.
He also updated us on decisions about how to spend the five-million-dollar, 5-year community development grant: "They're waiting for us [the community] to say what we want." (To read about our earlier meeting regarding these funds, click here.) There are different proposals on the table. The police department is hosting Policing at the Speed of Trust listening and discussion sessions. The first one was held on June 27, and some of our pastors participated in those. On the Facebook page for that meeting, the department says: "This will be an ongoing opportunity for community members since all 295 GRPD officers will eventually participate in a session. Therefore, even if you are not able to make this opportunity, please reply to TrustGRPD@grcity.us with your interest in a future session." Moody noted that there are other local organizations, such as the Cultural Intelligence Center in Grand Rapids, that could lead initiatives, as well.
While there are no easy answers to issues like these, Rev. Moody called on the pastors to make their voices heard, to tell the stories they are privileged to hear, to partner with organizations that are open to community input, and to pray for city officials. He also invited us to email him at his new city address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you to Dr. Tim Harris and Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church for hosting us in September. Our next meeting is on Thursday, October 18, at 11:30am, place and speaker(s) to be determined. We also extend hearty congratulations to Rev. Robert Dean for his 50 years of preaching, 44 years of marriage, and 38 years of ministry at New Life Church of God in Christ!
Please note these two upcoming events regarding justice and urban ministry in Grand Rapids:
Saturday, October 13 * 9am - 4pm * 2nd Annual West Michigan Restorative Justice Conference * Explore how Hope, Healing, and Radical Reconciliation is possible—and restorative justice attainable—for those affected by incarceration. Lunch will be provided, and attendees will have time to visit booths of local organizations and non-profits to see how they contribute to restorative justice efforts in the state. For example, the Civitas Lab will feature a new application they created consisting of an interactive map of re-entry resources provided for those affected by incarceration. Speakers include Dr. Nicholas Woltersdorff, Father David Kelly, and Rev. Dominique Gilliard. * This conference at Calvin College is free, though registration is required. Click here to register and to get more information.
Tuesday, October 16 * 7pm * 10th Anniversary Celebration of the Urban Cohort Program * Join Grand Rapids Theological Seminary at Cornerstone University's Christ Chapel for an evening of worship and gratitude for what God is doing through this decade-long blessing. This commemorative night features a keynote address from Dr. Charlie Dates, senior pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, Ill.; incredible music; recognition of Urban Cohort participants; and a reunion reception. This is a free event, but tickets are required. This event has reserved seating, allowing you to select the location of your seat(s). Click here to register and to get more information. At Christ Chapel at Cornerstone University, 1001 East Beltline Avenue NE.
On Friday, June 29, with only two days' notice and in 91 degree temperatures, the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors gathered three dozen people for a Families Belong Together Prayer Vigil. We met on the lawn of Brown Hutcherson Ministries' hall because it was across the street from the Refugee and Immigration Services building of Bethany Christian Services--a fitting place to pray for Bethany, for its social workers, and for the children who were separated from their families due to the United States' recent border policies.
Rev. Nathaniel Moody, pastor of Brown Hutcherson welcomed us, and Rev. Emmett Harrison, senior pastor of Oakdale Park Church, got us started:
"It's important for us to stand together and reclaim what it means to follow our Lord Jesus Christ. This is not a political issue, but a moral one. We need to call the church to stand together in unity. We're here because we do care, because God cares. We're standing where Jesus would have us stand--on the side of justice. Justice is a hard road. It is a long road. We have to keep walking it."
From there, several faith leaders led us in prayer and in song.
Juan Carlos, Director of Hispanic Ministries for the Diocese of Grand Rapids of the Roman Catholic Church prayed on our behalf in Spanish. Unfortunately, the translator was held up, so we do not have English text for his prayer.
Next, Colin Watson, Director of Ministries and Administration of the Christian Reformed Church in North America spoke about what Jesus said when he was asked what we can do to inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus approved the answer, "Love your neighbor as yourselves."
"And when Jesus was further asked he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan—a man was traveling down the road and he was set upon by robbers, and he was beaten and left for dead. The good citizens of the time walked by. But a Samaritan, who was very much unlike him, had pity on him, stopped, helped him, bound his wounds, took him to an inn, and then also cared for him and made sure the innkeeper had enough to take care of him for the next period of time. This is what God expects us to do with our neighbors. Politicians and others have all kinds of reasons why we shouldn’t take care of our neighbors and our friends and our immigrants; they might be political, they might be economic, they might be social. But there is no spiritual reason why we can’t follow Christ’s commands and take care of our neighbors."
Watson's prayer focused on elected officials and those with political power:
"Our God, our Father, we come to you right now, crying out for your Holy Spirit to fall upon those in authority. Father we ask for your blessing upon those in federal, state, and local positions. We ask, Father, that you allow them to see each other as children of God. As they deliberate together in their chambers, we ask that they treat each other with the respect that is deserved of being children of God. We ask that you infect their mutual speech with grace. We ask that you give their minds new understanding. Father, may they see and understand the true meaning of leadership—leadership that always understands, always protects, is always loving. And may they see the vulnerable ones with new eyes. May they see different children as their children. May they see those crossing borders as their own family. Father we pray that our leaders may repent, that they may look at our history and find cause to repent. May we see with clear eyes our historical wrongs. May we see the wrongs that we visited upon Native American brothers and sisters. May we see the wrongs inflicted upon African American slaves. May we see the wrongs inflicted upon Japanese American communities. May we see the wrongs inflicted upon Jewish families, and now our Mexican and Hispanic families, forced to leave their homes. May we collectively say, ‘Never again.’ Never again will we stand by when people are driven from their ancestral land in the name of development. Never again will we be silent when a population of brothers and sisters are forced to work as slaves or in conditions nearing slavery, so they can’t take care of their families. Never again will we be quiet as refugees are forced from their homes and victimized anew when they get to their destination. Father we pray that never again will we fail to see another human being as less than a child of God. Father we pray that you will make us instruments of your peace: may we show to each other an active love, that agape love that you demonstrated for us on the cross. May you give us courage to do what is right. Give us strength to love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
The new rector of the Cathedral of St. Andrew, the Very Reverend Rene Constanza, CSP, reminded us that we serve and worship a God who unifies and not separates, before he lifted up the children who have been separated from their families, over 80 of whom are in the custody of Bethany Christian Services.
"Loving Father, in your infinite compassion, we seek your divine protection for refugee children who are often alone and afraid. Lord, provide solace to those who have been witnesses to violence and destruction, who have lost parents, family, friends, and all they cherish due to war or persecution. Lord, comfort them in their sorrow and bring help in their time of need. Show mercy to unaccompanied migrant children, too, Lord. Reunite them with their families and loved ones. Guide those children who are strangers in a foreign land to a place of peace and safety. Show us how we might reach out to those precious and vulnerable children. Open our hearts to migrant and refugee children so we might see in them your own migrant son. Give us courage to stand up in their defense. For this we pray through our Lord, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, oh God, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever, Amen.”
Joella Ranaivoson, Associate Chaplain for Upperclass Students at Calvin College, prayed for those at Bethany who work with the separated children, and continued our prayers for the children:
“Our gracious Father, we thank you for this day you have given to us. We thank you for warmth and rest and rejuvenation. Father we remember those for whom life is not restful or rejuvenating right now. God we pray for the children who have been sent here to Grand Rapids. We pray for Bethany Christian Services. We pray that you would be with the social workers and directors and the people who are going to interact with the children and going to play active parts in what happens with their lives, Lord. God we pray that you would inhabit those processes by your Spirit. Lord, we pray for the kids. We pray for their comfort. We pray arms and people to hold them and to hug them and that they would feel the comfort of their loving Father while they are far away from their own mothers and fathers. We pray boldly, Lord, that somehow they would be able to be reunited with their families, with their parents. We pray for the parents who are grieving being apart from their children. We pray for your protection over these children. We pray that there would be no more trauma that would be inflicted—protect their hearts, their minds, their emotional wellbeing, their brain development in light of these things that are happening to them. Jesus we pray that you would give Bethany the whole insight and wisdom, that even as they do their work of advocating for and providing homes for the children in the meantime, God I pray that you will help them keep their eyes on the vision that these kids should be with their own families, so God we pray that that would be so. We pray for the kids, Lord, that they would know that their mothers and fathers didn’t choose to leave them. We pray that you would somehow give them the assurance that they are loved by their parents and they would be with their parents right now if it were up to their parents. So we pray for your protection over that building and over the kids, and over the whole institution. We lift up all these things in the name of Jesus, Amen.”
All the participants stood together, held hands, and had a time of open prayer. A woman used this compelling image:
"God, you say that when we don't know what to pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes with groans--we know you hear the groans and cries of those children."
We were led in singing "We Shall Overcome" and "This Little Light of Mine" by Freda Watson. Rev. Harrison reminded us that, "We pray. And then there's work to be done," before Jazmyne Fuentes and Kelsie Herbert told us some of the ways to stay involved in immigration issues. Fuentes encouraged us to keep praying and to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations with fellow Christians. She and Herbert noted that all our Michigan representatives have come out against family separations, but that we need to keep pressing them on legislation to ensure this never happens again, and to ensure that these families will be quickly reunited.
We had originally billed this as a candlelight prayer vigil, but with the windy weather, we were forced to get creative and hold up the flashlights on our cell phones.
Thank you to everyone who spoke and everyone who came out to pray. We joined our voices with the Sojourners prayer vigil that was held in Washington, D.C. at the same time, in advance of the Families Belong Together protests that occurred the next day at Rosa Parks Circle and across the country. Let us keep praying and keep walking that long, hard road to justice.
The Grand Rapids Association of Pastors gathered on May 17 at City Life Church for their final meeting before breaking for the summer. J.D. Chapman Jr. of Realism is Loyalty spoke with us both about his work with young people in Grand Rapids, and about his partnership with the national organization, Cure Violence.
As Rev. Kate Kooyman said, when introducing Chapman, "We've been talking with the police and about the police and community relations, and we wanted to invited someone to talk with us about other ways the community is responding." She also pointed out that there is police department money earmarked specifically for community development--five million dollars over five years. As of this writing, close to the end of the first year of the grant, a small amount (under $250,000) has been spent on tactical equipment. Rev. Kooyman also noted that the city is spending $150,000 to study whether there is a lack of trust between the Grand Rapids Police Department. She said, "We already know there's a lack of trust, and the representatives of two police unions acknowledged this at our last meeting. That is not in question." Throughout the meeting, the pastors expressed the urgency of rallying community voices to have input on deciding how to spend this money so it builds up the community, and restores trust between the police and the community, and doesn't go to more military-style equipment.
Chapman spoke about how Realism is Loyalty works to curb violence in Grand Rapids:
"We take a 'meet you where you are approach' to mentor and coach youth and young adults and guide them to a better way of thinking--not to the way I think, but to arrive at their own better way."
The staff has credibility with young people because most of them are returning citizens. Chapman said, "None of us are over 40, but we have a combined 61 years of incarceration." In addition, his training with Cure Violence (C.V.) has convinced him of the value and effectiveness of a health epidemic approach to violence (in contrast to a criminal justice approach). He has trained to be a site manager and coordinator for C.V., and he is also a Certified Interrupter. He has been to seven sites in Chicago and the East Coast and noted that one site in Brooklyn has gone 1,000 days without gun violence. Many sites partner with a local university to track changes in levels of violence, but also in attitudes towards using guns to settle conflicts, and towards calling the police. In every site, gun violence has been reduced, in one place by 35% in one year, in another by 63%. In some sites, violent crime in general has gone down. Click here to read more statistics. Cure Violence prides itself on being an evidence-based model that reduces gun violence, reduces retaliatory killings, decreases the likelihood that people will turn to guns to settle disputes, and increases the likelihood that people in violence-prone neighborhoods will call the police when there's a problem.
Each site is staffed by members of that community, often returning citizens who have experience with the attitudes they're trying to guide young people away from. Chapman said that alone would be a major benefit to Grand Rapids:
"It's more likely that a person running around on the streets has more influence with 14-26-year-olds than any pastor, and when they become part of Cure Violence, then calls to the police are reduced. If calls are reduced, then the police will have time between calls to connect with the community."
Many sites work with hospitals to reduce violence. When gang or neighborhood-crew-related victims come in to the emergency room, the hospital calls trained interrupters to bring the different stakeholders together to reduce the likelihood of retaliatory violence. PBS's Frontline did a documentary on the work of interrupters; that video is at the end of this article.
Proponents of bringing Cure Violence to Grand Rapids are becoming more vocal because of that grant to improve police and community relations. The full C.V. model costs between $300-500,000 per year to run, although they have recently added a more a-la-carte method for communities, like Grand Rapids, that do not have a large organized gang problem. Chapman is concerned that if Grand Rapids doesn't decide soon to spend the grant money on an evidence-based, health epidemic approach like Cure Violence's, the city will wind up spending it in ways that do nothing to increase trust between the community and the police, and might even make the situation worse. Moreover, if the city decides, because of funding reasons, to try to adopt parts of the C.V. model, it will get mired in meetings and there will be no accountability for actually enacting the model.
Chapman admitted that, even with the availability of $1,000,000 per year for five years, the price tag is daunting for some city commissioners. Rev. Jerry Bishop reminded the pastors that Grand Rapids employed the W.A.R. model earlier in the 2000s and it had great success in reducing violence, but that when that funding went away, the model was dropped, and violence increased. Bishop also noted that the city is wary of adopting programs that require long-term funding. On the other hand, other city commissioners Chapman has spoken with believe that they could find foundation grants to continue with Cure Violence if we experience success with it. He believes the model is, "a bridge this city needs."
So what can pastors do if they think the time is ripe for bringing Cure Violence to Grand Rapids? Chapman suggested:
In addition, Chapman asked for prayer: "I get the feeling this will be a wild summer. Realism is Loyalty has some street teams out to try and get ahead of it, but there's huge urgency."
There are two public City Commission meetings in June: Tuesday, June 5, at 7:00pm, and Tuesday, June 12, at 7:00pm. The location for the June 5 meeting is to be determined (check here for updates). The June 12 meeting will be at the City Commission Chambers in City Hall (300 Monroe Ave NW, 9th Floor). Linc Up generally holds a community dinner before each meeting (5pm at the Linc Gallery, 341 Hall St. SE), and then heads over as a group. Click here for more information.
This was our final group meeting until September. Please keep watching the Facebook page and website for information on summer events that relate to our core purposes for gathering: to bring about justice, unity, and reconciliation in our city. Thank you for being part of this work during our 2017-2018 season.