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.
On Thursday, March 22, GRAP pastors met at One Church Empowerment Center to hear from Gwendolyn G. Moffitt, Community Outreach Specialist for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR). Moffitt spoke about the work of the MDCR in general, and about its role in convening the West Michigan ALPACT group.
We have heard the ALPACT group mentioned at several meetings, so this was a great opportunity to hear about it in detail.
"The mission of West Michigan Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust (ALPACT) is to examine issues affecting police and community relations and ensure equitable enforcement of laws, including: racial profiling, police discretion, use of force, recruitment and training, citizen complaint processes, community partnering, and police leadership and management disciplinary practices; to develop recommendations and best practices designed to enhance the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve; and to present and recommend implementation strategies to law enforcement and community groups. ALPACT shall not lobby any elected official or regulator nor advocate any legislative or regulatory proposal."
West Michigan's ALPACT group is one of ten that meet regularly across the state. Each group has a law enforcement co-chair and a community co-chair. Those West Michigan co-chairs are Connie M. Dang, Director of Multicultural Affairs at Grand Valley State University, and Grand Rapids Police Chief David M. Rahinsky. Because of policing events over the past year, the West Michigan group is shifting from a regional focus to more of a Grand Rapids focus; it is also going from meeting every other month to meeting monthly.
Moffitt emphasized that anyone can attend ALPACT meetings:
"We are trying to find a time when more people can come. Now, the group is more heavily weight on the law enforcement side, so we need more community people! The Battle Creek ALPACT group has 70 to 80 people at their meetings. This isn't a by-invitation-only group--the more people the better. Tell the people in your congregations to come. It is a forum to hold people accountable, but you have to be there."
She also clarified the role of the MDCR: "We at the department are neutral. We encourage both law enforcement and community members to voice their concerns and see whether we can come to agreement."
The remainder of the meeting focused on the results of a GRAP team's presentation to ALPACT about community policing concerns, and the result of the prioritization votes by those present at that February ALPACT meeting. These concerns were put into ten categories:
Those categories were further combined to form three working groups:
Groups are forming now. If you wish to volunteer for one of these, please email Gwendolyn Moffitt at email@example.com. She also noted that she is available to come to any of our congregations to speak about any MDCR-related issue. About these groups, Moffitt said,
"Grand Rapids likes to meet and study, meet and study, meet and study. We're not trying to take two years to do this, but this is a great opportunity for your involvement and your parishioners' involvement."
The larger ALPACT group will be meeting on April 18, May 16, and June 20 before taking a summer break. The April and May meetings are from 1:00 - 3:00pm at the Kent ISD, Education Services Building, Cedar Room. 2930 Knapp Street NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49525 – Parking Lot #11.
We hope to see you at GRAP's next meeting, April 19, 11:30am - 1:00pm (location to be determined).
One of our pastors also introduced us to the work of Seeds of Promise, an organization that looks to empower urban residents of Southeast Grand Rapids to direct their own strategies to create a self-sustaining, self-transforming neighborhood. They are looking to work with churches to connect them with community stakeholders. You can find them on Facebook and on their website.
Father Geaney invited everyone to the ecumenical prayer service to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Light that Drives Out Darkness, on Monday, April 9 at 6:00pm, at Cathedral of Saint Andrew, 215 Sheldon Blvd SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503. For more information, click here.
On Thursday, January 18, 2018 the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors met in an upper room at The Old Goat to hear from LINC's Jeremy DeRoo about changes LINC would like to see in policing policies in Grand Rapids--and to continue to discern how local pastors can be involved.
DeRoo spoke about the results of a recent traffic survey that found that African-American and Hispanic drivers were stopped more often than white drivers, and when they were stopped, their cars were searched twice as often as white drivers' cars were. He noted that this wasn't just the influence of a few individuals, but the result of discriminatory practices across the department:
"When you have problems that are systematic in this way, there are no easy answers. We've called for the police department to do bias testing so they can work with individuals, but it's also necessary to look at the structure, at training, policies, oversight. so change will take place."
He brought the pastors up to speed on some of those structures, particularly committees that have varying levels of oversight over policing issues:
Since the Civilian Appeals Board (CAB) can review the findings of the Internal Affairs Department, and review civilian complaints against police officers, DeRoo spend some time talking about how this board works. It consists of 3 residents appointed by the mayor, and 6 appointed by the City Commissioners. DeRoo noted that they reviewed only one case last year. He believes that the process is set up to reduce the likelihood of residents filing an appeal.
DeRoo also noted that the CAB is limited in what it can do because they don't have the authority to investigate complaints, and they are not permitted to speak directly with the civilian making the appeal. The Board can only review what is presented to them. In addition, because they rely on civilians to appeal, they are unable to notice whether there are patterns of excessive force or instances of bias.
LINC is calling for the CAB to not only be given the authority to investigate complaints, but also for the Board to automatically receive a copy of any investigation into police misconduct. Moreover, they believe the CAB should receive reports from both the internal review and the State Police investigation into any officer-involved shooting; now those reports go to the prosecutor's office. DeRoo said that this means that "the level of analysis has a prosecutorial standard, not a community values standard." LINC would like to see more civilian input into standards of conduct in the police department, and giving the CAB authority to investigate and more access to reports of misconduct and officer-involved shootings would help that happen.
LINC is also calling for the city and the department to implement the remaining items in the 12-point plan to improve community and police relations three years ago (that are now two years overdue), and to take action on any of the recommendations that came out of the traffic study (8 months later and none of them have been implemented). DeRoo said,
"Grand Rapids keep things in community studies forever. We need to see actual change in actual policies this year--in training policies, union contracts, civilian oversight. The vast majority of officers are good people who've gotten into the job for the right reasons...but systems get the results that systems are designed to get. We need to design training structures so police officers are acting in ways we want police officers to act."
Pastor Nathaniel Moody said that the Executive Board of G-RAP is committed to keep on meeting with the police unions, in particular, to "help officers recognize the value in changes in policy that may be 'imposed' on them." Moody wants to see the conversation change: "From 'did the officer do something illegal' to 'are we changing the ways we are policing communities that feel they are being oppressed by the police department.'"
During the question period, a number of pastors described actions they are taking. Some pastors are appealing to the Department of Civil Rights in Lansing. Others sit on some of those public safety committees. There was discussion as to whether the police department needed to admit that they've done wrong and to recognize that they need to improve, or whether they just need to change their training and policies. Some pastors were on board with acting as support for civilians who wanted to make complaints against the police department. Others wanted us to show support for those in city government who want to move ahead on justice issues.
The Executive Team is meeting to come up with concrete plans that pastors can discuss at the February meeting.
Thank you, pastors, for making time during the very busy Advent and Christmas season so we could shift our November meeting to December.
On the 7th, we met at Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church and heard from ICCF (Inner City Christian Federation) Director Ryan Ver Wys. Ver Wys is a graduate of the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative and has been director of ICCF for two years. He said he was glad to speak with G-RAP about housing issues in Grand Rapids because, "I am passionate about housing justice, but also passionate about seeing the church and the city work as one."
Housing for him, starts with the idea of home:
"I've been thinking about 'home' lately, with Thanksgiving recently.... Home is such a foundational part of who we are. Home is where we go to rest, to recharge from the day; it's a place to welcome family and friends to, and a place of civic engagement--our representatives are elected based on where we live."
But housing is not just a cozy concept. Ver Wys first brought us back 50 years ago to 1967, when "the oppression and injustices tied to banking and government blew up," before taking us farther back to the 1920s:
"The federal government got involved in housing in the 20s and 30s, messing things up, tying financial risk to the racial makeup of neighborhoods. It was a federal policy for banks not to lend to those buying houses in majority-African-American neighborhoods. As of the late 60s those policies were no longer legal, but the echoes are still there."
Those high-risk neighborhoods literally had red lines drawn around them, so the policy came to be known as red-lining.
"ICCF's roots are in that uprising. Several churches on the southeast side got together and bought a house in a red-lined neighborhood, and sold it to a low-income family."
This remained ICCF's strategy for over forty years: pour investment into low-investment areas. But, Ver Wys said, "that changed in the recession. People with capital came in--kids and grandkids of people who moved out to the suburbs in the 60s--and bought up tons of foreclosed homes." That made the housing situation for low-income individuals and families even worse. The average home price in 2017 is 60% higher than it was in 2011, even though wages only went up 8% in that same time period. Now, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Grand Rapids is over $1,000. In the Baxter neighborhood, a single-family house that would've sold for $40,000 two years ago would now be over $80,000, if not over $100,000. Ver Wys explained,
"We're lacking a collective memory. There are generational patterns here of being denied wealth when you have to rent because you couldn't buy because of a federal policy. Now, because their rent is going up $200-$300, hundreds of families in our community are moving out with no place to go, winding up in a hotel, paying more than they would've in rent."
Now, ICCF's focus is on building as much housing as possible--which is pushing them past their comfort zone as an organization, but also deepening their partnerships with other local organizations working on housing issues. In May they won the bidding on a group of 700+ houses with an offer of $14.5 million. Very Wys said,
"First reaction, 'Oh no!' But over the summer God has opened doors miraculously. God has been hearing the cries of the oppressed. We've raised over $6 million, including outright grants of millions, as well as people choosing to invest even knowing there will be lower-than-average market return, and an anonymous angel investor donating funds for 35 years. Our hope is that over the next ten years we can push back on the idea of disinvestment. We want these to be safe, beautiful, energy-efficient homes. We want to sell half of them to people who are renting now, and take that revenue to buy more houses and to keep changing the housing narrative in Grand Rapids."
Their goals in all their work are to:
During the question and answer period, Ver Wys described a number of ongoing projects. They have three multi-family, mixed-use housing builds currently in the works.
When asked what pastors and churches can do with ICCF and with the issue of housing in general, Ver Wys had several suggestions.
Our host for the meeting, Pastor Emmett Harrison, encouraged churches to be bold and to build partnerships: Oakdale Park is about to close on their first house with a refugee family, and he's found that opportunities for partnerships abound in Grand Rapids.
We ended the meeting talking about the stark realities of the current federal government's attitudes and actions towards housing and towards people who have low incomes. Ver Wys pointed out that funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been cut drastically, and will be cut more. Since the meeting, the tax reform bill passed, so what Ver Wys said as an "if" statement must now be re-framed: because tax reform went through, "that's all the more pressure on us to be loving our neighbors as God's people."
We will be back to our regularly-scheduled 3rd Thursday of the month in January. Join us on
January 18, 11:30am - 1:00pm at the restaurant, The Old Goat, 2434 Eastern Ave. SE, 49507. Owner Corey DeMint will host us--thank you Westminster Presbyterian for putting this together!