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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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!
On Thursday, October 19, Pastor Adam Lipscomb hosted the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors at City Life Church for a meeting focused on two recent policing issues:
Cle Jackson, President of the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP chapter spoke with GRAP about these issues, and about actions local pastors can take regarding community and police relations.
Excessive Force Incident
The discussion began with Pastor David Mays reading aloud the October 3 Community Alert released by the NAACP. Here are the first two paragraphs:
First, we applaud the officers(s) who reported their fellow colleague, Officer Kevin Penn, for what they perceived as excessive forced based on departmental training protocol and procedure related to the detainment of any suspect regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability.
Jackson reiterated the gratitude for the officers who didn't remain silent, and who reported their fellow officer's behavior. He acknowledged that it would've been difficult for the prosecutor to get a conviction, but wanted the office to go ahead with a prosecution for three main reasons:
Attempted Cover-up Incident
On November 19, 2016 then-Assistant Prosecutor Joshua Kuiper caused a car accident while drunk, but the responding officers (and other officers they consulted) decided not to give him a breathalyzer test, nor to arrest him; they wrote him a ticket for driving the wrong way on a one-way street and drove him to a local residence. The cover-up came to light two weeks later. After an internal investigation, Chief Rahinsky recommended that all three officers involved be fired. However, the City Manager's office has discretion about whether to follow that recommendation; they chose to fire one officer, and to give the other two a 30-day suspension. The office made this decision without hearing the phone recordings of the officers as they discussed the situation (the in-car and body cam videos were incomplete).
Jackson was concerned that the City Manager's office would go against the recommendations of the police chief--the one with policing experience, and with the fullest knowledge of the situation. He said that the NAACP will be asking the City Commission to reconsider the 30-day suspensions.
What Can Pastors Do?
When asked how a group like the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors could respond, Jackson said:
When you see B.S., call it out. It doesn't have to be you as a group, just you as an individual. Call [city officials] in. You pay their salary. Just start responding. It's your right to go down to any meeting and make a public comment. You can also ask for any issue to be put on the agenda.
In the ensuing conversation a number of questions were posed, both for pastors to ask of our city officials, and for pastors to ask themselves.
There was a spirited conversation about the limited resources of the NAACP and the multitude of congregational issues that pastors deal with, and pleas on both sides for increased attention. It wound up with at least one pastor asking the NAACP to send someone to his church on a Sunday morning to speak with them directly and the organization promising to do so.
There is one immediate and simple action that pastors (and anyone) can take: the current City Manager is retiring and the city is looking for input from the community about what they should be emphasizing in the search, and what they should be looking for. Following are the links to a survey, in both English and Spanish, to filled out online or to print out and send in (available until November 3):
You may also complete the survey over the phone by calling the City’s 311 Customer Service line at (616) 456-3000.
Next meeting is on Thursday, November 16, 11:30am - 1:00pm, place to be determined. If you are not on the mailing list to hear about the meetings, please contact us.
The Grand Rapids Association of Pastors opened their third year of regular meetings at Madison Place on Thursday, September 21. Since we had a number of new pastors, including a number of pastors new to Grand Rapids, Rev. Kate Kooyman described who we are and what we do:
This is a group exclusively for pastors so we can explore uniquely pastoral roles and perspectives on issues of justice. We want this group to be about unity. We want to meet across all lines--urban/suburban, denomination, culture, national origin. Even our meeting schedule is part of this unity: we want to be in each other's churches. We want to be about reconciliation. We know there are reasons we don't know each other and we have to be intentional about crossing lines of animosity to get to know each other. We meet to talk about justice issues, controversial issues to do with politics and policy, because the flourishing of our people is affected by these issues.
Pastor Darrell Delaney, Campus Pastor of Madison Square Church, reminded us of Jeremiah 29:7, "And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare." He pointed out that Madison finds it "a privilege and an honor to be in this community" and to work for its peace and prosperity, not only because they have good things to contribute, but also because the people of the community bring good things to them.
This was a fitting opening to the meeting, since we were about to hear from Willie Patterson and Jon Ippel about the community development work of AmplifyGR, a nonprofit organization committed to bringing neighbors, local businesses, and community organizations together to "build a more safe, healthy, economically robust community." Amplify works in the Southeast neighborhoods of Boston Square, Cottage Grove, and Madison Square.
The Executive Team invited AmplifyGR to talk to G-RAP because, as Rev. Kooyman said, "A lot of deeply impactful issues we're experiencing in our communities are coming together in their work, and they've drawn a lot of heat but not a lot of light."
Willie Patterson, Engagement Director of AmplifyGR, was grateful for the opportunity. He noted that his grandfather was a pastor, so he appreciates pastors' "ability to talk about hard things with love." Patterson has worked in the Grand Rapids community his "whole life," at LINC and Believe 2 Become. Executive Director Jon Ippel was thrilled to return to his hometown after ten years in Florida.
Amplify grew out of Believe 2 Become's work in the schools of Grand Rapids. The Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation and Cheri DeVos Foundations saw that so much of what happened in the schools was affected by what happened in the communities, with housing, child care, economic opportunity. They founded Amplify to address the wider community issues, and, together with Rockford Construction, purchased a number of properties in their targeted neighborhoods.
Ippel admitted that their work is full of thorny issues:
Before 2009, the question was, 'How do we stem economic and population loss out of our neighborhood?' Now, with the influx of capital into our neighborhood, we have the challenges of gentrification. How do you work on issues of injustice and the rapid move of gentrification?How do we channel the market so equity is grown? How are we protecting and preserving affordable housing at the same time? It's more complicated.
But they are committed to working through the complicated issues with a full array of neighborhood, corporate, and civil partnerships. The partnerships are the key to any work that will be done, since Amplify brings the parties together for projects; it doesn't implement any development projects.
There are four areas they're focusing attention on:
So far, they're hoping to use the distressed buildings they and Rockford Construction purchased as economic engines to bring in employers that will hire locally and provide a living wage. They're hoping to bring in Grand Rapids Community College for continuing education that will increase economic opportunity. They are talking with the InnerCity Christian Federation and Home Repair Services about housing issues: protecting and preserving opportunities for existing home owners, maintaining rental properties, excessive utility costs, and lead abatement. Ippel stated that, regarding any new construction for housing, they will have "an 'affordable first' strategy." Of course, he admitted that "how we define 'affordable' needs to be fleshed out as we look at where the people are in the neighborhood, as well as tax codes, etc." They are looking at ways to strengthen the public and charter schools in their target area, includes ways to boost English language learning support for the influx of refugees those neighborhoods have seen. And as a result of community conversations, they're looking at child care options as one solution for parents who wish to participate in the economic development that will occur.
Willie Patterson spoke about their model for ensuring full participating, which he called holistic engagement. They want to engage all parties with a stake in the thriving of those neighborhoods: residents, faith-based groups, funders, government, non-profits, interest groups, developers, businesses, and schools. As of this writing, they've had three meetings to introduce themselves to neighborhood residents and brainstorm solutions with them. Their hope is to use future community meetings to vote on what the top priorities are, and to drill down to specifics after that. He said that, "we're looking for natural leaders to rise through the process so Amplify is kept accountable."
So far, the key opportunities that have come out during the brainstorming sessions are:
Although the meetings are, so far, scheduled through the fall, Ippel said, "We're very early in this process; the scale is decades. We'll keep engaging through the next five to ten years, but the process to get to detailing actions and priorities and establish our governing board will go through December 7."
However, the meetings have not gone smoothly. People have been concerned that development will mean displacement of longtime neighborhood residents. They are concerned about the foundations and companies that are behind AmplifyGR. But mostly, many people believe that, as Ippel put it, "There's a secret plan and this is all for show." He was clear that, "We have ideas, but not plans. We're looking at best practices in this community and other places, and learning from the mistakes in other places. Our focus here is how do we journey together to figure out what this will be." Amplify plans to have a governance role for residents, but he was unsure what the exact role would be.
Ippel detailed their commitment to diversity across the board, not just in the future construction sites, but with vendors, restaurants, and their own office. He praised Rockford Construction for "leaning into" issues of diversity by looking at ways they can support existing small and emerging companies by helping them build capacity so they will be able to bid for larger jobs when the time comes.
One of the pastors expressed concerns about Amplify's use of the East Lake Foundation's work in Atlanta, Georgia as a model, specifically because East Lake decided to exclude people with criminal records from the opportunities they developed. Ippel praised how the East Lake Foundation turned around their community, especially how they took the school district from the worst performing in the state to the fifth best in Atlanta. But he acknowledged that what they created was too restrictive. He said, "We can learn from their failures and incorporate more inclusive processes and outcomes. We don't have a practical path for how to do this regarding criminal records, but we have a commitment to being more inclusive than Atlanta."
Another pastor asked for some number they're looking at regarding the affordability of housing. Ippel said that their plan is to have one-third of the housing at very low rates that would be affordable for a household making $18,000 per year or less. The next percentage of affordable rates would apply to those making around $40,00 per year. He admitted that "a lot of this will be dictated by financing, so our hope is to partner with a company with experience with mixed housing."
The final question of the meeting came from a pastor who wanted to know what Amplify saw as the bright spots of the neighborhood. Jon Ippel answered without hesitating:
The connectivity and neighborliness of the community is strong. Their deep-rooted relationships are a tremendous asset. In our survey, we asked, 'What do people say you're good at?' And we got so many answers about cooking, painting, and the arts. There are tremendous creative talents. So how do we curate the right kinds of spaces that allow people to do what they're great at?
Willie Patterson added:
This is a community that's wide-awake, that's aware, that's looking for opportunity, resources, and data to make the best decisions. They care about one another, about their homes. The people are the asset.
If pastors and church members want more information, or want to be involved in the brainstorming and decision making process, there are a few options:
As we do with all of our speakers, we closed the meeting by praying for Patterson and Ippel personally, and for the work they're doing.
Our next meeting is on Thursday, October 19, 11:30am - 1:00pm, at City Life Church at 574 Division Ave S.
Here are some resources for those interested in learning more:
The meeting on September 28 ran into problems when it was discovered that, of the 100 people there to vote on action priorities, fewer than 10 were residents of the target neighborhood: "Boston Square residents shut down AmplifyGR vote," the rapidian.
"AmplifyGR meeting: What does community ownership look like?" the rapidian
"AmplifyGR greeted with skepticism at first community meeting," MLive
East Lake Foundation, Atlanta
NPR piece about East Lake
Thank you to Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church for hosting us on Thursday, May 18 while you held your weekly lunch for returning citizens—CLEAR (Coalition, Leadership, Education, Advice, Rehabilitation), an organization that helps ex-offenders adapt to civilian life and stay out of prison. You were doing a lot of important work in your building that day.
One of the benefits of sitting with G-RAP pastors at lunch is that I have the chance to hear about ministries all over Grand Rapids. Rev. Geoff VanderMolen of Calvin Seminary told the table about the final day of the course he teaches for the Calvin Prison Initiative (Calvin College’s B.A. program for prison inmates): “We told the students, ‘We’ve prayed for you all semester and we have a blessing from God for each of you.’” The students were given the choice of whether to come up for the blessing: every student did, even the non-Christian students. He said, “It was moving to see these men weep,” and it was moving to lay his hands on their heads and shoulders, giving them the blessing of touch without aggression (a rarity in their prison environment).
Lieutenant William Brutto of the Salvation Army, Pastor and Head Administrator of the Kroc Center, told us about his unique role there, and how his position as pastor and administrator of the programs has affected their hiring practices: “Everything we do is ministry. When hiring, we say, ‘You’re the pastor of that water park. Same on the soccer field. Same on the basketball courts.’”
Rev. Dale Dalman of Esperanza Covenant Church talked about the positive experience of having the Walker Chief of Police come to his church to speak with them and answer their questions.
The meeting itself was focused on what has happened in G-RAP and in our city after our April meeting, when we heard from a variety of community leaders about the March 24, 2017 episode, when Grand Rapids police officers pulled their weapons on five unarmed African American boys, handcuffing some and holding them in police cruisers even after no weapons were discovered on them.
Executive Team and local and state leadership
Rev. Emmett Harrison, a member of the Executive Team of G-RAP and Lead Pastor of Oakdale Park CRC, told us what the Executive Team has been up to. They’ve met with the Grand Rapids Chief of Police, David Rahinsky. Rahinsky has asked that G-RAP agree to be a communication focal point, so that the police department could notify us “so we could help—if there was harm, to prevent the further harm of an explosion of violence.” Rev. Harrison explained that, “We will continue to work out the details. It does commit us to be active, to respond when there are incidents.” The group discussed this request, as well as the related issue of what we, as pastors, can ask of the police department, to hold them accountable.
The Executive Team also met with representatives of the police unions for both the officers and the command staff. The police unions shared their members’ sense of feeling oppressed by the press attention and the G-RAP team shared their hopes for the future of training of police officers—and both of their hopes that getting to know each other could “bring the temperature down.”
Rev. Nate Moody, a member of the Executive Team, was contacted by a representative of Governor Rick Snyder’s office. This resulted in a meeting between the governor’s representative and the Executive Team, where both parties shared their visions—the governor’s vision for the role economic development has to play, and the pastors’ vision for justice in our city.
Aftermath for the families
But our main purpose in May was to hear from the families of the boys involved in the police incident: to give them the floor so they could speak frankly about what has been happening in their lives and their boys’ lives, and to pray for them.
Rev. Stedford Sims, G-RAP member, is the grandfather of two of the boys. He’s been concerned about how the families have felt used by some religious leaders in Grand Rapids, so he was grateful that G-RAP wanted to show concern for the parents, to “sit with the parents and hear from them and pray for them.”
Bomesa Sims, stepfather to two of the boys, didn’t mince words: “I feel like this is a little too late. The stage my kids were put on was nothing they or we were ready for.” He’s frustrated that local leaders have made demands on the parents’ behalf without any input from the parents about what their point of view actually is: “Don’t use me and my boys to jump on your agenda.” He’s frustrated that the parents are no longer being invited to meetings about local policing issues. He’s frustrated that the story has already “come and gone, and nobody’s trying to figure out how this doesn’t happen again. Let’s deal with changing these protocols.”
He called on the pastors to understand the power they have to bring more people to the table, the power they’ve already showed to bring in representatives of the Kroc Center and the governor’s office. He called on G-RAP to recognize that, “People come to the church for help. It’s the first place they go. So don’t just meet with officials when something’s happened, because it’s not stopping.” He called on us to be more community minded, and not think we have to get people through our church doors to help them.
Ikeshia Quinn spoke to her frustration at how the adults in her kids’ lives have responded: “I rely on the coaches for my boys, but Coach Bo was the only coach who reached out to them.” She also spoke about how the incident has changed her boys and affected her family. They are heartbroken and overwhelmed. They no longer play basketball after school, and they don’t do simple things outside of the house that they used to do; they’re exhausted and terrified. They’re still asking her, “Why? Did we do anything wrong?” She can only keep repeating that they didn’t do anything wrong.
We learned about the toll social media and teasing at school is taking on the boys involved and on their siblings, and the toll on the parents as they try to navigate their family’s needs with the attention and demands put on them.
It was a heavy meeting, but right to hear from these families and to pray for them. Lieutenant Brutto let them know that their boys had just come from the Kroc Center’s Pray and Play night, so they had been prayed for before they headed home on March 24.
Rev. Kate Kooyman closed our meeting with these words:
“We are faith leaders who think we can speak together against injustice in this city. Faith leaders need to own our power in this community, listening to the Holy Spirit when it prompts us to come together.”
We are on summer hiatus, so there will be no more meetings until September.
Dr. Timothy Harris, Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church
Rev. Emmett Harrison, Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church
Rev. Jack Kooreman, Grace Christian Reformed Church
Rev. Kate Kooyman, Office of Social Justice, Christian Reformed Church
Rev. Nathaniel Moody, Brown Hutcherson Ministries
The Grand Rapids Association of Pastors has come full-circle: we formed in 2015 after the events at Ferguson, and on April 20, 2017 we gathered to learn about and talk through our concerns surrounding a recent local policing event. As Rev. Kate Kooyman said,
"We wanted to have a conversation with each other so we could have a united voice for justice. Since then, we've talked about injustice in education and immigration. These recent events have gotten us back to the heart of why we started coming together. What is the role for faith leaders in this moment?"
The meeting at Brown Hutcherson Ministries drew members of GRAP, as well as independent citizens, local media, denominational representatives, Calvin College professors, City Commissioner Joe Jones, NAACP Grand Rapids President Cle Jackson, LINC UP Executive Director Jeremy DeRoo, and The Micah Center Executive Director Allison Colberg. The leaders of the three justice organizations formed an expert panel that presented to the group, with clarifications coming from Commissioner Jones. We ended the meeting with a time of open comments.
Events of March 24, 2017
First, NAACP Grand Rapids President Cle Jackson walked us through the events of March 24, 2017, when a group of five 12- and 14-year old boys were subject to a military-style police stop.
After an alleged call to Grand Rapids police about a large fight involving African-American teens on the basketball courts of the Kroc Center, a patrol car in the area was flagged down by a resident of that neighborhood. The resident told the officer that he'd seen a group of five African-American teenage boys with a gun, and that a couple of those young men were dressed all in black.
Shortly after leaving that conversation, the officer saw a group of five African-American boys, one of whom was dressed all in black. He pulled over, drew his gun on the boys, and ordered them to get down. The boys complied, although the 12-year-old "melted down, screaming, 'I don't want to die,' and 'They're going to kill me!'" Jackson added, "I'm in public health and we call this social trauma."
Then one of the 14-year-olds tried to calm the 12-year-old down, and another of the boys melted down. Neighbors came out and were saying, "They're just kids." The officers kept the kids laying on the ground, and tried to get the neighbors to go back into their houses.
Jackson praised the boys: "The five young boys were stellar. They followed orders. They said 'sir' the entire time."
Soon, an additional half-dozen officers arrive at the scene, and all point guns and tasers at the boys on the ground. They are each ordered to get up, put their hands up, and walk backwards towards one of the officers.
The NAACP Grand Rapids President paused. "As an African-American man, I've lived this story. When you're walking backwards, hands up ... what if one of these officers says, 'I saw him running'?" He let the audience imagine the rest.
The twelve-year-old was the first to reach an officer and be searched; no weapon was found. When the officer learned his age, he told his colleagues, and then put the boy into the back of one police car. One of the 14-year-olds, who was dressed all in black, reached an officer; he was ordered onto his knees, handcuffed, and searched. No weapon was found. He was put into the back of another police car. This was repeated three more times, until all the boys were in the back of police cars.
Jackson asked, "Why did you handcuff those babies? Why, if there's no threat, did you keep them in the car as long as you did? They knew the kids ages. They searched them and knew there was no threat. Why would you have handcuffed them and put them in the car?"
After all the boys were in the cars, held for some time, one of their mothers arrived at the scene. Jackson said, "She fell on the ground, screaming, 'I just need to see him and know he's okay.'" The officers would not let her see her son, and she continued to be upset. Her son heard this, and asked whether the officer would let him just stick his head out of the car so his mom could see him. His request was denied. Eventually, the boy said, "I don't want my mom to get hurt." At that point, the officer let him step out of the car for a moment to reassure his mother.
Jackson was blunt: "There's a glaring disparity in terms of how black and brown youth is treated by law enforcement. All of us are aware of the racial profiling report that just came out. All of you in this room should be outraged. And they are related."
The Twelve-Point Plan
The remainder of Jackson's comments, and many of Jeremy DeRoo's and Allison Colberg's statements referenced the 12-point plan to improve community and police relations that was accepted by the City Commission in January of 2015. (Here is an article from the city about that plan.)
Jackson, DeRoo, and Colberg were all concerned about the narrative about this plan that the city is promoting. Jackson said, "The narrative of the city is that they were on board with this voluntarily, and with no pressure. No. The plan was co-authored by LINC UP, the Urban League, and the NAACP. We had community forums, media about the reforms, and multiple meetings with city leadership to even get it to a vote to the city commission. It was forced by community pressure."
The Micah Center's Director, Allison Colberg, also countered how the city presents its part in the process: "The City Commission presents a narrative of them noticing a problem and going to the community for input, when the pressure came from others. There is a narrative that the police department should be praised for addressing a systemic issue that shouldn't have been there in the first place."
Colberg spoke about one aspect of the plan: "Recommendation 3 — Calls for enhancing Police Officer training to provide mandatory cultural competence training and mandatory Implicit Bias Training for all Police Officers to improve citizen interactions through departmental performance metrics." She noted that the original recommendations from the community called for police bias testing, as well as bias training, but that was removed before it went to the Commission for a vote. The issue for her is that, "bias testing doesn't provide data" that could make the training more effective.
LINC UP Director Jeremy DeRoo spoke about Recommendation 8, that called for the city to conduct a survey on racial disparities in traffic stops, the results of which were released two days before GRAP's meeting. DeRoo outlined the study's findings:
"African Americans are stopped twice as much and searched twice as often when stopped, but criminality is found at the same rate [as other racial groups stopped]. The report shows that there is not increased criminality. African Americans are stopped disproportionally in areas where there are more African Americans. The same is true of Hispanics in Hispanic communities. There is something going on with how the GRPD is training its officers."
Colberg ended with a plea to the gathered pastors: "One role for GRAP and for pastors is in pushing back on the narrative that the work is almost done. Faith leaders in Grand Rapids can be really effective in not letting the attention go away."
Voices of the Community
The public portion of the meeting ended and we had a time of discussion and sharing of concerns. People in attendance were concerned that we spend so much time training kids how to respond to the police, but not much training the police in how to respond to African-American kids. Some people told stories of times they were roughed up by police in Grand Rapids when they were teenagers. One person spoke about training for officers to know how to deal with people who are traumatized, that their passion is not the same as aggression. One attendee noted that the company that consulted on the bias training had recommended that the police do scenario training, which would put officers in a simulated situation, but that the GRPD is not including scenario training. Another person noted that the talk in Grand Rapids centers around training, but not of outcomes and accountability. It was brought up that the Grand Rapids Public Schools do bias assessment testing, so there is precedence for that in our community.
Grand Rapids Public Schools
Speaking of GRPS, John Helmholdt was our final speaker of the afternoon, there to talk about the millage vote on May 2. After listening to our conversation, he quoted Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal:
"The greatest equalizer is a good quality education."
Grand Rapids Public Schools have seen serious improvements. Graduation rates are up 50%. It's seen it's first enrollment raise in 20 years. But Helmholdt said, "There is uncertainty in funds from the state. There is huge uncertainty with federal funds; it looks like funds for after-school programs and teacher training could be eliminated. These cuts could set up back and we could lose our momentum." This millage could alleviate that uncertainty but providing "local, stable, reliable funds. It would cost the average homeowner $3.75 per month." He encouraged the pastors to vote for the millage and to educate their congregations.
Day Without Immigrants
The Micah Center is part of Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes / 1 Day Without Immigrants. They invite everyone to march with them at noon on May 1, starting at Garfield Park, at 398 Burton Street SE, or to express solidarity through not buying goods and not working. See the Facebook page for more details.
Next meeting: Thursday, May 18, 11:30am - 1:00pm (place to be determined)
As Rev. Kate Kooyman said at our February meeting,
"In light of recent executive orders, increasing fear, and marginalization of immigrants, we're going to interrupt our regularly-scheduled program regarding education, to talk about immigration."
Kooyman led us through a workshop that explores what God is calling us to do regarding immigration. The first action was not to delve into Scripture, but into the regulations and bureaucracies that make up our current system. Kooyman noted:
"Scripture has a lot to say about immigration, but we can't have a fruitful conversation unless we know how the current system works."
There are four ways to immigrate to the United States:
This option is available to you if you:
Note that even if you qualify under the final possibility, it can take 6-10 years for the visa to go through and your employer will have to prove that there are no Americans to fill that job and be willing to wait for you. Once you are in the U.S., your visa belongs to your employer, not to you.
There is a temporary two-year visa program for agricultural workers, but only 5,000 of those are available per year. Rev. Kooyman noted that Michigan alone could take all those visas every year. As a result, she said, "Seventy percent of agricultural workers are undocumented because the federal government doesn't raise the numbers."
If you are the spouse, fiance, parent, or child under 21 of a U.S. citizen, you qualify for one of the easiest ways to legally immigrate to the U.S. There is no limit on the number of visas for people in this category, and the process is easy enough to complete on your own (with no legal help): green card first, and eventually citizenship (wait to naturalization is 6-7 years).
A sibling of a U.S. citizen can apply for a visa and a green card, but (depending on marital status) you will have to wait an average of 11-22 years for the green card, and additional 6 years until naturalization.
Adult, unmarried children of a U.S. citizen will only have to wait 6-14 years to receive a visa; married adult children 7-15 years. Once you have a green card, you'll have to wait 6 years until naturalization.
If you are the spouse or minor child of a legal permanent resident you are eligible to apply for a family preference visa, but you'll wait between 5-7 years for it. If you are a married adult child of a legal permanent resident, you are not eligible for this visa; single adult children have a chance, with the wait time depending on your home country (average 9-14 years).
Refugee and Asylum
"A refugee isn't just a desperate immigrant. You have to be fleeing from a specific kind of persecution: religion, ethnicity, race, national origin, political affiliation. So mudslide and hunger don't fit."
Then Kooyman told us about the second question: "Can you prove it?" Which can be much more difficult to answer--the government of your birth country is unlikely to provide proof that your father died in prison on trumped-up charges.
A refugee also doesn't arrive on America's border straight from their country of origin: you have fled your country, gone to a safe place, and landed in a refugee camp where the United Nations screens and proves your claims. If you are one of the lucky 1% who get selected for resettlement in another country, that country screens you again. To come to the U.S., your screening process takes up to two years and involves five federal agencies. Any blips in the process (including bureaucratic delays you have no control over) take you back to the beginning.
An asylum seeker must experience provable persecution in the same categories as a refugee, but has the resources to get to the United States, so they claim that status at the border of the U.S. If you claim asylum, you will access to a good attorney, so you'll need money or a connection to a church who will help you.
This is a lottery-based system that is meant to increase diversity in the U.S., so to come into the country this way, you'd have to come from a country that is underrepresented in the U.S., have at least a high school education or two years of experience in an in-demand field, and access to a computer and a scanner to complete the application process. You'll also need the ability to resist all the scammers who promise to buy you a visa--it is a lottery system, so paying money to a middleman doesn't help your case.
How many of us succeeded?
Rev. Kooyman set out sample visa applications for each of those paths, and then gave each of us an identity; we had to choose which way to try to enter the country, and fill out that visa application. This was my story:
"You are a 13-year-old girl from Honduras. You were spending a month with your grandparents in the mountains when a terrible hurricane hit Honduras. Though you were safe, you could not contact your mother. When you returned home, you heard from neighbors that she had left for the United States in an attempt to receive temporary protected status, and that once there she would send for you and your grandparents. Three months later, you will have not heard from her, and your life feels like it is in ruins. You have decided to leave for the U.S. to find her, knowing only a few clues about where she might have gone."
I tried to claim family preference, because I knew my mother was somewhere in the U.S., but since she was not a legal permanent resident, I was unsuccessful. The actual-me, Natalie Hart, was born in Canada and claimed American citizenship as a minor through her U.S. citizen mother; I easily gained American citizenship, getting my U.S. passport all of two months after application (in the mid 1980s).
The 17-year-old from Nicaragua whose father was undocumented in the U.S. and whose mother in Nicaragua had just died, couldn't come to the U.S. The 24-year-old from North Korea whose father was killed and mother tortured repeatedly, whose is hiding with relatives in China (and has been captured by the police there and sent back to North Korea twice) had a good case for refugee status (if she could prove the torture, etc.), but had to get herself to a refugee camp where she wouldn't have a choice about which country she was resettled to and would have to wait a very long time to see whether she'd be chosen for resettlement. The 23-year-old from Romania with a teaching degree and excellent English with an aunt and uncle who are U.S. citizens didn't succeed. The 47-year-old Palestinian construction worker didn't succeed.
Of our number, one person with high-level skills in an in-demand field with a shortage of experts, who also had lots of money, was successful in getting a visa to come to the United States.
This very frustrating experience was a revelation for many of the pastors in attendance. For others, who were either immigrants themselves or helmed churches with many immigrant congregants, it was an old story. One person there told of being undocumented twice in the process of becoming a permanent resident, just because the bureaucracy was so slow.
Hearing from those who serve immigrants
The March GRAP meeting left attendees heavy hearted. We heard from pastors who serve largely-immigrant congregations and discovered how terrified their people are at having their families torn apart, whether because of deportation, relatives not being allowed back into the country, or bureaucratic delays and increasing inflexibility. A pastor whose church is part of a robust local denomination reported that nobody from any of his governing bodies had reached out to him to see how he or his members were doing. These congregations and pastors are feeling very alone.
"We need to be standing with the vulnerable."
Grand Rapids is nationally known as a place that resettles refugees, but Rev. Kooyman is disturbed by how that has become controversial, even in the church. She reminded us of the scriptural call for us to exhibit hospitality, and love of the other (philoxenia) not fear of the other (xenophobia). She encouraged local pastors to lean into the politics, to talk with their congregations about what they experienced at the February and March meetings, and to admit their own ignorance and determination to learn.
Her hope and her prayer is that "the church can be the church that goes beyond the walls and drops the barriers."
Kooyman is seeking to gather a group of people who are willing to come with her and speak with the Kent County Sheriff Laurence A. Stelma, who is a strong Christian. Since the county sheriff is over the Grand Rapids police department, and since there is "a lot of grey area with collaborating with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)," she believes it is important to open up a line of communication between Sheriff Stelma and local pastors. Please contact her if you would like to be part of that group.
If you would like your congregation to experience this powerful and illuminating workshop, please contact Rev. Kate Kooyman at the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice, (616) 224-0807, or email@example.com.
Kooyman is running a Church Between Borders Immigration Workshop in Grand Rapids on Saturday May 20, 9:30am - 12:00pm, that is open to anyone who wishes to attend. Go here for information and registration.