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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.