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