The Grand Rapids Association of Pastors opened their 2023-2024 meeting season at City Life Church with presentations by Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington, Deputy City Manager Kate Belens, and Office of Oversight and Public Accountability Director Brandon Davis. We were grateful that he brought his assistant, Assante Cain, to run the technology!
Rev. Dr. Willie Gholston opened the meeting and introduced Washington as a "colleague and a brother," which is literal -- they are both ordained pastors in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Gholston expressed his gratitude to Washington for the work that he's done in the city, and for bringing his team.
When Washington took the floor, he recognized Commissioner Joe Jones, now senior pastor at Brown Hutcherson Ministries, for calling him back in 2018 when Washington was considering coming to Grand Rapids, and telling him this was a good place to be.
Washington spoke to the twenty-five gathered pastors:
"Thank you for all you do in the body of Christ, and in the community. We find ourselves in the need for prayer, and also in the need for partnership.
He is glad that Grand Rapids has a strong history of partnering with faith-based groups, most recently in the establishment of a warming center at Crossroads Church for unhoused people. But even while we were talking, he had an insight into how the city can do better: develop a faith-based component to the next neighborhood assessment. In the 2023 Neighborhood Summit, his office engaged with 357 attendees in 21 breakout sessions all over the city -- but none of the pastors had heard of the initiative.
Washington touted a number of programs and statistics:
He said, "Grand Rapids is a hidden jewel -- I don't want to keep it hidden. The world is starting to see this as a great place to work, to live. Of course, we have our issues." Deputy City Manager Kate Belens spoke about one of those issues: unhoused people.
Belens noted that the city addresses this issue in three main ways: through facilities, services, and enforcement. While the city invests in facilities that assist the unhoused with temporary housing, and has a dedicated and trained Homeless Outreach Team, she recognized that the enforcement side usually gets the most press. In the last year they did clarify already-existing nuisance and disorderly conduct codes, detailing what kinds of behaviors rise to the level of an enforceable misdemeanor. The definition of loitering now specifies being in a doorway without a purpose. And accosting is defined as repeated approach in a way you can't easily remove yourself from or you feel puts you at risk. They also specified how much personal property a person can have in a public place, and laid out rules for how the city can remove and store belongings, and how a person can get those belongings back.
Both Washington and Belens said that the city works on facilities, services, and enforcement, and focuses on enforcement from a public safety perspective, because, as Washington said, "We want to make this a community where everyone can be."
Washington spoke about how much the city has learned through the aftermath of the shooting of Patrick Lyoya by Officer Christopher Shurr in July, 2022. In particular, how much they learned about the African community in Grand Rapids.
Brandon Davis said that it is the role of the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability to recognize and address the breakdown of trust between the community and city officials, including the Grand Rapids Police Department. He noted that, "You can't build with trust on a rocky foundation." One of the OPA's roles is to look at policy with an eye to equity, identifying laws that were created to be disparaging to certain communities, and seeking to make them equitable. He highlighted the year-round expungement service the city now runs, helping eligible people get their record of criminal convictions erased.
Washington spoke to the tension that can exist between public safety and civil rights, and highlighted that tension with the city's new drone policy. He's looking forward to using drones to help existing staff get eyes on a troubled situation quickly, but recognizes that this brings with it fears of civil rights violations and discrimination.
The pastors asked all three officials to answer the same two questions. What weighs heavily you about your job? What is the most encouraging thing pastors could to do address that?
The city manager said that crime and violence prevention is what weighs heavily on him. He'd love to see pastors help the city engage families to build relationships -- between each other, their neighborhoods, their wider city. When he went to South Korea this year, he said it was eye-opening to see the lack of poverty and crime, largely because of huge investment in community-building.
Davis said that sharing truth and countering misinformation weighs on him, and his answer was the same as Washington's: pastors can help him connect, engage, and build relationships with people in the city.
What weighs heavily on Belens is whether she is pushing herself hard enough to move the systems that keep people in poverty. She'd love to know that faith-based organizations are challenging their members to do all they can to effect change.
Our question time included conversations about churches ministering to unhoused people downtown, reckless driving by motorcycles, and sustainability efforts by both the city and churches. The last question made Washington realize that the city has been engaging businesses and neighborhoods on issues of sustainability, but not faith-based organizations.
Washington detailed three takeaways from our meeting, and emphasized that he'd like to come back to G-RAP to do more listening than talking.
We are grateful to Rev. Christy Lipscomb for hosting us at City Life Church.
Instead of moving around from church to church for our meetings this year, we are going to have all our meetings at the same time and place: the third Thursday at 11:30am at City Life Church (574 Division Ave. S.). Except this month! We are welcoming City Manager Mark Washington back for a listening session, Thursday October 26, 1:30am - 1:00pm. If you are a pastor in Grand Rapids who is passionate about justice, please come to a meeting! Click here to RSVP or learn more.
**Image from a screen capture due to bad photos at the event.