West Michigan, including Greater Grand Rapids and Holland, is prosperous, generous, entrepreneurial, educated, and deeply influenced by the Christian faith. These are beautiful things to celebrate, but the story isn’t the same for all people. In fact, the experience of people of color is drastically different than for those in the majority. Note the following striking realities of our region:
- Grand Rapids has been ranked the number one city in the US to raise a family.
- Grand Rapids has also been ranked among the worst in the country for African Americans to live. In other words, people of color are not benefiting from the prosperity of our region, and this is happening within the Church as well.
- Statistically, Grand Rapids is one of the most charitable cities in the country.
We cannot control the world’s system, and we should not try to force the broader society to follow the ways of Jesus. However, if we were experiencing Jesus’ vision of unity among all believers (John 17:23), we might expect people of color within the Church to be protected (or at least defended) from the marginalizing or oppressive forces around us. Sadly, this hasn’t been true. The Christian Church as a whole has often been largely silent, ignorant, or at least ineffective in standing up for and caring for those who are marginalized in society. So, we have work to do to.
On this, note also the following insights about our current context:
- Grand Rapids urban youth are more impoverished than the rest of Michigan: 43.7% live below the federal poverty line, compared to 26% of all children in Michigan (United States Census Bureau, 2014).
- Grand Rapids Proper is more impoverished than the national average: Grand Rapids has a poverty rate of 26.8%, compared to 15% nationally (United States Census Bureau, 2014).
- More than 33% of African American families in Grand Rapids live in poverty, compared to only 10% of Caucasian families (Black Demographics, 2014).
- The answer isn’t in more or bigger social service programs or temporary service projects. Social service institutions in Grand Rapids may actually be too powerful, creating weak and impotent communities (McKnight, 1995). Many communities are recognizing that the basic charitable approach of injecting money into broken systems and providing short term service opportunities have not empowered the poor, built capacity in communities, or had lasting and sustainable impact on either the givers or the recipients (Lupton, 2005; Perkins, 1995; Nelson, 2010).
- We need services that meet pressing immediate needs, but we more fundamentally need to shift toward efforts that focus on empowerment, entrepreneurship, peacemaking and transformation. These will come as we replace short-term services with long-term development, focus on wealth creation instead of poverty alleviation and prioritize listening instead of teaching.
What does this mean for One West Michigan? In order to move the needle on unity, for us to embody the gospel we proclaim, church leadership and followers of Christ must engage the following:
- Learn what is broken and why.
- Foster relationships of mutual trust across the racial divisions the world has created and the church has often supported.
- Seek partnerships that will lead to real change and flourishing.
Black Demographics. (2014). Poverty in Black America. Retrieved from http://blackdemographics.com/households/poverty/
United States Census Bureau. (2014). American community survey: 1-year estimates. Retrieved from http://factfinder.census.gov/
Lupton, R. D. (2005). Renewing the city: reflections on community development and urban renewal. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
McKnight, J. (1995). The careless society: community and its counterfeits. New York: BasicBooks.
Nelson, M. (2010). Empowerment: A key component to Christian Community Development: iUniverse Inc.
Perkins, J. M. (Ed.) (1995). Restoring at-risk communities: doing it together and doing it right. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.