Monday, December 21, 2015

The Social Justice (of) Movement

Rev. Andy DeBraber
CEO, Heartside Ministry
December 19, 2015
Preached at Worship Focused on Justice
at LifeQuest

The Social Justice (of) Movement

Acts 2:44-47a
All who believed were together and held all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

            The believers in Acts held all things in common. So do we, in our better moments, for "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it and all the people therein" (Psalm 24:1).

            But sometimes we forget.

            Like in 1888, when a streetcar riot took place in Grand Rapids. It's probably not what you think. Let me back up a moment. At the time, Grand Rapids was a leader in public transportation, with street cars running from downtown to popular destinations at John Ball Park, North Park, and Ramona Park. As Toni Bal writes in review of historian Carl Bajema's work:

The first streetcar from downtown to Ramona Park at Reed’s Lake [ran] in July of 1875. A huge social innovation for the time, only the wealthier families could afford the time consuming and costly transportation through dense forest and undeveloped land on the outskirts of the city to the resorts. With a five-cent fare on the streetcar line, however, the working class could now join the wealthy class for an afternoon at the lake or hillside park or river. Each of the resorts offered free as well as paid entertainment in order to include anyone attending. Grand Rapids Railway Company actually subsidized bands to provide free music at John Ball Park in order to keep people paying the five-cent fare back and forth (The Rapidian, May 6, 2015).

            The route to Ramona Park was so popular that another route there was being laid in 1888. And it went right alongside Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church. "What they considered a symbol of encroaching secularism would endanger their children, rattle their windows, and disrupt their Sunday services. Worse, it would transport sinners to Ramona Park, [the devil's playground,] for revelry, dancing, and gambling, all verboten" (Local Legends of Grand Rapids, Norma Lewis & Jay de Vries).

            After legal attempts failed to stop the new route, 20 church members took to the street to pull up the rails as they were being laid. Police dispersed the crowd and workers labored through the night to finish that section of the track. The next day, however, the church bells called the faithful back, this time 1,000 strong, tearing up the rails again and throwing them into the nearby Frog Pond. As quickly as police could pile people in the paddy wagons, their friends pulled them out.

            I tell you this because it's a fun story.
            I tell you this because it happened just down the street here.
            I tell you this because it is symbolic of how public transportation can divide us.
            And I tell you this because it is a cautionary tale of how we continue to use public transportation to divide us day after day in much more subtle ways.

            We forget that we hold all things in common, that breaking bread together is at the core of living fully human lives in community, that the earth is the Lord's and all the people therein.

            Do you know how many places in greater Grand Rapids the bus does not go? We don't need to rip up streetcar lines anymore, we just don't allow bus service there - where doctors and lawyers and government offices and public parks remain free from "those people." This is publicly funded segregation, or as Congressman John Lewis puts it, "Our struggle is not over. The physical signs are gone, but the legacy of 'Jim Crow' transportation is still with us" (Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity, ed. Robert Bullard, Glenn Johnson, Angel Torres).

            Do you know how much it costs to own and maintain a car? On average, nearly $8,000 per year, second only to housing in most household budgets - more than on food or education or health care.

            Do you know how many households have no car? Eight percent of all American homes, but 22 percent of African American homes and 16 percent of Latino homes. American transportation policies disenfranchise the poor with strong racial overtones.

            As Gerard Wellman states in his article “The Social Justice (of) Movement,” from which the name of this talk is taken:

By denying subgroups of American population the right to use public buses, obtain drivers' licenses, or even through a “roads-only” transportation system which necessitates the expensive purchase of a private automobile, dominant segments of society can restrict undesired groups' social mobility."

Throughout the United States' troubled history of race and gender relations, the simple ability to travel from one location to another has been a crucial element of social justice. Keeping African-Americans, women, and other minority groups "in their place" frequently became a preoccupation of dominant groups to limit other groups' physical and social mobility.

            We forget that we hold all things in common, that breaking bread together is at the core of living fully human lives in community, that the earth is the Lord's and all the people therein.

            Two examples of how this forgetfulness plays out practically here in Grand Rapids today:

·         Rapid bus fares recently rose from $3 to $3.50 for a one-way trip, a 16.7% increase, while monthly passes went from $41 to $47, a 14.6% increase. So the larger increase went to those least able to pay, a regressive fee increase disproportionately affecting the poor.

·         While at the same time, we continue to pour resources into both the Silver Line and now the Laker Line. One can reasonably argue that these lines most serve the wealthy in Grand Rapids (real estate developers and college students) while not improving service to the poorest in the city who use the bus the most, and not more fully developing the routes that head to the major job centers on the outskirts of the city.

            We forget that we hold all things in common, that breaking bread together is at the core of living fully human lives in community, and that the earth is the Lord's and all the people therein.

            As much as any issue discussed in this forum, public transportation or the lack thereof fits most concretely the working definition of social justice: organizing structures so that everyone can reach their potential. We can reach our potential when we can get to doctors and parks and jobs and pharmacies and friends and grocery stories and families and concerts and church.

            Whether we don't drive due to disability or limited finances, potential is out of reach without public transit. And better yet, may it be that more and more of us are taking the bus not out of necessity, but by choice. It's safer, it's better for the environment, and it builds community in ways that driving a car can never do.

            As my good friend and mentor Dave Bulkowski says, "While public transportation is nobody's number one issue, it's everybody's number two." Just ask Homer Plessy or Rosa Parks or the Freedom Riders. Social justice in the United States has a long history of being intertwined with public transit. I would also commend anyone working on any social issue to study the long-term impact of Dave's work on public transportation over the last 20 years. While we may not be where we want to be, the steady drumbeat of justice has us a whole lot better off than we were two decades ago. Next on the horizon is a county-wide transit system that works for all of us.

            Then may we be known as the people of faith who laid down the new tracks that connected us all rather than tearing them up. Then we will have finally started remembering that we hold all things in common, that breaking bread together is at the core of living fully human lives in community, and that the earth is the Lord's and all the people therein.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Give the Gift of Education This Christmas!

"I can’t wait to get my GED. It’s the only thing missing from my life,” says Brenda, a student of Heartside Ministry’s GED program.

At the age of 14, Brenda dropped out of 8th grade when she became pregnant with her first child. She had to start working to pay the bills for her new young family. She worked as a nurse’s aide, caring for the elderly for twenty years before a work related injury put her on disability in 2004. “I miss my residents,” she says. “I miss feeling like I can help people every day.”

In 2004, her license expired, and in order to renew it, the state of Michigan requires a GED to become certified. In order to get back to work, Brenda needed to finish her high school education. 

Brenda has tried several GED programs in the area, but became discouraged when she didn’t get the help she needed, or couldn’t afford the costs of the program while on disability. 

In a last attempt at finding GED assistance, Brenda was referred by Community Connections to Heartside’s Bridging the Gap program. Now, at the age of 50, Brenda is working towards earning her GED. The program is offered at no cost to its participants, so the barriers to achieving a GED are lowered.

For Brenda, the difference at Heartside is the one-on-one instruction. When I asked our GED Coordinator, Jamie, about Brenda’s progress, she spoke with admiration. “Brenda shows up every day. She works hard and asks for help. She is proud of herself and never stops trying.” 

Brenda recently adopted her 19 month old niece, which has also inspired her to earn her GED. She wants to be able to help with homework and to set an example of a hardworking woman as her niece grows up. Brenda wants to re-enter the workforce as a nurse’s aide again as soon as she can.

Brenda will feel confident and proud of herself. “I have all of my kids’ graduation tassels, I can’t wait to add mine to the collection,” she says with a smile. 

Our GED funding need is greater than ever. Please consider giving what you can to support learners like Brenda to change their lives, families, and futures through the power of education.

Give the Gift of Education Today

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

R.I.P. John McGill ~ 1956 - 2015

We lost a long time Heartside neighbor recently and the following is a transcript of his Memorial Service here at Heartside, written and officiated by Rev. Andy DeBraber.

Scripture: Isaiah 53: 1-5, 12; Matthew 26:36-42; 2 Samuel 9

No less a fully human being than Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, prays, "If it is possible, let this cup pass from me," and then goes on to note to his disciples that "the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."

I don't know how many times John prayed that this cup would pass from him.
I don't know all what happened in his often-trying life that led him to begin drinking to excess.
I don't know what demons tormented him, keeping him imprisoned to the bottle.

I do know the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.
I do know that no one grows up dreaming of being homeless.
I do know that John would not want any one of us to come into the time of trial that he faced, and yet it could be any of us tomorrow.

And I also know that John would still greet me with a kind smile and gravelly-voiced "Good morning, Mr. Andy" everyday. And I know that the demons could not keep him from dancing with joy when music seeped from his ears to his soul.
Never will we take individual responsibility out of the question when we ask why people become intoxicated everyday. There are people here among us right now who will testify to the power of God's grace, the strength of their own willpower, and the support of a community in a miraculous release from addiction. And yet any of us who have found ourselves in the grip of serious substance abuse will also testify that its chains are a dark mystery. As much as I or we might want to change someone else, we cannot.

Just as we will never neglect individual responsibility in the equation of Mr. John's life, we will also always acknowledge "the perversion of justice by which he was taken away" (Isaiah 53:8). John could have stayed in New Orleans, or returned there after Hurricane Katrina, a place most certainly warmer than Grand Rapids. But he stayed here because his daughters and grandchildren were here. The last name on his lips was that of his grandson, Jeremiah.

Somehow, in the midst of all his struggle, Mr. John shared community with those around him in a way few of us will ever know. He was faithful to his friends and they were faithful to him. As so many of you gathered here have said, "Everybody liked him."
Yet we as a community failed him. In a city as rich in resources, creativity, compassion, faith, and ingenuity as Grand Rapids, we could not find a warm and safe place for Mr. John to reside and find the sweet peace of comfortable rest. A cold, hard, wet slice of pavement was most often his bed. Or the jail cell that comes with the criminalization of homelessness and is often the best or only option we provide as addiction rehab for those who cannot pay.
"Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases" yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted." (Isaiah 53:4)

Mr. John bore in his body and soul our infirmities. His damaged feet alone bore witness to the terrors of living on the street. He was crushed for our iniquities, stricken for the transgression of our people. Some day we will make a place for all God's people to have a home, treating alcoholism for the disease it is and not a moral failing. We will no more deny a home to Mr. John any more than we would to someone with diabetes or heart disease.
However, even given our failing to do this, and recognizing Mr. John's own personal brokenness in being unable to fully love himself as God loved him, we rejoice in a God whose promises declare that for those who find themselves on the underside of life:
"Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong." (Isaiah 53:12)

And that the one who declared of himself, "What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I am?" (2 Samuel 9:8) would eat at the table of the king for the rest of his days. 

And that a room has been prepared for him and today he resides at home, sees God face to face, and knows beyond the shadow of a doubt how beloved he is.
Mr. John is dividing the spoil with the strong today.
Mr. John is eating at the table of the king today and forevermore.
Mr. John is flashing that great smile among the angels and breaking into dance in ways we can only imagine.

Thanks be to God that we got to step alongside him for awhile.
Two stories from the time of sharing during the service stood out as a great testament to person Mr. John was.

A woman who was homeless shared how Mr. John held her head gently in his lap while she was having a seizure, keeping her safe until paramedics could arrive. He could barely hold himself up but he held her as long as he could, passing her to another neighbor when his strength gave out.

Another woman, who currently works with our neighbors, shared how she and her kids had lost everything - her job, their home, their belongings. They were living at Mel Trotter Ministries shelter. She was all prepared to give her two children up for adoption and end her life. Mr. John was staying in the men's shelter at Mel Trotter at the same time, and his encouraging words and smile gave this woman the strength to keep moving on and putting her life back together. She credits Mr. John with saving her life and her family. She said her family's life is now even better than before their crisis.

Postscript from Helen: We will all miss you, John. You were treasured and loved. For me personally, I will miss hearing, "Take my picture, Miss Helen." And I'm so glad I did.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Community Youth Group Visits Heartside! ~ 11/25/15

Plans were made weeks in advance with children and adults of all ages at The Community to decorate the bags that would hold the lunches to be delivered throughout the neighborhood.
Initial bag decorating by children in Sunday school was supplemented by adults in attendance at The Community's Thanksgiving dinner on 11/22. Lunch assembly took place as well with attendees packing the bags with non-perishable goods: bottled water, banana, chips, and a rice krispie treat. Everyone also wrote out a best wish or prayer to be included in the bag, and on the whole people pretty happily complied with the tasks.
The following Tuesday, an intrepid group of a dozen or so volunteers assembled 300+ turkey and cheese sandwiches, two per bag, in about an hour. The lunches were complete and arrived with the youth group Wednesday morning at Heartside!
Before they were distributed, our GED Coordinator, Jamie, shared her personal story with the group and enlisted volunteer, Will, to do the same (on very short notice, btw :-) Thanks Will!
Jamie then took the group throughout the Ministry to explain the programs and services offered here. Hospitality (coffee, bathrooms, mail service, community), Advocacy (prescription co-pays, resource connection), GED (tutoring and testing), Computer Lab access, and the Art Programs.
Emmanuel and Clara were happy to explain the art programs further.
And we visited Mike down in the woodshop.
We then moved out into the neighborhood to see how our neighbors live and to understand the other resources available to them. We visited Degage Ministries, Guiding Light Mission, and Mel Trotter, and heard from neighbors at every stop. Good conversations were had along the way.
It was time to head back to hand out lunches.
The left over lunches were gone in an hour, and our thanks goes out to this group and the entire Community for their generosity, care, and interest in the lives of Heartside neighbors!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Guest Post from Board Member, Deb Blacquiere

I can hardly believe that my time on Heartside Ministry's Board is coming to an end in December. The past 6 years have been full of learning experiences, eye-opening presentations, and stressful-yet-exciting decisions. While I may have been a mere "numbers person" and joined the Board to further my career, I quickly realized that was not the reason why I continued to serve on the Board. And I will continue to do so until the bylaws force me out in December!

As a fellow board member would say, "we've come a long way, baby!" and I'm so thrilled to have been even a very small part of the immense positive change that this Ministry has and continues to make in our wonderful downtown of Grand Rapids. I love our city, I love our people, and I love that this ministry focuses on the internal needs of the spirit and soul - giving them the power, confidence and tools to succeed and grow.

If anyone is or may be interested in volunteering their time and talents to this Board, I would highly encourage it. This was my first Board experience and yet I felt appreciated and essential to the team. Please let me know if you have any interest as I'd love to chat with you about it!

If you have never heard of or want to know more about the Ministry, check out the website at or watch the below video for a tour! (in person tours available as well, message me or our hard working Chief Executive Director Rev. Andy DeBraber to set something up!)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Loving Our Neighbors

Hopelessness stands at our door here every afternoon when we close.
And every morning when we open, hopelessness returns.

Dear Friends,
As much as we wish that would change overnight, we know that growth is often slow and steady. We know this in our own lives. Sometimes the way we grow is two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes it is even one step forward, two steps back. And every once in awhile we take a big leap.

The director of a partner agency we work with recently wrote on Facebook:

Many times the people we work with are their own worst enemies. Their choosing            mechanisms are "broken" or impaired and they are not able to make good choices. Today, we had the opportunity to move two men out of a horrible living situation and into better housing, but they are choosing to stay where they are because they are used to it.

For many of us, this is hard to fathom. When a choice is presented that would, from our perspective, obviously make life better, why would people choose otherwise?

Just this week, a woman came to talk with me about how she was abused over the weekend while sleeping under a bridge. She is someone we have helped twice in the past year and a half to get into housing. But once housed, she makes these "broken" choices that get her evicted. She was honest about her mistakes in losing her most recent housing. "It was stupid," she said, "I know."

Growth. Slow growth - honesty. She used to blame someone else for her problems. Now she takes responsibility. So she comes back to ask for help again, hoping as much as we do that it sticks this time.

We talked. We prayed. And then she went to our Fiber Arts Studio to knit her life back together again.

"You know, Heartside Ministry is my safe space in all of this," she said.

That's what you, our supporters, do here at Heartside Ministry every day.

You create that safe space for the man who comes to me every few weeks telling me outlandish stories about "the Yellows" who are out to get him. In the middle of telling me about these aliens, he also tells some profoundly prophetic truths about the injustices of our world and the value -- or lack of value -- we place on certain people because of the way they look or act or the skin they were born into. And then he goes into the computer lab to write his friends and look for an apartment.

You also make life better for the woman who will likely never get a job because of mental illness. She lives in a group home and comes to Heartside nearly every day. She's long been an artist with us, creating watercolors that are at times whimsical and at times incisive.

This past year she joined our literacy class. She was as faithful in class as the day is long. She worked hard at it. She barely passed at the end. Most measurements of "success" would track whether she got a job or started working toward her GED. No, she didn’t. And she won’t. But was her life improved because now she can read at a slightly higher level? Yes. Are we as a society better off because she can read at a slightly higher level -- and feels better about herself as a person? Yes!

What you provide each day here at Heartside Ministry is a place where people can grow through education, art, advocacy, faith, and hospitality. You indeed create the environment where people can blossom. And where people do blossom.

Yet you also hold a space here for those dormant periods, those times when the bulb is in the ground and there is no evidence of growth, those times when the field is left fallow. This is the safe place, the sanctuary, where people know they can come and be welcomed even when they are not where they want to be, even when they know they are making "broken" choices, even when no one else will welcome them in.

In many ways, we are the end of the line for our neighbors. They have burned most other bridges. In order to continue as a place of radical hospitality for all people, we need you. We need you and your love of our neighbors here. We need you to provide hope and keep hopelessness at bay.

Please take a moment right now and Donate and help to extend hope and
healing to our neighbors in their moments of growth as well as moments of “broken” choices.

And then hold us and our neighbors in your thoughts and prayers. Because sometimes grace does break through in amazing ways.

In deep gratitude,

PS: You might have heard… we have a new project on our hands! Acting on our strategic plan, Heartside Ministry has secured a new facility that will better serve our neighbors, both in the present and in the long-term. You will be hearing more from me in the coming months about how you can help. In the meantime, we really need your support this summer.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Demolition Help Needed! ~ 7/14/15

Who wouldn't want to dismantle this? Now's your chance! We need help turning the old Tini Bikini into the new home of Heartside Ministry.
We need volunteers to help with interior demolition before we have to bring in and pay the professionals to carve out a new place for our neighbors.
Here are the dates:
Saturday, July 25
Wednesday, July 29
Saturday, August 8
Monday, August 10
Times are flexible and the project manager will work around your crews' availability, but beginning no earlier than 9am.
If you have them, please bring saws, sledgehammers, buckets, & gloves. Dust masks will be provided.
We need to take down walls, dismantle water heaters, pipes, a furnace and a boiler and carry/dump refuse into a dumpster.  
Join us if you have a few hours to spare and email Helen at with your interest or for more information!