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.