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Burton Heights/Garfield Park

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Speaking the language of community: Burton Heights & Garfield Park faith leaders focus on organizing




In Burton Heights and Garfield Park, church leaders are helping to craft evolutionary spaces to educate, empower and advocate for immigration and police reform and safe and affordable housing.
The glimmers of the morning sun shining through the windows of the old building warmed the faces of those sitting quietly in the pews. The morning was eerily quiet; the families gathered that morning with heavy hearts, afraid and uncertain of how the results of the election would affect their future in the country. Despite the overwhelming feelings of anxiety and grief knowing they could come together that Sunday morning reminded them they were welcomed at Korean Grace Christian Reformed Church.
 
“There is a sense of anger, hurt, grief, and lament. But more so in our community, there is a real sense of fear," says James Lee, Pastor of the English service at the Korean Grace Christian Reformed Church, which is located on the border of Grand Rapids' Burton Heights and Garfield Park neighborhoods. "Fear of the unknown. Fear of possibilities in whether some of us can get work visas or not, green cards or not, citizenship or not.
 
"With all these questions, trials, or storms that may ensue, we hope as a community to stand with those who are weeping," Lee continues. "We hope to lament with those who seek to lament. We seek to grieve with those who grieve."
 

Church members at Grace Church pray quietly during the weekly service this past Sunday.



In the communities found along South Division Avenue in Grand Rapids’ Burton Heights and Garfield Park neighborhoods, pastors and church leaders are helping create spaces to organize and advocate for the community. They are providing spaces for culturally diverse communities to come and worship together.
 
They are advocating for immigration reform while giving a voice to the many families having to live in homes with abnormally high levels of lead poisoning. These faith communities are using their privilege to address food insecurity and help provide and share a meal with other neighbors.

For Mika Edmondson, coming to this community meant bringing church into the neighborhood. As the only Black minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the United States , he calls his work in the community “reconciliation.”
 
Edmondson moved from East Nashville, Tenessee with his family to Grand Rapids to finish his degree in Theology at Calvin Seminary, where he wrote a dissertation on Martin Luther King Jr.'s theology of suffering. Edmondson felt called to the area to help form what he calls a neighborhood collaborative.
 
“Being the first Black ordained minister of my denomination has allowed me to share my experiences as a Black male with an overwhelmingly white community and invite them to help carry my burdens,” says Edmondson.
 
Edmondson is the head pastor of New City Fellowship, a Reformed church community coming out of Harvest Church, located on the corner of Burton and Eastern.
 
Since opening the church in 2014, Edmondson and his family have been intentional about providing spaces for the community to come and learn from one another.
 
“In this community we find many mono-cultural neighborhoods living next to each other,” states Edmondson.
 In these monolithic spaces Edmondson believes is where the work of reconciliation comes in and learning to share one another's burdens.


At New City Fellowship neighbors are invited to partake in a weekly meal. The purpose of this event is to create a space for individuals to get to know one another while helping provide a healthy meal for those neighbors who may be experiencing food scarcity.
 
“Sharing a meal with one another is not simply about the food we have at the table, but also bringing to light that many are experiencing food scarcity and we need to continue to advocate against this,” states Edmondson.
 
In the Garfield Park neighborhood, 50 percent of the area’s residents are living in households earning less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, according to U.S Census data. For a family of four this means surviving on less than $35,375 dollars per year, which translates to food scarcity being a concern for many residents in the area.
 
Edmondson, who has been working tirelessly to organize and provide educational opportunities for residents of the neighborhood, centers his efforts around those most marginalized in the neighborhood.
 
 “In this community police brutality is a reality that concerns many of our neighbors and they need to be supported to be sure this doesn't occur,” Edmondson says.
 
One of the ways New City Fellowship is helping educate the community at large is through their annual conference, Jesus + Politics, a two-day event discussing partisan politics in the church, Black Lives Matter and immigration.
 
“Black Lives Matter not because other lives don’t but because our Black neighbors experience the world differently than our white members of our community,” describes Edmondson.
 
A couple of blocks down the street from New City Fellowship stands Korean Grace Christian Reformed Church, a church community made up of mostly Korean immigrants. Lee, the pastor of the English service at Grace Church, believes it is his church community’s responsibility to help the neighborhood at large reach a sense of stability.  
 
James Lee
“We want to connect others in our neighborhood and organize,” explains Lee.
 
The building currently housing Grace was home to Burton Heights Christian Reformed Church for more than 80 years, but in 2006 the church closed its doors and sold the property for $1 to Grace Church.
 
Although the building belongs to Grace Church, they make their space available to other churches, community organizations and residents of the area.
 
“Every Thursday our space hosts the kids of Power Life Ministries, a weekly after-school program for kids in the area,” says Lee.
 
Grace Church is unlike any other church in the area, as the majority of its members were initially attracted to the church community because of its predominantly Korean community and not faith background.
 Grace Church members gather together after the service to fellowship.
“When people started coming to our church, many of our members did not consider themselves Christians, and they came here looking for fellow Koreans to build community with,” describes Lee.
 
Ricardo Tavarez
After being in the neighborhood for 10 years, Lee believes the Grace community is ready to actively organize with the community at large. To expand his outreach, Lee is partnering with Ricardo Tavarez, pastor of En Vivo Church, a bilingual church housed in Health Intervention Services, a  community clinic in the area offering medical services to undocumented and low-income residents, on the corner of Andre Street and South Division.
 

The pair are working together to worship, give back and serve the community.  An eclectic group of Korean, Latinx, and English speakers working to organize and empower their communities effectively. 
 
“We want to create a space where everyone in the neighborhood is welcomed,” Tavarez says.
 
Tavarez, a second-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republican and Puerto Rico, spent his childhood in Burton Heights and, after working primarily in the Madison Square corridor, feels called to serve, advocate and empower the community in which he grew up.
 
“At En Vivo Church we are taking a community development approach, which means going door to door, inviting neighbors and building relationships,” explains Tavarez.
 
Tavarez does not what En Vivo Church to become a commuter church, which he explains is a church made up of members who do not live in the neighborhood where the church is located.

Instead, he wants to empower the residents who already know best their communities’ needs to come together to address them.

Through a relationship-first model, Tavarez wants to help build a church that is primarily community-oriented and focused on understanding the needs of the community.
 
“People of the neighborhood are the greatest asset in the community—we want to help cultivate untapped talent of the neighborhood,” says Tavarez.
 
The pastor shares his concerns around gentrification occurring in the area.
 
“If the community isn’t organized and connected, the power to advocate against gentrification will escape from the hands of the community” states Tavarez.
 
Tavarez recognizes En Vivo is one of many churches in the area, and he is not looking to reinvent the wheel or duplicate services but to share in knowledge and resources with other church leaders and community organizers in the neighborhood.
 
In the Garfield Park and Burton Heights neighborhoods, community organizing and engagement is happening in multiple languages, around a shared meal and a couple of wooden pews. In this community, pastors and neighbors are coming together despite their differences to center the most marginalized, and are reconciling relationships.
 
On The Ground GR
 
On The Ground GR is a new Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found along South Division Avenue that touch the Garfield Park and Burton Heights neighborhoods. You can read all the On The Ground articles published to date here
 
Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.
 
Follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter using the hashtag #OnTheGroundGRFacebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
 
On The Ground GR is made possible by the Frey Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Steelcase, organizations that believe democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. 
 
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