Saturday, May 2, 2009

Turning dreams into reality

Community celebrates International Labor Day by rallying around immigration reform and the DREAM Act

KALAMAZOO, MICHIGAN (May 1, 2009)--Change is born out of dreams and those willing to risk all to dream them.

But those gathering this afternoon at Saint Joseph Catholic Church shared a common dream for change that for far too long has been deferred. “La Esperanza de Nuestros Sueños”--“The Hope of Our Dreams”--attracted a diverse crowd of roughly one hundred-fifty people from the community to rally around comprehensive immigration reform and, more specifically, the DREAM Act.

The event, co-sponsored by the Michigan Organizing Project (M.O.P.), ISAAC, and the Hispanic American Center, aimed to educate the community about immigration issues and mobilize a growing political base to speak up and advocate for justice on behalf of a growing generation of immigrants.

If it were to pass through both House and Senate votes, the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act would allow students without documentation to apply for and potentially receive federal aid to cover tuition costs for higher education. As it now stands, immigrant children lacking proof of legal residency are deemed ineligible for such assistance.

“The Hispanic community has to come together--documented and undocumented--around this issue,” explained Lori Mercedes, program director for the Hispanic American Center. “It is important for us that we are there helping our kids gain access to education.”

Mercedes, a Nicaraguan-born immigrant, spent two years of her childhood living as an undocumented immigrant in Mexico while waiting for her family’s political asylum appeal to clear. She knows firsthand the difficulties of living in fear and uncertainty.

Each person in attendance at the rally received a graduation cap with a tassel, giving the evening a commencement-like spirit.

And education was at the heart of the agenda. A full slate of individuals addressed the crowd in both Spanish and English, discoursing on the history of the labor movement, the complexity of immigration issues, and access to education.

“We need to educate each other,” said Santiago Valles, professor of African Studies at Western Michigan and one of the evening's keynote speakers. 

From the podium, Valles encouraged those in attendance to learn more about labor and immigrants’ role in the US work force. “We came to the US because of the economic conditions imposed upon us in our home countries--conditions that were created by many of the same businesses we are forced to work for in the state. We need to make that connection,” an animated Valles told the crowd.

He also spoke about Lucia Parsons, a Latina survivor of the labor movement’s Haymarket Uprising that took place in 1887 in Chicago. “Google her,” he implored. “She was one of the most important educators in the movement.”

Huber Cabrerra, a recent immigrant to the states from Guatemala, was eager to learn more. “I’m Hispanic,” he said in Spanish, indicating he felt more comfortable expressing himself in his native language. “I knew there was going to be a rally. I came because I want to become more informed about the issues,” he said.

The DREAM Act

Diana Hernandez spoke specifically to the DREAM Act. Director of Multicultural Affairs at Western Michigan, Hernandez has observed firsthand the consequences suffered by immigrant children due to current U.S. policy. “Es una lástima--it’s a shame,” she said. “(Undocumented students) can’t register and become part of the university.”

Testifying to this fact, Obdulia Morales spoke about her experiences as a high school student in Kalamazoo. “The are many undocumented students here who really want to get an education and make a difference. The DREAM Act is the hope of our dreams, to make that possibility a reality.”

“I hope they do pass it,” said Lizbette Armijo, a staffer with the Hispanic American Center. “There are lots of Hispanics who would like to go to school and move on to good careers.”

LInda Cook-MacDonald spoke as a representative of ISAAC, a local advocacy and action group. She expressed more than hope. “It must pass,” she emphasized, urging attendees to actively respond. “We want a different United States than what we have now, one where everyone has access to education.”

“But it won’t happen with us sitting on our hands.”

Nathan Dannison, Cook-MacDonald's colleague at ISAAC, confirmed the importance of the critical mass. "We're close to the requisite number of votes to pass the DREAM Act," he said. "It's a matter of making our representatives know what we believe."

Not without celebration

As any effective social movement should be, the evening was not without song and dance. Justice-infused hip hop artist El Diez was present with carefully crafted lyrics inspiring hope for change. He performed “Querida Mamá,” a song about a mother in the U.S. who received letters from her children back in her home country, separated by an impermeable border and economic necessity. 

El Diez, born in El Salvador, encountered hip hop in Los Angeles in 1983, near the genre’s conception. For him, music is a vehicle of change. “It’s a voice. I choose my lyrics wisely--I can only listen to something talking about social justice.”

Also among performers were thirteen-year-old soloist Karla Ruiz-Velasco and her father,  Javier Ruiz.

Afterwards, attendees were treated to a home-cooked meal prepared by Maria Gomez and Lydia McNamara. Both active in immigrant issues, Gomez works for M.O.P. while McNamara owns La Hispánica International Market, a local grocery store catering to Kalamazoo’s Latino community.

Jordan Bruxvoort was encouraged by the unity on display at the event. "It's great to see the various organizations and individuals working together," said Bruxvoort, an organizer for M.O.P.

As people ate, music played over the loud speaker. A father danced with his daughter amidst others proudly wearing their graduation caps. One was left to hope that the dream of education and prosperity will become reality, and that girls and boys like the one dancing this evening will one day be found moving their tassels from one side to the other.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Service learning brings Comenius Scholars to Lansing

Calvin students participate in fresh approach to lobbying legislators 

LANSING, MICHIGAN (April 28, 2009)--Two Calvin students descended on the state capitol on Tuesday as part of a delegation with ACCESS of West Michigan, a faith-based collaborative that coordinates service, education, and advocacy efforts on behalf of the area’s poor and needy.

Senior Corrie Krol (Jenison) and sophomore Jin-Ha Kim (South Korea), both interns with ACCESS, participated in a poverty simulation workshop with legislators in Lansing.

The event, co-sponsored by Senators Mark Jansen (R-Gaines Twp) and Bill Hardiman (R-Kent County), turned the tables for a while as participants assumed the financial burdens--and the many accompanying pitfalls and hardships--of life below the poverty line.

Both Krol and Kim had observed and partaken in workshops previously, but this marked their first time assuming the roles of individuals living in poverty.

Krol played the role of Nancy Nuttin, a single mother of three working part-time at a hospital for minimum wage. Kim acted as her son, Ned, a precocious nine-year-old. 

“Oh man,” commented Krol afterwards, reflecting on her participation in the workshop. “I had seen how frustrated everyone gets (when they participate in the simulation) and I didn’t want to do it.” 

Krol found herself held up at gunpoint, harassed by debt collectors, and appealing to child protective services--Kim had been taken into custody when left home unattended-- over the course of the workshop. Toward the end of the hour-long simulation, her frustration mounted.

“It was really difficult,” she said.

Each simulation scenario was unique. 

Senator Jansen played the role of a four-year-old child living in a family impoverished as a result of mass lay-offs in their community. His family was eventually evicted from their home.

Another Lansing diplomat, Amanda Comment, endured the simulation as an eighty-five-year-old woman relying on social security checks and Medicare.

Bob Kefgen, Chief of Staff for Representative Dudley Spade (D-Lenawee), participated as a forty-three year old father seeking employment after lo

sing his job to downsizing. He managed to find work as a custodian for $200 a week. His children in the simulation also found work.

In the end, however, it didn’t help much. “We still lost the house,” he explained.

Krol and Kim have worked with ACCESS of West Michigan as participants in the Comenius Scholarship program at Calvin, a McGregor Foundation-funded grant that places students in a variety of service settings in the community.

“I’ve been doing some case management work in food pantries,” Krol said. “Getting out and talking with people living in poverty and helping them out has been a great experience.”

Krol will graduate from Calvin this spring. Toward the end of the summer, she will join Mennonite Central Committee to do service work for a year in Bolivia.

Kim has likewise enjoyed his participation with ACCESS. “It’s very cool,” he said, smiling. An international student from South Korea, Kim is interested in doing development work in Asia.

They have been able to observe the complexity of poverty and the many manifestations of the experience. “Sometimes helping is just giving a hand so that (people in poverty) can get out of their situation,” observed Krol.

The event in Lansing concluded with some ACCESS representatives sharing stories of life in poverty. The aim was to put a face on the statistics and simulation scenarios with which legislators were confronted.

“"When you look in the mirror,” Gloria Dunbar, a single mother of two living on roughly $400 a month, told the group, “I hope that face becomes real--that face of poverty that you had to wear today."

With the continued efforts of ACCESS and the people who comprise the collaborative, that face is sure to become clearer and clearer.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Not just another game

ACCESS of West Michigan descends on Lansing to engage lawmakers in poverty simulation

LANSING, MICHIGAN (April 28, 2009)--The twelve-passenger van that rolled up to the state capitol this morning did not transport your typical group of lobbyists.

Out filed a young woman, 8 1/2 months pregnant; a diabetic man confined to a wheel chair; a woman suffering from a variety of emotional disorders; a single mother slightly preoccupied with her stroke-surviving daughter's well-being.

No, not your typical group of lobbyists at all.

Then again, this wasn't your typical lobbying appointment, either.

This morning at the capitol, a group of twenty individuals affiliated with ACCESS of West Michigan teamed up to conduct a poverty simulation workshop with some of the state's lawmakers. The result was a powerful demonstration of the effects of poverty.

The event, co-sponsored by Senators Mark Jansen (R-Gaines Twp) and Bill Hardiman (R-Kent County), turned the tables for a while as participants assumed the financial burdens--and the many accompanying pitfalls and hardships--of life below the poverty line.

"This is not a game," Betsy Thompson warned before the simulation began. "Poverty is not a game for the 38 million Americans who live in such conditions."

Thompson is the Poverty Education Coordinator for ACCESS, a faith-based collaborative operating out of Kent County that aims to coordinate services directed toward the region's most needy individuals and families.

She encouraged participants to deeply engage in their roles as people coping with poverty.

The simulation assigned scenarios to the individuals present, designating family make-ups and economic conditions that are rooted in real stories that have crossed ACCESS case managers' desks over the past two and a half decades.

The Nuttin family, for example, was comprised of a single mother and three children aged 17, 13, and 9. Divorce had
 pushed the family into poverty as Nancy Nuttin was left to care for her three children and to provide the necessary income to house, clothe, and feed them. 

Over the course of the simulation, Nancy was held up at gun point; Ned Nuttin was taken into custody of the state; Nikki was released from juvenille detention; and Nathan, a high school graduate, could not obtain employment and turned to illegal activity to help support the family. 

Another family found itself impoverished due to unemployment as a result of downsizing and mass layoffs--a scenario quite relevant to thousands Michigan residents.

Amanda Comment, a staff member in Senator Jansen's office, assumed the role of an eighty-five year-old woman living alone.

Participants were given assignments--obtaining employment, purchasing groceries, visiting the health clinic, paying bills--and, naturally, few resources with which to complete them. The results mirrored real life in poverty, as frustration, fear, desperation, and downright frustration overwhelmed those in the room.
The hope for this morning's workshop in particular was to open the eyes of people with power to the plight of the powerless in their midst. The dynamic was quite interesting to observe.

Senator Jansen played the role of a four-year-old child. He found himself begging for food and complaining of his hunger as simulated days went by without food on the table.

"It's amazing how this is just a simulation," commented Bob Kefgen, Chief of Staff for Rep. Dudley Spade (D-Lenawee). 

"How frustrating this was," he exclaimed, flabbergasted. "People live this everyday."

Kefgen acted as a forty-three-year-old man who had been laid off. In the simulation he managed to find a job as a janitor, earning $200 each week.

"We still lost the house," he lamented.

The simulation was especially relevant to Kefgen: Representative Spade presides over the Department of Human Services committee in Lansing.

Another participant complained, "We didn't have the time to check out the resources (available to us.)"

Welcome to the world of so many Americans.

ACCESS of West Michigan has sponsored over 100 such workshops over the years, hoping to enlighten the community to the complexity of poverty. The simulation, borrowed from similar workshops conducted by a poverty action group in Missouri, has been adapted to address needs specific to Kent County.

Marsha DeHollander, program director for ACCESS, addressed the group at the workshop's conclusion. She first implored participants to observe a moment of silence. "This is to honor the millions of Americans who do not get to stop living in poverty when the whistle blows," she said.

After a breakout session in which participants were invited to share their initial responses to the experience, DeHollander invited the perspective of the many staffers who enacted the simulation.

Among those was Gloria Dunbar. She related the story of her daughter's health conditions which eventually forced her to quit her job to perform the duties of caretaker. "I live in poverty every day," she told the group. "Pass the word on. Every circumstance is different," she said, encouraging them to consider policy decisions with compassion.

From his wheelchair, Rodger Granger also spoke of the complexity of poverty. "I worked for over thirty years," he said. "But when I contracted diabetes and my health deteriorated, I couldn't work anymore. In the process I lost my job, my income, my sense of worth, my security."

Brenda and Brittany Dalecke shared their story, too. Brenda was a successful mother and supervisor in the nonprofit sector prior to succumbing to substance abuse and making a foolish mistake that landed her in the Michigan Department of Corrections. Her daughter, Brittany, was consequently driven to many self-destructive behaviors. She likewise found herself confronting poverty's difficulties.

They stood as examples of hope--the two have both emerged out of poverty.

Not all are so lucky. "I had education and social support," explained Brenda. She now serves as a community outreach director for a faith congregation in Holland.

"I was fortunate to have gone to college," added Brittany, a senior at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. "So many don't have that opportunity."

And while the complexity and breadth of poverty is vast, the working solutions seem to be all too scarce.

"We hope to change the mentality (of workshop participants) about those who live in poverty," said Thompson. "It's not always about working hard or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Next time they might think differently about poverty, and we hope they will do something about it."

ACCESS offers resources and opportunities for involvment to individuals interested in responding to the harsh realities of poverty. Its work in the community provides counseling, coordinated services, education, and advocacy on behalf of West Michigan's needy.

"Sometimes helping is just giving a hand so that (people in poverty) can get out of their situation," observed Corrie Krol, a Calvin College senior wrapping up her internship with ACCESS.

But today was about working for systemic change.

"The simulation is always effective, but the stories are what participants find the most compelling," said DeHollander. The perspectives she invited to Lansing put faces on the many statistics and simulated experiences of poverty that were shared at the capitol.

"When you look in the mirror, I hope that face becomes real--that face of poverty that you had to wear today," Gloria Dunbar told the group.

And so the ACCESS van departed Lansing, having turned the tables for a morning, hopeful that the tables will also turn for their neighbors and communities so deeply affected by poverty.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center



Sunday, April 26, 2009

Doug Tjapkes set to encourage humanity for prisoners in lecture at the Micah Center

GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN (April 27, 2009)--In the latest installment of the Micah Center’s Just Lecture series, Doug Tjapkes  (pronounced CHAP-kes) will speak to the topic of “Humanity for Prisoners” at Hope Reformed Church (2010 Kalamazoo SE, Grand Rapids) at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 5.

Tjapkes has never served time behind bars himself, but the retired broadcast journalist nevertheless has ample first-hand experience with prison life and the fate of our nation’s incarcerated. His organization, Humanity for Prisoners (formerly named Innocent), has allowed Tjapkes to draw near to many inmates to better understand the criminal justice system and its impact on society and the individuals it incarcerates. 

Out of those experiences Tjapkes authored Sweet Freedom, a narrative detailing his friendship with Maurice Carter, a man convicted of a crime of which he was years later acquitted. Sadly, Carter died only a few months after his release from prison, after unjustly serving two decades in the penitentary.

Humanity for Prisoners aims to advocate for prisoners who might have been wrongly convicted; the agency also pursues more compassionate and restorative policy as well as more dignified and humane services and conditions within the prison setting.

Tjapkes will explore restorative justice principles and propose how the justice system might be reformed to better care for and restore individuals and communities affected by criminal behavior.

The lecture is free and open to the public. The Micah Center is a faith-based grassroots justice movement in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For more information about the Just Lecture Series or The Micah Center, visit www.themicahcenter.com or email (info@themicahcenter.com).

Brian Paff, The Micah Center

Friday, April 24, 2009

Gathering 'round the table

ACCESS of West Michigan calls forums to discuss poverty, hunger

GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN (April 21, 2009)--It wasn't actually a round table, and there were no knights seated, but the individuals gathered at Grand Rapids' southeast side's Living Word Ministries exhibited as noble a spirit as found in any Canterbury tale.

The ACCESS Community Roundtable, sponsored this week at five regional locations, aimed to gather various agencies together to discuss how to better coordinate services to the region's homeless, unemployed, and underemployed individuals and families.

In the face of federal and state cutbacks for social welfare programs during the Reagan administration, ACCESS emerged out of a strong desire to help the community's poor and hungry. It was then that the collaborative determined to lend organizing power to services provided by small, independent agencies and church efforts. 

ACCESS does not provide food directly to individuals; rather, it offers case management, hunger advocacy, poverty education

"Our slogan, if you will, is helping congregations help people," commented Marsha DeHollander, program director for ACCESS.

Nancy Reenders, ACCESS hunger initiative coordinator, echoed that sentiment: "What we do is try to coordinate the work of those who (provide food and services)."

DeHollander, on staff with ACCESS since 1985, was pleased with the outcome of the forums this week. "We learn from each other," she said. "New ideas, new resources. We feel it is very important to regularly get together so that we may respond to the community's needs cooperatively."

The meetings provided attendees with a variety of information and resources to bring back to their respective food pantries, church programs, and social agencies. Among those in attendance at the southeast side meeting were representatives from John Knox Presbyterian Church, First CRC, and South End Community Outreach Ministries. 

The table was also open for individuals to share their experiences of both struggle and success. 

Flo Koster, a member of nearby Neland Avenue CRC, shared success stories of her congregation's food pantry and community programs.

Another attendee, Bob Storteboom, highlighted Covenant CRC's furniture pantry. "We distributed more than 2300 pieces of furniture in 2008," he told the group. He also enlisted other Roundtable participants to direct their served communities to the unique program.

Troy Oglesby sat at the table as a representative of Living Word, the host to Tuesday's event. Living Word has exhibited strong growth in recent years. "With a larger footprint comes a larger presence in the community," expressed Oglesby, youth pastor at Living Word. 

He explained that his congregation hoped to plug further into the network ACCESS has established in order to better serve the community.

Turnout for the meeting at Living Word was strong, as were the other gatherings across Grand Rapids. In fact, the southeast side meeting was so well attended, ACCESS ran out of complimentary coffee mugs promised to participants.

"They were wonderful," commented DeHollander at the week's end, her voice tinged with a hint of weariness.

It can be exhausting, no doubt, coordinating services for people in need in a trying economic time. 

The Grand Rapids community can be thankful that DeHollander and her staff at ACCESS are leading the way.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center

Crying out together

Interfaith prayer vigil will focus on justice for immigrants

GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN (April 24, 2009)--In what will be a nationwide effort on the part of people of faith, area Christians and Jews will gather to pray for justice for immigrants near and far. 

The vigil, sponsored by the local, advocacy-based Micah Center and Just Faith, a Catholic justice education and action movement, will commemorate the one-year anniversary of the nation’s largest immigration raid that occurred at a Kosher packaging plant in Postville, Iowa, in which nearly 400 immigrants--most of whom were from Guatemala and Mexico, but a few who were from Israel and other nations as well--were arrested. 

Faith communities across the country will remember the raid this May 12 with vigils similar to the one occurring in West Michigan.

The vigil will take place at 7 p.m. at Saint Joseph the Worker Catholic Church (225 - 32nd Street SW, Wyoming, MI 49548). It will commence with an outdoor lighting of 389 candles--one for each person arrested in the Postville raid a year ago. Participants will then process into the church’s sanctuary to partake in a litany to be delivered in English, Spanish, and Hebrew. Afterwards, there will be a planned time of fellowship and advocacy in the church basement.

Ron Sabourin, of Kentwood, initiated the vigil. A member of the Catholic movement Just Faith, Sabourin exhibits a sincere passion for immigration issues. “There are a number of immigrants in my church,” he says, “and I’ve seen some of their suffering due to unjust laws and policies.” 

The vigil promises to attract a diverse crowd to St. Joseph’s, as a number of local justice organizations have joined hands to plan and promote the event. Sabourin is working diligently to plan and promote the event alongside members of the Micah Center, distributing fliers and making phone calls to members of the faith community. In addition, Sabourin recently attended a Jewish Seder and forged a relationship with members of Temple Emanuel, who will also contribute to the event.

Kate Kooyman, a leading advocate for immigration reform in the West Michigan community, observes, “People of faith need to come together to raise a collective voice for justice.” 

This just might be their chance.

Kooyman is an organizer for the CRC Office of Social Justice and leader of the Immigration Action Group at the Micah Center. She will collaborate with Laura Rampersad of Justice for Our Neighbors, a Methodist organization offering legal assistance to immigrants, to conduct an advocacy workshop at the conclusion of the vigil. 

Educational information and notices of upcoming social action around immigration issues will be available for distribution. Furthermore, Kooyman and Rampersad will guide attendees in writing letters to legislators to express their convictions about comprehensive immigration reform.

For information on the Postville Vigil, please visit www.themicahcenter.com or email info@themicahcenter.com. 

Brian Paff, the Micah Center

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Finding the strength to open our arms

Kate Kooyman outlines case for comprehensive immigration reform

GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN (April 18, 2009)--"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." 

So it is inscribed at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, a promise to immigrants near and far hoping for a new life in the United States. But with a struggling national economy, can that promise really be kept? For that matter, has it even been kept over the past half-century?

At the "Doing Justice in This Economy" conference held at Oakdale Park CRC this morning, Kate Kooyman explored such questions in a facilitated dialogue about immigration with economics in mind.

Kooyman does community organizing work for the CRC Office of Social Justice and frequently visits local churches to discuss various justice issues. She also helps lead the Immigration Action Group at the Micah Center, a local grassroots justice movement promoting education and action in the community.

She opened the discussion by laying a Biblical foundation for her stance on immigration. "Sometimes when I go to churches I spend the whole time talking about what the Bible has to say about immigration," she warned the group. "Today, though, I'm hoping for more of a conversation."

That being said, she proceeded to borrow from the Old Testament. "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as youself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God," he read, quoting words written in Leviticus.

"As we talk about dollars and numbers and statistics," Kooyman said, "we need to remember we are talking about human beings. God instructs us to treat (immigrants) with love."

To help put a face on the many statistics to follow, she invited Aaron Gonzalez, former pastor of Paz y Esperanza (Peace and Hope), to address the group. Gonzalez related several stories of congregants in his fold who were immigrants to the country.

Among other examples, he spoke about a pregnant woman who was abandoned at a grocery store by her boyfriend with their two children. "She didn't know anybody, had no (immigration) papers" said Gonzalez. Somehow--by the grace of God, perhaps--she ended up at Paz y Esperanza, where the community embraced her and she managed to attain a higher quality of life for her self and her children. 

"The gospel has this gift of changing people," he said.

While Gonzalez's narratives portrayed hope, they weren't without sorrow. "(Many immigrants) live in fear," he said.

Jeff DeJong, a teacher in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, could resonate with this insight. "I've learned in my classroom that you can't use the word 'immigration officer.' (The children) go silent like this," he said, motioning with his hand. "They all tense up."

"It doesn't help anyone to have 12 million people living here in obscurity," Kooyman added.

In order to set the record straight, Kooyman addressed a number of myths about immigration. Most relevant to the day's discussion were notions that immigrants presented a drain on the U.S. economy. 

She pointed out that the U.S. gains $140 billion each year in tax revenue through sales and income taxes doled out by undocumented immigrants.

Furthermore, immigrants complement gaps in the national labor force, performing many manual tasks that drive industry within the states.

Kooyman also shared a statistic that observed a four percent increase in wages for native workers in California, home to the nation's largest population of undocumented immigrants, in spite of economic recession nationwide during the time period the study was conducted.

Perhaps most striking of the facts Kooyman disclosed, however, pertained to a scholastic contest. "65 percent of math olympiad winners are born of immigrant parents," she revealed, drawing a murmur of surprise from those in attendance. She complemented this statistic with other findings pointing to the contributions immigrants make to the nation's infrastructure and enterprise.

A question was then raised about immigrants earning money in the states and sending it to their home countries, effectively depleting the US economy of its desired trickled down revenue.


"What about people buy products made in China?" countered David Rifenberg, of Muskegon. He explained that most present in the room likely sent money overseas by shopping at Walmart, buying many name brand products, and supporting industries that manufacture goods in other countries. Often, those dollars support the exploitation of labor forces in developing countries.

"We're very willing to send money over there to hurt, but not so willing to send money to help," Rifenberg observed.

Joel Lautenbach, a fundraising specialist for Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, also commented on the complexity and global interconnectedness of immigration and economics. "What I do to help someone in Cambodia," he said, "is tied into immigration in California."

Toward the workshop's conclusion, Kooyman detailed several recommendations for Congress as it considers proposals for comprehensive immigration reform. 

Among these points were dignified enforcement of immigration laws, establishment of a family-based system that values and protects the needs of families so often separated by U.S. policies, and an examination and unilateral response to root causes for immigration.

"I think comprehensive immigration reform is key to solving our economic crisis," Kooyman added. "One of the reasons we are strong is because we are diverse--we are a nation of immigrants," she said, conjuring up images of Lady Liberty and her declaration to the world's hopeful citizens. 

With that, Kooyman urged workshop participants to act on behalf of immigrants near and far. "We need Christians to get on the phone, write letters, make their voices heard," she said, presenting a slate of opportunities for involvement, including through advocacy efforts, prayer vigils, and support for immigrants' rights organizations.

Perhaps if legislators hear that voice, and if the U.S. can return to embrace that concept and find a way to welcome immigrants with more open arms, it will once again stand tall, offering a light to the world.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Glimpses of hope in the midst of strife

Christians gather in Grand Rapids to explore justice issues in this economy

GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN (April 18, 2009)--Last Sunday, Brad Van Beek eyed the number of individuals registered for the justice conference he and others in the community had organized and began to worry. 

"We told ourselves, 'If we get twenty-five (people), we'll be happy," recalled Van Beek.

To his delight, more than one hundred people of faith poured into Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church this morning for the one-day "Justice in This Economy" conference.

Sometimes, all it takes is a little bit of faith.

There was plenty of faith to go around on Saturday, as Christians across West Michigan gathered at the Southeast side church to explore justice issues in the current economic climate.

Jonathan Bradford, president of the Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF), delivered the conference's keynote address. He urged attendees to reach out to their fellow neighbors and support efforts to invest in communities and the individuals who comprise them.

Sarah and Shane Avrard, of Muskegon, could testify to the power of community investment. The mother and son were present with several other members of Mosaic Way, a sort of "new church" that emphasizes communal fellowship and outreach to the neighborhood.

"We live in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Muskegon," explained Sarah Avrard, who works as a child's advocate for youth in West Michigan's foster care system. She described the group's co-op approach to life and missional focus on the community in which they live. "It's how we've committed to living," she said.

After the plenary session, the conference offered a host of workshops addressing various justice issues, all of which related in some way to the nation's and world's economic woes. Topics included sustainable international development, support for local businesses, public education funding, immigration, and the housing crisis.

Facing some of these issues was not easy for those in attendance. 

"It hurts my brain," admitted David Rifenberg of Muskegon. He commented on the widespread presence of injustice and lamented the United States' role in this injustice, whether through imperial capitalism or passive observance. "We for some reason will not accept our responsibility."

But the conference was as much about hope as it was about guilt or sorrow.

Darrell and Missy Jackson led a workshop on their fair trade coffee operation, Bean by Bean, which operates out of Guatemala. "We're talking about a different kind of return on investment," said Darrell after telling several narratives about and displaying photographs of the people on the ground in Guatemala who have contributed to and benefitted from Bean by Bean's efforts. "Faces and stories like these are what we want to share with the people who buy our coffee."

In another moving workshop, Kurt Ver Beek of Association for a More Just Society (AJS) hosted a web conference between attendees and two citizens of Honduras. AJS co-sponsored the event along with the CRC Office of Social Justice, and the Honduran-based outfit brought a unique perspective from the developing world to the Americans in the room.

Luis Zambrano was one of the Hondurans participating in the conference. He explained the current injustices prevailing in his neighborhood, including individuals' inability to obtain titles for land that is rightfully theirs.

"That's part of the poverty here in Honduras," Zambrano said through an interpreter. "Poor people can't get a loan without a title. If I get a title, I'm going to be able to change my quality of life."

Zambrano urged people in the states to act on their behalf. At the workshop's conclusion, Brad Van Beek, who is also board president for AJS, offered a moving prayer for the people of Honduras. 
Jill Van Beek (no relation), stateside representative for the agency, also guided participants toward several advocacy campaigns directed at putting pressure on the authorities in Hoduras.

In between workshops, attendees were able to visit a bazzare of sorts set up in the church narthex. 

One booth was sponsored by non-profit collaborative Women at Risk (WAR).

"We partner with women's organizations," explained Elizabeth Drouillard, standing behind a table of jewelry handcrafted by communities around the globe. "(The jewlry) comes from women who work in safe houses who have been rescued from human trafficking."

WAR aims to empower women who have been victims of sexual exploitation and other forms of oppression. One hundred percent of the profits earned from the jewelry's sales goes back to the women's programming, granting the women a fair wage and promoting sustainable business in their communities. 

Droulliard explained the agency's message to its population: "We can teach you a trade so you don't have to stay (in forced prostitution). You have worth. You have value. God loves you."

Attendees also enjoyed the opportunity to meet other individuals with like minds and hearts.

"It's a great place to network and find out about what others are doing," said Joel Lautenbach.

Rifenberg likewise appreciated the impromptu community formed on Saturday morning. "There's this mixture of justice Christians and the last remnants of sixties' Marxism," he laughed. "It's great."

At the conference's conclusion, the many stories of hope carried the day. 

"Every time I hear these stories it brings tears to my eyes," confessed Brad Van Beek. "Sometimes you can feel overwhelmed."

But the workshop presenters and the people in attendance demonstrated both resilience and resolve. "These were real examples of what people can do--we can all do something," Van Beek attested.

"If we can get people together, I think we can make a difference."

As conference participants departed mid-afternoon on a beautiful spring day, they seemed full of hope, poised to do just that.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center

Friday, April 17, 2009

Never too old for change

Senior activists take on far-reaching social issues

GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN (April 17, 2009)--There's an old adage that suggests that if you're under forty and vote Republican, you have no heart; if you're over forty and you vote Democrat, you have no brain.

Folks gathered this morning suggested that the equation is not so simple for people over sixty.

Debunking a myth that activism belongs only to the young, Advocates for Senior Issues hosted a town hall meeting at Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park that attracted a crowd of close to two hundred people, most of whom were near or past retirement age.

A Thomas Jefferson quote stating that "Information is the currency of democracy" painted the backdrop for a meeting that featured the perspectives of several prominent Grand Rapids voices in the city's community organizing efforts.

Housing and the Homeless

First spoke Linda Likely, Director of Housing and Community Development for Kent County, who debriefed the audience on her department's efforts to aid the community in a harsh economic environment.

"We have such a problem with foreclosure," she explained. Likely described a housing expenditure relief program that promotes financial self-sufficiency and home ownership for working families and individuals. "That's a great thing in this community, where there is so much need."

Likely, who also serves on the National Coallition to End Homelessness, addressed issues pertaining to the homeless population in Kent County as well. She stressed the need to provide housing solutions for growing numbers of people in the region.

Economic Stimulus, Restorative Justice

Next up was David LaGrand, Grand Rapids' 2nd Ward Commisioner. A self-proclaimed spending curmudgeon with a nevertheless progressive outlook on politics, LaGrand added to Likely's housing focus. "If you can keep people in their homes," he told the audience, "that turns out well for the whole neighborhood." 

He talked about stimulus funds and his hope for the city to use such funds wisely in order to build up infrastructure and make for a stronger, more sustainable community.

LaGrand also discussed credit companies' role in the economic crisis. "It's like borrowing money from the mob," he said, decrying high interest rates but also emphasizing consumer responsibility. Solid debt counseling, he explained, offers a creative solution to individuals' financial woes, and he indicated that the city is in the process of supporting its constituents' efforts to find debt relief.

Changing gears, LaGrand admitted, "As a politician, this is my moment to prosletyze." He addressed the topic of criminal justice, pointing out the disproportionate amounts of money spent on incarceration in Kent County and across the state and nation. "We see over-funding on the back end and under-funding on the front end."

The solution?

"We're going to be able to use (funds freed up by) stimulus money to try a restorative justice approach," he said.

The progressive approach emphasizes restoring individuals and the relationships that interconnect them--restoration for the offender, victim, and the community affected by criminal activity. It has earned acclaim in communities across the country and internationally. LaGrand cited statistics where restorative justice practice can reduce recidivism up to twenty percent and can reduce victim fear and trauma by eighty percent. It can also cut costs that would otherwise be allocated to incarcerating individuals.

"I'm not advocating we empty our jails and prisons," LaGrand assured the audience. "But we need to confront the myth that locking people up makes us safer."

"I'm a Christian," he testified, "and I believe that at the heart of the gospel is reconciliation, forgiveness, and love." Upon hearing these words, the audience offered LaGrand resounding applause, expressing their receptiveness to a new approach to criminal justice on behalf of the community.

Health Care

Finally, the morning's keynote speaker took the podium. Dr. John Cavacece (pronounced cah-VEESH) advanced an articulate and well-informed case for a publicly funded, single-payer health care system for all Americans. 

Dr. Cavacece practices general medicine in the Wege Institute at St. Mary's hospital and is a member of Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP). He also contributes to health care advocacy efforts of the Micah Center.

Cavacece opened with a vignette about a former patient of his whom he called "Millie." He explained that Millie graduated from high school the same year as he did, a tie that bound the two. To her misfortune, Millie drifted in and out of insurance due to her inability to afford coverage and in spite of her many health problems. 

She ended up dying a preventable death.

"I am convinced that Millie was one of the 18,000 people who die each year due to lack of insurance," Cavacece lamented.

He cited three areas of health care in need of reform: cost, quality and access.

Cavacece pointed out that fifty percent of the nation's uninsured population are employed. "(Coverage) simply costs too much," he said. He also described the problem of people neglecting screenings, procedures, and even office visits because of high deductibles and co-payments.

"Health care corporations don't have patients' best interests in mind," he said. "They view health care as a commodity."

And while costs undeniably continue to rise, Cavacece is not convinced that quality of care is rising accordingly. In fact, he disclosed findings from a research study that suggested non-profit health care providers yield better results than do private providers. 

To illustrate the access conundrum, Cavacece displayed a political cartoon depicting a man on hands and knees beneath a guillotine. Standing before him was a rather sinister character holding two bags and asking the question, "Paper or plastic?"

In other words, Americans are faced with little choice given high premium costs, out-of-pocket burdens, and lack of alternatives. "Just because you have private insurance doesn't mean you have choice," Cavacece warned. "Basically, you have a choice on how many restrictions you want on your health care plan."

Cavacece remained unabashed in his stance on the issue of health care. He cited growing support across the board for a publicly funded, single-payer health care system. The public, business-owners, physicians and nurses--in increasing numbers, Americans are beginning to rethink the privatized road to health care the nation followed decades ago. 

Of course, pharmaceutical companies and large health care corporations wish the public to think otherwise.

But it was not difficult for Cavacece to bring the audience on his side in relation to the giants who run the industry.

"I wish all the ads for drugs on T.V. would just go away," he told the crowd, soliciting the morning's most enthusiastic applause.

Later, he revealed what he termed the "Oh my God" slide of his PowerPoint presentation. The graph contrasted the administrative costs of for-profit insurance companies with the Medicare program to which many in attendance no doubt subscribe. The difference was astounding, especially when represented visually: private endeavors devote anywhere from 16 to 30 percent of spending to administrative costs, while Medicare spends just 2 to 3 percent of its budget on the same item line.

Cavacece concluded his case for a national "Medicare for All" plan by explaining the path to get there. "You can't cross the Grand Canyon in two leaps," he said, motioning with his free hand to demonstrate the chasm that lies in the way of a second leap. "We have to pursue comprehensive reform to fix the health care system.

Afterwards, members of the town hall meeting were able to ask questions of Dr. Cavacece. Never faltering, he appeared to gain more and more support in the room as the clock ticked toward the noon hour, at which point attendees would be able to cash in their five-dollar vouchers for lunch at the Gardens cafe, compliments of Advocates for Senior Issues.

Housing, economy, restorative justice, universal health care--all in a morning's work at the Frederick Meijer Gardens with a room full of seniors. And to think, we thought that Social Security and Medicare were the only two issues on their agenda.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center



Thursday, April 16, 2009

Grassroots effort for health care reform gathers on turf of Garfield Park

GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN (APRIL 16, 2009)--The Thursday evening rally at Garfield Park, on the city's southeast side, might have been mistaken for a family reunion or, better yet, an activists' fashion show. People from across the region came dressed in loud t-shirts bearing insignia from their respective organizations.

But with many t-shirt slogans came one unified message: health care for all can't wait.

The town hall meeting, sponsored by Grand Rapids ACORN and Health Care for America NOW (HCAN), gathered a large host of people to discuss concerns about the nation's health care system.

"Being part of a democracy doesn't happen every four years," explained Chris van Leeuwen, the event's organizer. "It happens every day."

Van Leeuwen represents ACORN, a nationwide organization whose goal is to mobilize a critical mass around various social issues. One such issue is that of health care.

Val Przywara works for the Michigan chapter of HCAN and is a member of the Health Care Action Group for the Micah Center, a local faith-based grassroots effort to educate and empower the community to act against injustice. "(Health care) can't wait because we're spending more and more and getting less and less in return," she said. "Our current system doesn't work."
There were many in attendance Thursday evening who offered first-hand testimonies of the failures of the nation's health care system. 

Charleen Smith, of Righteous Justice, stood up during the forum to explain her Christian ministry's efforts to connect low-income individuals with proper care-providing outlets. 

"Some of these people don't seek insurance because of all the confusing forms," she said, indicating that low literacy can be a barrier to adequate health care. She also commented on the plight of the working poor who don't qualify for Medicaid but are too poor to pay out of pocket for services.

Two young college graduates related their experiences as low-wage earners unable to afford insurance.

Another attendee raised questions about health care access for undocumented immigrants. "Is it really health care for all?" she asked.

Maria Salinas, who later consoled the young woman asking about coverage for immigrants, commented on the struggles of undocumented individuals and families with relation to health care. 

"Health care and immigration go hand in hand," said Salinas, a representative of faith-based Gamaliel. She indicated that many immigrant families forego obtaining basic services due to fear. "They're afraid they won't be able to pay, or they won't understand, or they won't have an I.D. to present."

Dr. John Cavacece, primary care physician at the Wege Institute of St. Mary's hospital and member of the Micah Center, offered his perspective as a health care provider. "I've seen patients die because they didn't have health insurance," he explained. "We want insurance for everyone."
The resounding chorus in favor of a universal health care system did not fall upon deaf ears. Among those in attendance were State Representative Rev. Robert Dean and Kent County Comissioner Brandon Dillon.

The road to reform, however, is never smooth. "We're going to need to keep active on this campaign," said John Freeman, state director of UCAN's Michigan office. "This is not a one-hit issue."

Cavacece echoed Freeman's comments. "This has got to be something from the grassroots," he said.

So it seemed only fitting that a grassroots effort such as this would take place on the green lawn of Garfield Park.

One of those comprising the grassroots effort was Willie Bolden. Wearing a purple Service Employees International Union shirt and clasping a "Health Care Can't Wait" sign, he quietly took in the event. "I'm here for the support," Bolden explained. "We've got a bad health care system; I'd like to see a lot of change."

Bolden, a veteran of the armed services, explained his own struggles obtaining health care. "I can go to the VA clinic, but even that's limited."

But he wasn't present just for himself. His mother, also in attendance, is among the millions of Americans without adequate health insurance. Bolden recognized the potential for change, however, observing, "There is strength in numbers."

Those numbers promise to grow: van Leeuwen indicated that the universal health care initiative is a top priority for ACORN. "It's about phone calls. It's about calling families, calling indidividuals, calling senators and representatives," he said.

As chairs were packed into the trunk of a car and a lone podium stood in the 
dusk of Garfield Park, van Leeuwen and others expressed satisfaction. Tomorrow, it will be back to the relentless work of striving for change.

For the health of everyone, let's hope they succeed.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center