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