When we watch the news and look at the world around us we often see brokenness, fractured relationships, hatred, protests and violence. After the Dallas police officer shootings in July, I saw a video on You Tube that inspired me. The scene was of police officers and the community gathered informally together. Spontaneously, they began hugging and praying together and talking. Black, White, Hispanic. Rich, poor, homeless and homeowners. Everyone.
This video helped me remember that in the midst of all the chaos in our world, hope still is alive. I wondered if we could create space for something similar in Grand Rapids. While thankfully we have not had the kind of violence and national attention here as they have had elsewhere, it’s hard to ignore in the Heartside community that tensions are still high. There are claims of police brutality. There are threats against police. There are battles between business owners and the working poor, as well as people who are experiencing homeless. We do have deep racial division and mistrust here, but could we create space for change through relationship and dialogue?
Then I reflected on Jesus in the gospels. It seems that the most important conversations often happened around meals — around a table. The first church practiced communion by having a meal together, a meal where relationship and remembrance happened. At the table those who had shared with those did not have. It was a table where all were equal.
So I believe God laid on my heart this vision that if we offered a free meal and played some music and invited the police, the business owners, the homeless, the folks who live in the new housing units, the agencies in the area, then conversations could lead to tolerance and tolerance could lead to understanding and acceptance. Just maybe through this meal, we could rise above our differences to see our similarities… and great things could begin.
One event is not going to change a city, but one conversation might. So we decided to gather our community partners through the Heartside Neighborhood Collaboration Project and throw a Unity Picnic in Heartside Park. The event happened on August 18, 2016.
I was overwhelmed by the turnout. This was diversity at its finest. We believe based on how many hot dogs were eaten and how many people “registered” at the event and received a unity sticker that over 800 people attended. What was even more overwhelming was watching police officers embrace individuals suffering from homelessness and hearing business owners converse with homeless people. They talked, laughed, and each shared a piece of themselves. Seeds were planted and am I am excited to see what the harvest will bring.
Grand Rapids cannot truly be a “Cool City” until everyone is valued; when we all begin to see the person in front of us as someone who is more like us than unlike us. I have found that people are people. We all want the same things: Safety, security, peace and love.
I grew up in an environment that taught me that everyone should pull themselves up by their boot straps. After serving more than four years in this ministry, I have learned that you cannot pull yourself up if you don’t have boots or if your straps are broken. Some folks need someone to listen and to get to know their name. Some need a bit of a hand up so they can take it from there. Some need to have their voices heard and their stories told. Some face terrible injustices and just want help and hope. Our founder, Mel Trotter himself once said:
“No one ever wanted to become addicted. No one wanted to go to jail. No one wanted to be homeless…..as long as they have hope, they only need a little help. Once they lose hope we read about them in the paper.”
My hope is that this picnic created space for healing, restoration and new meaningful relationships. This is one step toward unity. It’s up to each of us — as members of this community and brothers and sisters in Christ — to keep the conversation moving toward action.