A Note from Jes: I asked Jonathan Vanderbeck and The Reverend Denise Kingdom Greer to write today. I have been following their faithful Gospel work in Holland, Michigan and I wanted to give them a chance to share with us here. I thank them for taking the time to write and call us forward to the work of love and justice.
Jonathan Vanderbeck is a Korean-Adoptee and is a licensed candidate for ordination in Holland Classis. He is currently finishing a Master of Social Work degree at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and is passionate about justice and liberation of all people. Find him on Twitter at @jvbeck90
The Rev. Denise Kingdom Greer is the senior Minister at Maple Ave. Ministries in Holland, MI., the first union church between the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church. Rev. Greer was the first African American woman to graduate from Western Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree and is currently finishing a Doctorate in Ministry to study apartheid in the American church toward the development of an embracing model of ministry.
Recently, a licensed candidate and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America both felt a move of the Spirit.
This moving was calling these two to imagine what it would look like if Black Lives truly DID matter in their Classis. The result of this imagining led to a day-and-a-half conference titled “Do #BlackLivesMatter in Holland Classis?” being organized, drawing over 50 ordained Ministers, community and lay leaders, and local activists this past weekend.
The licensed candidate and the ordained minister decided to interview each other, as they reflect on the weekend, what was meaningful to them, and whether or not they believe #BlackLivesMatter in Holland Classis.
Jonathan: Denise, you and I both had a sense that God was calling for something like this to be organized for the Classis. Can you speak a little bit about what you felt God calling?”
Denise: I really felt it was time for the churches in Holland to come together to enter this national conversation. I was at Urbana this winter when they stepped right into the #BlackLivesMatter movement. As a Black life in Holland Classis, it seemed like a relevant question to begin with; do Black Lives Matter in Holland Classis or naw. If the answer is yes, pastors and laity in the Classis would show up. If not, that would be evident as well.
J: Absolutely. I was starting to hear pastors from the Classis start to talk about this a little bit on Twitter and Facebook, but I wanted to really put our colleagues to the test; to see if they would really show up for Black lives; to stand against racism.
D: Jonathan, we didn’t talk about expected outcomes beforehand. I wonder what did you hope for and what surprised you this weekend?
J: Well, I would say seeing white pastors actually show up; give up their weekend to talk about things that would make them uncomfortable was something I just wasn’t really sure was actually going to happen. It takes a lot of maturity and vulnerability to come before your colleagues and admit “I’ve contributed to white supremacy; I am a racist”, and to then be willing to listen and grow. What was that like for you, seeing our colleagues and friends come together like that?
D: I was so proud to be part of a Classis of ministers and laity as well as other community members who seemed to come with their hearts in their hand. The conversation was engaging, the atmosphere was energetic and the fellowship was rich. It made me feel a resounding “YES!” Black lives matter in Holland Classis and many want to know more about how to understand and stand with the movement.
J: The energy was unreal. The number of times I heard people say, “Oh I wish this was longer!” (For a Saturday!) was unbelievable. They actually wanted to engage and go deep; really think about what could be done to make Holland Classis a place where there is room for all.
D: I was struck by one question Friday night, you might remember when one sister asked “Where are the black people?” in response to mostly white crowd gathered that first evening. I half joking and half soberly responded, “this is our classis.” Say something about your workshop on White Allies, where were the points of resonance and the points of resistance in the group?
J: Yeah. So I led this workshop titled “Ally: From Noun to Verb, from Label to Action”, in which I really encouraged the participants to think about allyship with minority and marginalized communities to take the form of action, rather than slapping a label on yourself because you (as a privileged person) think you are. I think people really got that concept that allyhood is something you do, not just something you are… but I still noticed this anxiety around shedding “ally” as a label. People want to be recognized for their work; for standing up against racism. But the thing is, at least for me, is that the expectation of our ministers and ministry leaders is that we stand up for racism. It’s simply being a decent human-being. I think it is incredibly telling that our world is so corrupted by racism that standing up against it is seen as exceptional and deserving of a label.
As for our Classis lacking diversity, yes, I absolutely agree with that. And I stand by what was said that night in response to that question. It’s not simply inviting more PoC (persons-of-color) onto our consistories, or developing “urban” outreach missions, it’s about being willing to radically question every aspect of your worship style for the sake of the gospel. It’s not just about adding a few “gospel” songs, it’s about asking how your theology marginalizes and “others”. If our churches don’t communicate a welcome of all people, then how are we going to expect that all people will feel a call to ministry? If our worship and theology excludes, are we excluding those God has a call for?
J: Denise, what about you? When you said “This is our Classis”, that is, almost all white, how does that make you feel, as the first Black woman to graduate from Western Theological Seminary and be ordained by the RCA? Do you feel hopeful for the future? For Black women in our Classis?
D: First I would say it was the first time that I felt like the Classis recognized what it is for me a black person to be at a classis meeting. I don’t think most people think about how few people of color are in the rooms they enter, I always do.
Second, I hope to hope for Holland Classis. That’s what I say when hope is hard to grasp. The implicit biases and microaggressions in our classis are pervasive and will require an explicit, intentional commitment to be transformed. This event this weekend certainly did give me pause and fuel for the fire to continue knowing there are Allies and Freedom Fighters in the trenches trying to be faithful to their call in areas of racial justice.
J: “As we move forward in Holland Classis, what do you hope to see come from this weekend together? I remember we said that this was a weekend to start conversations around Black Lives Matter, and to recognize that we might not have closure around it.”
D: Assata [Shakur]’s quote is chants in my soul “We have nothing to lose but our chains.” I hope Holland Classis would take the next step to implement policy and practices that protect Black Lives from discrimination and abuse. I hope the classis would be an active voice in the cry against racial injustice, police brutality, criminalization of Black children in schools and matters of equity concerning black clergy. I have high hopes for Holland Classis.
D: What about you? If we were to proclaim in 5 years that Black Lives still Matter to Holland Classis what sort of markers would you hope to see as evidence to this claim.
J: I really hope our Classis can be a leader. In a place like Holland, where the church still plays a huge role in society, I hope that our ministers and ministry leaders can have the tough conversations with schools, with our police force, with business owners, etc. If the church can, for ONCE, be on the leading edge in this community, I believe we will see it everywhere. I will hope reports of unlawful stopping of Black drivers will decrease. I will hope that we will see more POCs under-care of Holland Classis. I will hope that schools will institute strong curriculum that teaches on racism at every grade level. And I hope that we will see churches, where anti-racism is being preached as part of every message.
This conference was a first step towards racial justice and declaring #BlackLivesMatter in Holland Classis. We didn’t solve all of our problems, and we all certainly walked away with lingering questions. But we both walked away with hope.
At the start and end of each session, we led conference participants in what has been called, “The Prayer of Assata”, written by Assata Shakur, a freedom fighter and Black Panther. Denise quoted part of this above.
“It is our duty
to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other
and support each other.
We have nothing to lose
but our chains.”
That is the hope we have for Holland Classis. That together, we would truly believe, we have nothing to lose, but our chains.