Creating Opportunities for Transformation
Located on Madison Street between Hall and Burton, a mere 2 miles south of downtown Grand Rapids, the Center for Community Transformation is almost hidden to unaware passers-by. I would have never found the dark red brick building, to be sure, had it not been for the providential meeting with an old friend at a wedding reception that started my journey of working here this year.
The Center opened in 2015, utilizing an abandoned, 120-year old building: an early, perhaps prophetic and telling display of transformation that would emphasize the very mission of the place. The Center’s mission has been brainstormed, shaped, and distilled for clarity: to create opportunities for transformation.
A brief stroll through the Center strategically communicates this mission and vision. There’s a conference room bearing a “confession wall,” where students and staff write anonymous confessions and prayers. Right in the middle of the building, there’s a large open space with desks, the room itself lined on the perimeter with offices. The back of the room has a giant mural—on the left, a garden: a giant tree with purple leaves juts out over a river, giving way to a small waterfall in the background; on the right, the city of Grand Rapids, dominated in the forefront by the beautiful blue bridge. It’s a picture that intentionally reveals the story of the Bible, from beginning to end, Genesis to Revelation, garden to city, and uses Grand Rapids as an example of what is to come: a renewed City.
On the other end of the main, open room is a coffee shop called Rising Grinds, which trains youth in the service industry. Adjacent to the main room is a hangout space: there’s a pool table that can also be converted to ping pong when necessary. Students are often playing pool during lunch break; other students sleep on the couches in the room—for some, the first peaceful sleep in a long time.
The city of Grand Rapids is home to nearly 200,000 inhabitants. It is home to over 700 churches (Welcome to the Bible Belt of the North) and 3,000 non-profits, but is still considered one of the hardest places for black people to live. Clearly, churches, non- and for-profits, and subsidiaries thereof have an opportunity to do better and to strategically work together; there is opportunity for transformation. What's really cool is that, at the Center, all of these pieces are working together towards a unified vision.
On my first day here, about a month ago, I arrived at the Center about 10 minutes early, coffee mug and banana in hand, trying to process how I could already be here, already starting another new job, only a week after wrapping up my summer internship at Boeing. Time flies – a reality that becomes more and more intense each year, month, day.
When I approached the girl at the front desk, explaining that I was here for orientation, she paused and then burst out with, “who are you?” Immediately, the brilliant tunes of Hamilton popped into my head:
who are you? Who are you? WHO ARE YOU? (Beat.) WHO IS THIS KID, WHAT’S HE GON’ DO?!?!
And in that moment, I knew I couldn’t throw away this shot.
Ok, not really. Hamilton is in my head quite often, but I didn’t think of it in the moment. Still, “who are you?” was probably a fair question. A month into the experience, I’m still asking that question, among many others. I’m still meeting and getting to know the staff here at the Center, still building relationships and earning trust. That's the nature of this kind of work.
Here’s what I DO know about who I am and what I’m doing here:
I’m spending this year working for Young Life, a ministry that aims to build relationships with youth and share Christ with them. The Center for Community Transformation has been wanting to increase the spiritual formation initiatives here, which Young Life can provide the structure for. In this light, I get to build a leadership team of staff people here who are already building relationships with youth – refugee, homeless, truant, and foster – and invite them into this journey with me. I have the opportunity to build relationships with students who are working on their GED and construction training. Finally, there is an opportunity to cast a long-term vision and lay the groundwork for what this ministry could look like after I'm gone -- 2, 3, 5 years down the road.
It’s a daunting task, trying to start something new. It’s scary and overwhelming and exhausting at times, but it brings me hope: This year, I get the chance to work in a space full of people working towards transformation. I get the chance to use my relational gifts, be up in front of people, think strategically in terms of building a long-term, sustainable ministry, and, perhaps best of all, I don’t have to work in a restaurant.
As I sit at my desk, I look to my left and gaze at the mural: garden on the left, city on the right. Physically, I sit in the middle of those two. It reminds me that we’re all, in a very real way, still sitting and standing and working in between those two realities. Behind me, there’s a simple sign that reads: “every youth is one caring adult away from being a success story.” I take a deep breath and, though I don’t have all the answers, remind myself that there is goodness happening here.