Growing up in Grand Haven, I never thought of us as segregated. We just didn’t happen to have many people of other races in our area, or so I thought.
However, after 10 years living in various areas of the U.S., I returned to our community with a different set of lenses.
Federal data indicates that we live in the 20th-most segregated area in the nation. Not the state. Not our region. In the nation.
People of color live in Northwest Ottawa County, far more than many white residents of Grand Haven realize. They just usually live in different areas, often not far from the city limits, than the white majority of Grand Haven citizens.
Take the local Latino population. According to the most recent Census, almost 9 percent of Ottawa County’s population is Latino — twice the percentage of the rest of Michigan. In Grand Haven, however, only 2.4 percent of the population is Latino. Head just a bit south into West Olive and the percentage jumps up to 8.6 percent. Move a bit to the east and south into Allendale and it is 4.5 percent.
The Latino population in our area is growing. Between 2000 and 2010, though the overall population of Grand Haven decreased by 6 percent, the population of Hispanics increased a full percentage point.
However, we have a long way to go as a community before we succeed in welcoming and inviting Latino persons to be full and equal participants in our community.
One of the key reasons I find all of this unsettling is because of the Good News of God. In Ephesians, chapter one, the Apostle Paul writes about the mystery of God’s plan of salvation, a mystery that has finally been revealed in Jesus Christ. The church has been redeemed and our trespasses forgiven, according to the “riches of His grace that He lavished on us” (1:7-8). It is to this Church, with wisdom and insight, that God has revealed the mystery of God’s will for creation.
What is that will? “A plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10).
For Paul, indeed, throughout much of the New Testament, this gathering up of all humanity in the New Creation is primarily about destroying the barriers that have been erected between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
In our day, we have our own barriers that have been erected around us. Make no mistake, though, God’s plan to destroy those barriers and gather us all together is not just diversity for the sake of diversity; it is because the gathering up of all things reveals “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” (3:10).
That is, a homogenous church, drawing only from one people group, will never reveal the richness of the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom.
To wit, I along with all the white residents of Grand Haven are deeply damaged by the segregation in which we live. We are diminished, unable to see the richness of God through different ethnic groups and cultures — some not very far from us, and some right here in our city — small, but growing. And this damage is being passed along to our children, as the disturbing reality of racial slurs in our schools cast shame upon all of us in this community.
It is time for us, as residents of the Tri-Cities, to do something about the embarrassing stain of segregation and discrimination in our area. But we must approach this with a healthy sense of contrition and humility. Because the system of white privilege so present in our society — in our very community — can blind us to the ways in which we fail to be welcoming, we fail to see the gifts of other cultures.
Unless we are ready to look carefully at the ways in which we are complicit in segregation, we will fail in genuine dialogue and authentic transformation.
Furthermore, I believe the church must lead the way on this issue. After all, Sunday morning is the most segregated time in the United States.
Let’s say we defined a racially mixed congregation as one in which no one group comprised more than 80 percent of the whole. By that definition, only 5.5 percent of the Christian congregations in our country are racially diverse.
The church must lead the way by being willing to repent, by being willing to change, by being willing to let go of the illusion that we know what’s best and by receiving the rich gifts of grace present in God’s diverse creation.
— The Rev. Jared C. Cramer serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan. His reflections on life and ministry can be found at carewiththecure.blogspot.com.