It’s official. I now live in the metropolitan area—Grand Rapids—with one of the fastest growing rates of poverty in the United States. That “startling fact” (which shouldn’t be that startling for those with eyes to see) is found in a new Brookings Institute book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America (a website for the book is available here). While the report emphasizes the 90% spike in poverty found in GR suburbs, the city itself hasn’t fared that much better. The city’s mayor, George Heartwell, could only muster an, “I’m stunned…” when told of the news.
During the nearly nine years I spent away from the city of my birth I took notice of its steady makeover from a near-dying manufacturing city to professional-class service sector economy. Prudent incentivizing by city planners helped attract a new wave of business investments, and somewhere along the way some marketing genius got the idea to rebrand the city, a one-time Dutch Calvinist stronghold, “Beer City, USA.” (Yes, Founders is local to GR, but when I left in 2004 it was the only kid on the block worth noticing.) Nobody who drives across GR’s expressways can fail to notice that Spectrum Health, a large integrated healthcare network, now occupies an entire quadrant of downtown. These are good developments for those legions of graduates from the various local schools (Calvin, Aquinas, Grand Valley State University, etc.), though the alleged “economic boom” that has been transpiring here hasn’t left many table scraps for the typically unnoticed masses who hold high school diplomas (or less) or once made their living off of skilled-base manufacturing and technical jobs. That type of work simply does not exist here anymore, and once you drive five to ten miles past the city limits, the best employment options for many is the gas station Subway. Even low-skilled service sector jobs aren’t what they used to be. For instance, when I turned 18 in 1998 and was eligible to begin working in the grocery department at Meijer (I had worked there as a bagger and then bottle-return clerk since I was 15), my starting, union-secured wage was $7.60/hour. By the time I was 21 I was close to the departmental max out of $10.90/hour. Since then the union—United Food and Commercial Workers—has buckled to the point where when my brother (who is 11 years my junior) took a job there a couple of years ago, he was starting at $7.30/hour. That is, he was making 30 cents less an hour than what I made doing the same work 13 years earlier.
When I was growing up Catholic I remember asking my mom what a Protestant was. “They’re people who hate Mary,” she replied. During those years I came to understand, from a sociological (rather than theological) vantage point, that the history of Grand Rapids could be read as a history of Protestant (Calvinist) owners and Catholic (immigrant) workers with a great deal of mistrust directed by the latter against the former. Obviously this dissipated over time, though I can say that the ecclesial-class divide was not entirely lost on my grandparents’ generation. But the Catholic Church in Grand Rapids, much like the Catholic Church in most parts of the country, increasingly bought into the mindset of assimilation, particularly after the sweeping reforms instituted after Vatican II. Liturgical and architectural renovation ran wild in Grand Rapids. Beautiful old structures that had stood unmolested since the first wave of Polish, German, and Irish immigration hit West Michigan were gutted to make room for drum kits, pianos, and guitars. Side altars were abolished and the Confessionals were degraded into janitor’s closets. Once “white flight” became the norm in the city, abysmal barns bearing traditional Catholic names were erected so as to assure that neither a black nor brown man need be seen on the stroll from parking lot to pew each Sunday. Despite a recent surge in Hispanic immigration helping to keep the doors of some city parishes open, several monuments of the city’s once noble Catholic heritage have been slated for permanent closure. Their likes will not be seen here again.
Over the years I have met several people who, upon hearing I hailed from Grand Rapids, instantly assumed that I came from America’s equivalent of 16th C. Geneva. After all the Economist once identified West Michigan as the second most conservative area in the country behind Salt Lake City, Utah. Yes, Grand Rapids is apparently in the Top 10 for churches-per-capita, though it also boasts surprisingly high rates of homosexuals and restaurants. Go figure. Really, though, the “Christian image” of the city, to the extent it hasn’t faded completely from the eyes of many residents, means very little as a practical matter. Some locals like to get misty-eyed because Grand Rapids was “progressive” enough to elect an Arab (Orthodox Christian) to Congress, but his politics are informed by cookie-cutter Tea Party ideology, not the Gospel. The most prevalent manifestations of Christianity in this region represent nothing less than the worst manifestations of vulgar Calvinism, fundamentalism, and, for the younger generation, thoroughly unorthodox quasi-cults of self-worship and self-indulgent spiritualism. It’s a gimmicky sort of Christianity, which is perhaps a necessity when the church’s main competitors are television and Internet pornography. The more impoverished areas of the city and suburbs are, not surprisingly, held up by “prosperity gospel” establishments (or nothing at all).
The small strand of idealist left in me wants to believe that there is ample room for a “Catholic moment” in Grand Rapids, that is, an authentic renewal of the city’s once-marginalized Catholic identity that understands itself as being in continuity with what the region’s European immigrants struggled to establish over a century ago. There are some small signs of a restoration. Two of the city’s parishes (both good-sized) are working diligently to restore an authentic Catholic identity at the spiritual, liturgical, theological, and, eventually, architectural level. The city now has a dedicated Catholic radio station that broadcasts orthodox programming and the diocesan Catholic Charities office runs some of the city’s most visible charity programs. Two of the city’s more notable Christian bookstores now dedicate significant shelf space to Catholic titles, and there are two additional Catholic-only bookstores as well. While I am unaware of any demographic studies available, it does appear to my eyes that there are growing numbers of young (35 and below) attendees in the city’s more traditional parishes and that their vision for Catholicism goes far beyond seeing at as merely a “Sunday church.” But these are small steps, and I don’t doubt for a second that as Grand Rapids continues to promote itself as a white-washed hub for rote Republicanism, mindless entertainment, and “bourgeois ethics” (in the worst sense) “blessed” by the withered hand of the deity of American civil religion, the temptation to follow the previous generation down the short and wide path to hell will appear overwhelming.