June 23rd 2020 – Racial Injustice in Real Time
Author: Dick Bulkowski
The recent death of George Floyd certainly elevated the community’s frustration and insistence that real solutions are put in place to address racial injustice. Steepletown shared a brief statement on our position and commitment as a community-based organization – this can be found down this page. I believe we all long for meaningful change that is based on peaceful solutions, and yet as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.”
To remain silent is to give witness that things are okay, that racism does not exist, or that as a white person my comfort is more important than someone else’s pain and suffering. Over this past year the journey of Steepletown and my own personal journey has been challenged by the racial inequities that continue to be obvious in our community and unfortunately manifest themselves in extreme acts of hatred and violence.
Last fall Steepletown was told by the current pastor of the Basilica acting on behalf of the Diocese that he no longer wants the Steepletown preschool to exist within the Basilica’s former school building, now called the Basilica Center. The Steepletown staff and board were certainly frustrated by this announcement and appealed the decision, especially since the preschool is a great way to serve the families of the neighborhood and live out the mission of Steepletown. And what was apparent by simply walking the hallways of the preschool is confirmed by demographic data, that nearly 90% of the preschoolers are children of color. It was clear that if we truly embrace racial equity as a core value of Steepletown, then silence was not an option. And so further guidance was sought from the “official” teachers of the Catholic Church which are the US Catholic Bishops. It was encouraging to learn that they wrote and signed a pastoral letter on racism in the fall of 2018 called “Open Wide Our Hearts.” This pastoral letter is absolutely timely and quite prophetic, acknowledging the sin of racism and its current reality. The bishops also made a bold proclamation on what we can do to address racism:
To work at ending racism, we need to engage the world and encounter others- to see, maybe for the first time, those who are on the peripheries of our own limited view. Knowing that the Lord has taken the divine initiative by loving us first, we can boldly go forward, reaching out to others. We must invite into dialogue those we ordinarily would not seek out. We must work to form relationships with those we might regularly try to avoid. This demands that we go beyond ourselves, opening our minds and hearts to value and respect the experiences of those who have been harmed by the evil of racism. Love also requires us to invite a change of heart in those who may be dismissive of other’s experiences or whose hearts may be hardened by prejudice or racism. Only by forging authentic relationships can we truly see each other as Christ sees us. Love should then move us to take what we learn from encounters and examine where society continues to fail our brothers and sisters, or where it perpetuates inequity, and seek to address those problems.”
The Steepletown Preschool lifts these words from the pages of that pastoral letter and puts them into practice.
A letter was therefore sent to Bishop Walkowiak in October of 2019 by the leadership of Steepletown, highlighting many of the teachings from the pastoral letter and requesting a meeting to support the efforts of the preschool. This letter strongly suggested that the Steepletown Preschool gives witness to what the US Catholic Bishops are demanding from the church. This letter received no response, only silence.
On March 4th Steepletown hosted an event to further discuss the bishops’ pastoral letter. In attendance were many of the preschool families who are being directly impacted by the decision to remove the preschool from the Basilica Center. One of the more challenging comments shared that evening came from Lisa Butler who is the Chief Program Officer of the GR Urban League. She said that if we are going to truly work for racial equity, we need to be willing to be uncomfortable. A quote from a letter written by several leaders of the Christian Churches Together (CCT) in 2013 as a response to Martin Luther KIng’s Letter from Birmingham Jail was read to confirm this statement: “Too often our follow-through has been far less than our spoken commitments. Too often we have chosen to be comfortable rather than prophetic. Too often we have chosen not to see the evidence of racism that is less overt but still permeates our national life in corrosive ways.”
On March 6th a meeting finally took place between leadership of Steepletown, the Basilica Pastor and Bishop of the Grand Rapids Diocese. The decision to close the preschool at the Basilica Center was confirmed by the “leadership” of the local Catholic Church. A final request was made to allow the Early Head Start classroom to continue until August 26th which is the scheduled last day for these toddlers. The response by the pastor was that the locks to the building would be changed on July 1st. After a somewhat heated exchange the meeting ended in silence.
It is the mission of Steepletown to promote “neighbor helping neighbor live with dignity and hope.” It is one of the basic mandates of the Christian/Catholic religion that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves; Jesus held up this commandment of God as the ultimate teaching and insight as to what God asks of us. Can I love my neighbor, my Black and Latinx neighbors and remain silent?
Steepletown is packing up and moving off the Basilica campus. The local Catholic leadership has held their position and will not budge. It is with a tremendous amount of sadness because this does not reflect a Catholic Church that is prophetic and lives out the commandment to love our neighbor. The Steepletown Preschool continues to search for a new home.
A couple weeks ago Steepletown dismantled and removed a playground at the corner of Fifth Street and Muskegon Avenue. This was built by the community only 3 years ago as a gift to the children and families of this West Side neighborhood and a place for the preschoolers to play during the day. Gratefully this playground is being relocated to the Salvation Army Little Pine Island Camp where children of all ages will continue to be nurtured in the art of play and creativity. It is what the human spirit needs to stay energized and hopeful! This past week the preschool teachers have been busy packing boxes as Steepletown still searches for a new place for this important work of racial equity. There is so much more to be done and will be done, and while it may be done quietly it will not be done in silence.
June 18th 2020 – Jubilee Jobs Steepletown Press Release
Jubilee Jobs GR transfers GED Preparation and Pearson VUE Testing Services to Steepletown Neighborhood Services Grand Rapids, Michigan June 18, 2020
Jubilee Jobs GR announces the transfer of programs and services to Steepletown Neighborhood Services. “The seeds we have planted will continue to grow and hold future promise through our faithful partner, Steepletown. It has been so challenging these past few months— United Way’s reduction in community provider funding, the impact of COVID-19, and the Baxter Community Center, which had leased space to Jubilee Jobs for decades, deciding they needed the space for other programs. I reached out to Dick and we heard the call to step back and take a long view” says Marcia Osborne, Jubilee’s executive director. “Our legacy will live on through Steepletown. This is the magnificent vision of God’s work.”
Steepletown answered the call to receive Jubilee’s programs and services. “To be entrusted to carry on the work of Jubilee’s GED programming and Pearson VUE testing services— not only will these continue to serve the needs of our communities, these services align and complement the work we have been building to transform lives through education, workforce development, and community empowerment” says Dick Bulkowski, Steepletown’s executive director. “Jubilee’s tremendous act of faith and community-mindedness in coming to their decision is a blessing for us all. “
June 5th 2020 – Steepletown’s Statement to the Community
To truly live the mission of Steepletown requires an honest and open acknowledgement of the historic and systemic oppression that the Black community has battled for generations. Yet it is not enough to simply acknowledge this injustice. To promote our neighbors helping one another live with dignity and hope involves deep listening and educating ourselves on our role in changing the realities that perpetuate racial inequity. Today we pledge to use our influence and voices as change agents, utilizing them to create equitable change within the Greater Grand Rapids community. We will show up. We will act. We will give.
Over this past year the journey of Steepletown has been challenged by the racial inequities that continue to be obvious in our community and have tragically manifested themselves in extreme acts of hatred and violence. We are deeply saddened by the recent murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and we will continue to pour over their families with prayer and love. Our prayer and love will be given witness by our actions.
“We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”
March 10th 2020 – Steepletown News Update
Steepletown’s transition continues to unfold. The plan is still to relocate the Steepletown operations by June 30th. Kitchen Sage actually moved at the end of 2019 to Prep Space which has worked out quite well. Steepletown’s primary programs and services that revolve around workforce development training for young adults, including its GED preparation program and JobStart, are still in search of another location. Unfortunately the Steepletown Preschool, which has been housed in the Basilica Center since 2013, has also been asked to leave this campus. There have been and continue to be many conversations around where all these programs and services will be located. At the same time, the partnerships and collaborations with various community-based organizations as well as the funding community have not changed, but only strengthened as a result of this necessary transition. All to say that Steepletown will continue to be a change agent, lifting up and walking alongside those who are the most vulnerable and struggling in our neighborhood.
We understand that the perception of this transition may elicit a sense of fear, concern, and even doubt. We are open to discuss any questions you have as it relates to the services we provide, both currently and moving forward. Updates on the status of our move will be on the Steepletown website (https://steepletown.org/about/news/) and Facebook page (facebook.com/steepletown).
Steepletown’s Christmas message is worth noting again here. A quote was offered by Pope Francis from his Apostolic Exhortation entitled The Joy of the Gospel: “The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy.” Steepletown stands at those crossroads as a kindred spirit with others who promote mercy and justice.
Dec 25th 2019 – Steepletown’s Christmas Message
“For nothing will be impossible for God.” (an excerpt from Gabriel’s birth announcement to Mary found in Luke’s Gospel 1:37)
It’s time to close one chapter and start another. Steepletown was brought into existence over 26 years ago by three neighboring Catholic Churches on the City’s West Side, and for as many years has been part of these parish families. Recent decisions by the newly assigned pastor of the Basilica have made it necessary for Steepletown to separate from the Diocese and become its own tax exempt corporation. For all practical purposes the services and programs of Steepletown will continue uninterrupted. However, there will be some changes in the foreseeable future, the most notable will be the location out of which Steepletown operates.
For the past 24 years Steepletown has called the campus of the Basilica its home. This is where those who have dropped out of school come to finish their GED/high school equivalency degree, where the dignity of young men and women are affirmed as they develop work readiness skills and begin to participate in the community through paid employment, and where children continue to develop their potential in Steepletown’s preschool. The list is much longer. A 20 year-lease which allowed Steepletown to utilize the former convent building of the Basilica ends on June 30, 2020; a lease that was signed by Bishop Robert Rose in the year 2000 to allow Steepletown to create a space that would foster hope for those who are struggling in life. The newly assigned pastor has asked Steepletown to leave.
As we look back over the many years on the Basilica campus, there are many persons to acknowledge and to whom much gratitude is offered.
First and foremost are all the families and individuals who are members of the Steepletown Parishes. Their commitment to put faith into action has been the impetus for much of what Steepletown has done. They truly embody the seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching: 1) Life and Dignity of the Human Person; 2) Call to Family, Community and Participation; 3) Rights and Responsibilities; 4) Option for the Poor and Vulnerable; 5) The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers; 6) Solidarity; 7) Care for God’s Creation. These principles will continue to serve as the framework for Steepletown’s efforts. While Steepletown may no longer be an official Catholic organization, our identity and purpose will remain grounded in these Gospel imperatives.
Then there are the several Catholic priests who have pastored one or more of the Steepletown parishes over the years, beginning with Fr Dick Host, Fr. Bernard Hall, and Fr. Leo Rosloniec in the early 90’s whose vision for how to address the needs of those living in the surrounding neighborhoods gave birth to Steepletown. Fr. Dick Host shares his thoughts in this short video: https://youtu.be/72jBIJGM8Zs
Also to be recognized are the many organizations, businesses, and institutions who have shared in Steepletown’s mission through creative partnerships and financial support. Transforming lives takes the entire village, and for Steepletown that has been the West Side. It is Steepletown’s intentions to continue to make the West Side of Grand Rapids its home-base as initiatives and efforts reach into other communities.
In the Christmas narrative, the angel announces to the shepherds: “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” In his Apostolic Exhortation entitled The Joy of the Gospel (2013), Pope Francis writes: “The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy.” This has been the joy that Steepletown embodies and shares will all the community. Merry Christmas!
Dec 13th 2019 – Steepletown Response to Fr. Ron’s December 1st Bulletin Article
- Fr. Ron wrote: “Last fiscal year we made a contribution of $51,000 to their organization.”
- The actual amount received by Steepletown from the Basilica last year is $15,160; St. James contributed $ 24,820 to Steepletown and St. Mary’s contributed $12,000- the combined total is $51, 980. The different amount contributed by each parish is based on an agreement that Fr. Thomas DeYoung put into place with Fr. Dick Host and Fr. Steve Cron many years ago.
- Fr. Ron wrote: “This does not take into account the other costs associated with having Kitchen Sage and the Steepletown Preschool in the Basilica Center which are not included in the rent they pay.”
- Steepletown paid the Basilica $21,012 in rent for Kitchen Sage and $30,000 in rent for the space used by the preschool. In addition, Steepletown paid nearly $20,000 for improvements in the Basilica Center to be able to open the Early HeadStart Classroom in April 2018. In exchange for that, Monsignor Stasker gave Steepletown two years of free rent for that room valued at $10,000 a year. Steepletown also just opened another three year-old classroom, thus will be paying the Basilica another $10,000 this fiscal year.
- Steepletown actually paid for the modest renovation of new floor covering and painting to the lower entrance of the Basilica Center at a cost of just over $2,500 earlier this year.
- Steepletown also reimbursed the Basilica $4,939 for snow removal services last winter and has done so each of the past 10 winters.
- In addition, Steepletown pays 100% of the costs to maintain the former convent building, referred to as the Steepletown Center, which hosts various parish-based groups and other important work for those living in the Steepletown neighborhoods.
Steepletown actually paid $68,451 to the Basilica; Subtract the Basilica’s contribution to Steepletown and it equals a net total of $53,291 that Steepletown contributed to the Basilica last year.
- Fr. Ron wrote: “When Steepletown began its work, it was the religious education for the parishes. Over time it began to evolve into the charitable arm of these parishes, and the religious education fizzled due to parish demographics…”
- From 1991-1993 Steepletown primarily focused on religious education. In 1993 when Dick Bulkowski was hired, it was the vision and intention of the three pastors of the Steepletown Parishes to work together in addressing the needs of those living in the surrounding neighborhoods. It was for this reason that Steepletown incorporated as a separate Catholic organization with the support and approval of Bishop Rose and Sr. Patrice Konwinski, OP who was then the Chancellor of the Diocese.
- For the first ten years as Director of Steepletown, Dick was responsible for both the faith formation programs of the three parishes, including religious education, and the growing neighborhood-based ministries.
- In 2005 when Steepletown received its first federal workforce development grant which more than doubled Steepletown’s operational budget at that time, his role shifted to entirely focusing on Steepletown’s neighborhood-based ministries.
- It was decided at that time by the three pastors to go in a different direction for religious education, not because of any “fizzling” but because nearly 80% of those requesting sacramental preparation, whether children or adults, were from St. Mary’s Parish, and most of these were from the newly welcomed Hispanic community.
- Fr. Ron wrote: “Over time the direction the organization was heading in led to Steepletown’s Executive Director deciding to make Steepletown a stand alone organization with its own governing board and no longer being a part of the parish structure.”
- Steepletown’s bylaws, which is a requirement of any incorporated organization, clearly states that the pastors of the three Steepletown parishes are ex-officio members of the board. And over the history of Steepletown, most of the board members have been members of one of the three parishes.
- The bylaws also clearly state that the Bishop must appoint all the board members to Steepletown. This had been the practice for many years leading up until about halfway through Bishop Hurley’s tenure as the Bishop of GR.
- Over Steepletown’s 25 year history as an organization, it has been listed in the Official Kennedy Directory which is the document that lists all the churches, organizations, clubs, etc. that are under the umbrella of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops.
- Fr. Ron wrote: “That means that as the pastor I have no supervisory authority over Steepletown Neighborhood Services.”
- Fr. Ron attended a couple board meetings in the summer and fall of 2018 but shortly thereafter decided to stop attending the board meetings. His supervisory authority is as a board member who has every right to make their voice and opinion heard. Fr. Ron chose not to exercise his right as a board member by resigning from the Steepletown Board.
- Fr. Ron wrote: “I wish to say this again in another way. Steepletown Neighborhood Services is not a parish committee or organization. It is entirely self-governing.”
- That Steepletown is not self-governing is evident from earlier comments. That Steepletown is not a significant part of the parishes is certainly the stated opinion of Fr. Ron, but it is not a view that is held by many of the parishioners of the three parishes.
- Canon Law offers some profound insight into what the church is called to be, specifically Canon 518 states: “As a general rule a parish is to be territorial, that is, one which includes all the Christian faithful of a certain territory.” So when Fr. Ron asserts that he wants the space back for parish needs he is misrepresenting the current activity that takes place here on this campus, and specifically the preschool, as the preschool is building the parish community as everyone within the parish boundaries has a claim on that parish’s ministry; the parish is responsible for them and to them, so to speak.
- Fr. Ron wrote: “It is my goal in the coming year(s) to continue to develop new programming and opportunities that will open our hearts and minds to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.”
- The US Catholic Bishops wrote a pastoral letter last fall on racism called Open Wide Our Hearts (November, 2018). In it they write: “To work at ending racism, we need to engage the world and encounter others- to see, maybe for the first time, those who are on the peripheries of our own limited view. Knowing that the Lord has taken the divine initiative by loving us first, we can boldly go forward, reaching out to others. We must invite into dialogue those we ordinarily would not seek out. We must work to form relationships with those we might regularly try to avoid. This demands that we go beyond ourselves, opening our minds and hearts to value and respect the experiences of those who have been harmed by the evil of racism. Love also requires us to invite a change of heart in those who may be dismissive of other’s experiences or whose hearts may be hardened by prejudice or racism. Only by forging authentic relationships can we truly see each other as Christ sees us. Love should then move us to take what we learn from encounters and examine where society continues to fail our brothers and sisters, or where it perpetuates inequity, and seek to address those problems.”
- The importance of what takes place at the Steepletown Preschool and at Steepletown in general cannot be underestimated in regards to addressing racism, especially related to academic achievement and access to economic security for communities of color where significant disparities still exist, especially here in Grand Rapids.
- 90% of the children attending the Steepletown Preschool are children of color. As part of the educational campaign associated with the Ready by Five Millage which passed last year in Kent County, it was noted how high-quality early childhood programs increase graduation rates and lead to a better trained workforce.
- The Bishop’s pastoral letter further expounds on practical ways that parishes can support efforts at racial understanding and justice by its own hiring practices. The staff at the Steepletown preschool and Steepletown in general embodies a very diverse teaching and support staff.
What actions will the parishioners of St. Adalbert take based on the teachings of the US Bishops?
- Canon Law 529 suggests that for a pastor to fulfill the obligations of his duties, he is to “with particular diligence he is to seek out the poor, the afflicted, the lonely, those exiled from their country, and similarly those weighed down by special difficulties.” This is the work of Steepletown and of all baptized Catholics who share in the priestly ministry of Christ.
Fr. Ron wrote: “If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me.” Also please feel free to contact Dick Bulkowski, Steepletown Executive Director, at email@example.com; 451-4215, ext. 101.