Service as a Journey
Celebrating Neighborhoods
By Carol Vriend Petter ’76

On September 2, 3 and 4 over 900 new Calvin students poured into Grand Rapids neighborhoods for Streetfest 2004: Celebrating Neighborhoods. As part of orientation, Streetfest gives first-year students a taste of service-learning in the community. This year, students collaborated with 66 different agencies, organizations and churches on their works-in-progress in 25 neighborhoods.

Streetfest project - click to enlarge image
All first-year students spend part of their orientation serving the Grand Rapids community through Streetfest.

Huntington Bank partners with Calvin to make Streetfest possible, supplying not only funds but also volunteers and mentors from among its staff. One of them, a vice president at the bank, is Carol Vriend Petter ’76. Besides laboring alongside students, she also spoke to them in the chapel before they fanned out to their work sites.

In preparing her talk, Carol was, at first, clear only about what she did not want to say. “I was sure I wasn’t going to use guilt in any way, shape or form to stimulate people to think about inner-city service,” she said.

Guilt-motivated service, she admits, is a subject about which she’s very sensitive. Just before she herself became a college freshman, the members of her home church were encouraged to read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. That reading led to “such excruciating, tormenting guilt for me that I became deeply alienated from God,” Carol said. “There can be no joyful communion with God if you’re suffering under this impossible load of responsibility for the world.”

Carol has worked hard in the years since to alleviate the weight of “works righteousness” she caught when she was a teenager. She found herself wanting to tell Calvin students what she’s learned: that there’s a different, less simplistic way of thinking about and doing community service, a way that’s not a project but more like an adventure, a journey of discovery. It’s a journey Carol says she’s still on.

Streetfest Chapel Celebrating Neighborhoods
Remarks made September 3, 2004 by Carol Vriend Petter ’76

Carol Petter
Carol Petter, Streetfest Mentor and Vice President of Huntington Bank

As a college freshman, you will quickly discover that the introductory course to any discipline requires a new, larger vocabulary. In a beginning music class, for instance, you will learn that not all music played in a concert hall is classical. It may be renaissance, baroque or romantic. In your first philosophy class, you will be presented with terms such as utilitarianism and deontology, and other mouthfuls bound to make your parents think they’re getting their money’s worth. And in accounting, you’ll wade from debits and credits to take a plunge in the deep end: depreciation, accruals and amortization.

Today you are taking a required core course called Celebrating Neighborhoods 101 — specifically, Celebrating Grand Rapids Neighborhoods. To be consistent with what you will do in your classes next week, let’s begin by defining a few terms relevant to neighborhoods. A little lexicon, compiled by Yale University professor Dolores Hayden, defines and illustrates 75 words that allegedly have already made it into the vocabularies of architects and engineers. Here are a few entries from Dr. Hayden’s lexicon:

• Boomburb: a suburb on steroids, a suburb growing by double digits each year. And its companion,
• Zoomburb: a suburb growing still faster than a boomburb.
• Logo buildings: buildings that appear to have been built on an assembly line. Ever hear of McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Walgreens or Jiffy Lubes? Grand Rapids’ 28th Street is lined with logo buildings.
• TOAD: TOAD is an acronym for a temporary, obsolete, abandoned or derelict site. You will find these in downtown Grand Rapids — factories no longer useful for making things and too expensive to either tear down or renovate.
• Snout house: a house where the garage is the dominant projecting feature. And its companion,
• Snout scape: a stretch of land with lots of snout houses. And finally,
• Litter on a stick: a billboard. You’ll see lots of litter on sticks on U.S. 131 and I-96.

You know, relative to these new words, our word for the day, neighborhood, sounds downright quaint and old fashioned, something like VCR, carbon copy, clothesline and handwritten notes. Who talks about neighborhoods nowadays, communities where people care about each other and care about the surroundings in which they live? Is the word neighborhood and the possibilities to which it points a bit outmoded perhaps? You know, if you “google” the word neighborhood, you will be presented, in exactly 4.47 seconds on my over-the-hill computer, with many links to virtual neighborhoods. Has the old reality of neighborhood — people caring about people — perhaps morphed into a new reality — nameless people sending inconsequential messages to each other? Then today’s focus for celebration would be the triumph of technology over geography. It’s a small world after all!

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Those of you who are from Michigan will know that Jennifer Granholm, our governor, has what she is calling her “Cool Cities” initiative. She promised to give $2 million in grants to those people who came up with the best ideas to make Michigan cities, in her word, “cooler.” Granholm said, and I quote, that she “sought projects that would create a vibrant street life and enhance neighborhoods with a mix of residential, retail, entertainment and other commercial ventures.”

So if we’re celebrating neighborhoods today, and we know that several neighborhoods are in for an upgrade, maybe we should celebrate the foresight and enlightenment of the state government, or the ingenuity of those who won the grants, or the promise of increased economic activity in the lucky neighborhoods. Is that what today’s celebration is about?

Memories of the seemingly cohesive neighborhoods of yesteryear or the experience of instant and unfettered access to virtual neighborhoods, or the governor’s promise of seed money to build an office-retail complex in the Wealthy Street area — well, none of these ideas, it seems to me, is sufficiently strong to carry a full day of celebration.

Streetfest project - click to enlarge image
“Celebrating neighborhoods” was the theme for this year’s Streetfest, which involved more than 900 students and mentors.

To complicate matters further, some of you are going to serve today in real neighborhoods, not virtual, where destructive forces have won many battles — destructive, anti-neighborhood forces like drugs, poverty and hopelessness. You will behold the casualties. In certain Grand Rapids neighborhoods it’s not at all obvious that there’s anything to celebrate.

So we’ve got a problem. A whole day devoted to celebration, a room full of people, vans and city buses ready to transport us to a worksite, and no clear focus in view … yet. It seems to me that to find a reason to celebrate, we are going to have to look harder and deeper. With our natural eyes, we may see abandoned, rusted vehicles; vacant lots, littered and overgrown; housing scarcely fit for people. We may see the beauty of a neighborhood, a wooded area, for instance, reduced to a mountain of wood chips in a day. We may see vast stretches of logo buildings homogenizing what once was a neighborhood with character — but to celebrate today, we cannot let our eyes settle on any of this. We must believe that there is more to every neighborhood than what our natural eyes can see.

Today you are going to meet people, not buildings — people who live and work in Grand Rapids neighborhoods, people whose eyesight is every bit as keen as yours. These people are not glibly optimistic about urban problems. But, and this is important, they are saying in word and deed, “O God, in this world where I see so much that doesn’t reflect your character, I would be useful to you.”

Many of you will spend your time with those who lead various programs. Surely these people, with their rich experience and devotion to their task, are worth celebrating. But there’s so much more. There are volunteers who serve week in and week out, who are leavens for good in the neighborhoods. And there are ordinary folks, not necessarily attached to any formal program, who simply choose to make neighborhoods work, who choose to be neighborly, sometimes in unspeakably difficult life circumstances.

These folks, who are passionate about being useful to the Lord, do not wear tell-tale yellow ribbons on their lapels; they are of no particular race, age or gender; they do not crow about their neighborliness. So, to spot them you will have to look and listen with the eyes and ears of your heart. Perhaps you will need repeated exposures before you recognize them. Here’s my suggestion: Let’s regard these folks as our honored guests today. Let’s celebrate them. Let’s honor them, not with the usual trappings of celebrations like cake, music and decorations, but by being attentive and systematic observers, hungry to learn. Let’s honor them by being students, not in name only, but in spirit.

You know, during the next four years, professors will present you with new ideas — ideas that do not mesh gracefully with all that you have been taught up until now. Some of these ideas will unsettle you, like they did me. I dare say most of you, if not all of you, will struggle, at times, with who you are, what you were created for and where you are going; you may change your major several times, like I did. Some of you will get entangled in relationships that are not good for you. In short, the growing pains that are a normal part of your college years can easily command all your attention. And guess what? After you graduate, there will be new growing pains. You will bring your own heart, with its layers of complication, into a work environment, with its layers of complications.

Why am I saying this? To create a context for saying that the people who live to bless others, who take community and neighborhood seriously, do not make this extraordinary choice because their life circumstances are extraordinary. They are buffeted by the realities of life just as you are and will be. They made their mistakes during their college years and make more today. Not all of them landed a good job right out of college or, if they did, some of them were down-sized, to use the euphemism of the day. Not all married someone who was easy to live with. But, despite all of this, they decide, they choose, they rededicate themselves again and again, if necessary, to use their education and their gifts to bless others. Each day anew they pray something like this, “O Lord, keep me from frittering away my life on things that have no significance beyond the moment. I will let your tug on my heart win over all other tugs — tugs like convenience, popularity, fortune and power.”

Streetfest project - click to enlarge image
Building community among Calvin students and staff and Grand Rapids-area neighborhoods is the goal of Streetfest.

You probably know the word mentor. In the workplace, it often suggests a senior executive anointing a younger version of himself as his protégé. The mentor can steer the protégé to the plum assignments that will contribute to the quickest advance in the organization.

This is “old-think.” Let’s turn this image on its head. Let’s begin by defining mentor as anyone from whom we can learn — regardless of their place on the food chain. Let’s not wait for a single mentor to pick one of us as a protégé. Let’s take the initiative and pick out our own mentors — lots of them. And let’s not look only for folks with whom we have a lot in common. We may have more to learn from someone who is very different. Today let’s begin by looking for mentors, mentors of a particular kind: mentors who can teach us about blessing others, despite the relentless pressure to live self-absorbed lives, pressure we all feel at every stage of our lives.

Some of you will work close to downtown today. Well, a little further west, close to the Grand River, by a rusted railroad bridge, works a sculptor. His name is Mic Carlson. I expect that he is working today, feverishly, because he is attempting to complete a series of 29 statues of St. Francis of Assisi, that 13th-century monk who penned the prayer that begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Carlson received the inspiration for this project when he visited Assisi, Italy, six years ago. Next week, all 29 statues will be boxed and shipped to Assisi, where they are expected to arrive in time and in tact for an exhibition at the Basilica of St. Francis.

How does Carlson create these stunning bronze sculptures of St. Francis, beginning with only a slab of brown wax that looks like a big chunk of chocolate? Carlson’s technique is simply stated: he chips away at all that is not St. Francis so that only St. Francis, with his lean face and soulful eyes, remains.

Today, you will meet representatives of those who are chipping away at all that is not neighborhood so that only neighborhood remains. I know of a retired attorney who spends his time cutting through red tape so that foster parents may adopt the child whom they’ve grown to love. Chip, chip. I know of a woman, a member of City Hope, who spends hours each week interceding for prodigal sons and daughters. Chip, chip. I know of a man who left a high-paying job in mid-career to work for Mel Trotter ministries, where he invests himself in the lives of people who have lost their way, aided and abetted by drugs and alcohol. Chip, chip. I know of business people who donate time and materials to ICCF [Inner City Christian Federation] so that ICCF can build houses for people who cannot afford to pay market rates. Chip, chip. Today you are joining their ranks by sorting clothes, painting a fence, pulling up weeds, lending a hand to someone with too much to do. Chip, chip. Chip, chip.

And when it’s all over, you will leave, and today will become just another forgettable day in the blur we call orientation … or will it? Today could become the day when you start thinking seriously about neighborhoods, what enhances and what erodes them, what Jennifer Granholm’s money can and cannot accomplish, what snout scapes, logo buildings and zoomburbs are doing to people’s lives, and what your life has to do with any of this.

In response to a question about his sculpting project, Mic Carlson said, “It’s more than just art work to me, you know; I’m driven to do this. I know God is guiding me on the right path. It started out as a project, but now it’s a journey.” Beautiful. It started out as a project but now it’s a journey. Streetfest — it is starting out as a project; may it become your journey.

— Carol Vriend Petter ’76 is a vice president at Huntington Bank in Grand Rapids, Mich.