Last year, in the fall of 2011, Grand Rapids held a little fun competition: to describe Grand Rapids using only six words. All sorts of responses were submitted, and the top six that were finally awarded prizes were very creative. They were put up on billboards around the city, and given a cash prize. What I found interesting was the unique way each of them emphasized different aspects of the beloved city that many of us call home and most of us, at the very least, call our “residence”. One winner emphasized the serenity and beauty of Grand Rapids’ West Michigan setting with the words “Looks like vacation. Feels like home.” Another emphasized the particularly “Grand Rapidian” character of the city, as well as its geographical setting, with the mantra: “Not Chitown. Not Motown. My Town.” Another emphasized the forward direction and promising future of Grand Rapids with the phrase “On the river. On the move.” But one of my favorite submissions did not make the final six champions. It was Mayor George Heartwell’s submission: “Grand River and even grander people.” I understood why the judges hesitated to declare Mayor Heartwell a champion, since he was the one who appointed them to the panel, but I thought his submission pointed to the true strength of Grand Rapids: its people.
Grand Rapids is really a wonderful town. I feel like Goldilocks sometimes when I say this, but I do think that it’s “not too big, not too small, juuuuust right!” But the size of Grand Rapids is not what makes it great (some people, after all, do prefer bigger or smaller towns). What makes Grand Rapids such a great city are the people. We have wonderful philanthropists who pour money into our town. Regardless of what you think about the financial decisions of some of the multi-millionaires who call Grand Rapids home, there is no doubt that many of them have invested in our town in very positive ways, providing funding for theatres, arenas, performance halls, colleges and universities, Christian schools, and competitions.
But it’s not just the money-makers that we have to thank for Grand Rapids’ vibrant culture. We have creative artists (check out the Grand Rapids Art Museum or the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts downtown), exciting event planners (check out Rob Bliss online), innovative brewers (Grand Rapids was named “Beer City, USA” in 2012), a great symphony, orchestra, ballet company, and a host of other local performance and entertainment organizations. On top of that, we have phenomenal festivals almost year-round. Celebration on the Grand, the Hispanic Festival, Octoberfest, the Polish Festival, the Art Festival, the Eastown Street Fair, just to name a few, and of course, the current highlight of Grand Rapids social life: ArtPrize. During these festivals the entire city of Grand Rapids bustles with excitement, creativity, and culture.
Some of you may be settling into Grand Rapids for the first time, some of you are preparing to leave, but all of you should take advantage of the exciting experiences we have here (they’re also great ideas for a night out with the family or a date—really, really fun).
But the fun, cultural festivities isn’t what makes Grand Rapids so grand either. It really boils down to the people. As many of you continue to settle into Grand Rapids to fulfill your church membership requirement or Service Learning credit for the Seminary, I encourage you to take a look at the sheer number of opportunities that sit at your disposal. We have a gazillion churches, CRC and non-CRC, some grandiose, some loud, some traditional, and some homey, but they’re all here. And when it comes to service, there is no shortage of ministry opportunities right here in town. Grand Rapids has many opportunities to work with all sorts of people in all sorts of different contexts—we have a variety of missions that work with international refugees, the growing immigrant populations that are popping up in different parts of Grand Rapids, the homeless, children who need help with school, women who need care because of their family situation, housing assistance, food pantries, evangelistic missions, and countless other opportunities to serve the growing and changing population of this grand city.
So, as you begin to settle down, or as you prepare to close the chapter of your life that has been Grand Rapids, Michigan, I encourage you to take a visit to ArtPrize (see the pictures on the front and back cover for a taste) or one of the other festivals that pop up along the way, worship at your local church (or any local church), and take the opportunity to serve. I trust you’ll begin to see, as I have, that the “Grand”-ness of our city is not so much in the rapids (which, having been dammed up, really are more of a leisurely river), but the people. The grand people of Grand Rapids. And you’re one of them.