Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Satan is not Voldemort

Below is my column in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.  

Late last month, Luis Cypher from the Satanic Temple of West Michigan gave the invocation at the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners – and you would think Satan himself showed up.

Crowds of Christians gathered in protest in the lobby and outside of the Fillmore Complex, singing, shouting, and holding up signs opposed to Satanism. When Cypher began speaking, Commissioner Bonnema interrupted, demanding to know his real name. Of course, for several months, pastors gave the invocation, often without stating their name or the church they represented, but that didn’t seem to bother him then. During the prayer itself, the crowd in the overflow room shouted and made so much noise that Cypher’s words couldn’t even be heard.

The whole thing reminded me of an episode in the television show “The Office.” After learning that a convict is employed by the office, Michael Scott outs the convict, who then tells everyone that he was in prison for insider trading and with things like outside time and art classes, it wasn’t really that bad. Pam and the other employees start joking that prison sounds better than their office, creating an increasingly teasing tone and series of events. Michael is infuriated until Toby takes him aside and explains, “They’re teasing you, Michael, to be funny.”

The hundreds of Christians out there in protest, the antics of the board in response both before and during the meeting, all of this whole show was so silly, so unnecessary. I kept wanting someone to lean over and tell them all, “They’re teasing you, Christians, because they don’t really believe in Satan.”

First off, people don’t understand that modern Satanism doesn’t actually worship Satan. Both the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple are atheistic organizations that don’t believe in God or the devil but instead see Satan as a metaphor. Furthermore, the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple are entirely different organizations.

The Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey, embraces a more nihilistic philosophy with roots in Nietzsche. For them, Satan is a symbol of personal freedom and rebellion against arbitrary authority but with a focus on the individual living as their own pride and carnal nature dictates – a more hedonistic outlook. They are not an egalitarian group and LaVey opposed egalitarianism and believed that the “myth of equality” only “supports the weak at the expense of the strong.”

The Satanic Temple is an entirely different organization. It is only a little more than a decade old and was formed to fight against their sense that Christianity was continually intruding in the political sphere in ways that are contrary to our constitution and the good of people. For them, Satan is not even a symbol of evil, but is instead a symbol “the eternal rebel” against arbitrary authority and social norms.

Whereas the Church of Satan uses the metaphor to advance a hedonistic worldview, the Satanic Temple uses the metaphor to promote pragmatic skepticism, rational reciprocity, personal autonomy, and curiosity. Their goal is to encourage benevolence and empathy among people, and to urge the separation of church and state, using religious satire to make their point.

Just take a look at their seven tenets: one should always act with compassion and empathy; the struggle for justice is ongoing; a person’s body is inviolable; freedom (including the freedom to offend) should be respected; beliefs should conform to science; and people are fallible and should make it right when they have harmed someone. In the seventh tenet, they teach that each of the previous six are guiding principles and “The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.”

This is not scary stuff – it’s actually pretty basic secular humanism.

Yes, they use the word “Satan,” but Satan is not Voldemort or Beetlejuice. Saying the word “Satan” doesn’t summon the dark forces of evil. And for Christians to ignore what a group actually believes and freak out because they use the word Satan – especially when they are using that word to troll you – just demonstrates the point the members of the Satanic Temple wanted to make.

Now, I want to be clear, just because the Church of Satan and Satanic Temple don’t believe in Satan doesn’t mean there are not actual cosmic forces of darkness at work in our world. I just doubt those forces are found in some people putting on dark clothes and using Satan to talk about the importance of benevolence and empathy.

In our church’s baptismal liturgy, when people renounce evil, we invite them to renounce evil in three ways. In the first renunciation, they renounce “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.” I describe this as cosmic evil: evil that is incomprehensible to us, dark forces that hurt and lead to violence and war. If God’s desire for the world is for it to be in a state of perfect love, justice, and peace, then cosmic evil is what goes against that. And I will tell you, in my 15 years as a priest, I have seen some actual real darkness that has made my hair stand on end.

In the next renunciation, people renounce, “evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” I describe this as social evil, all the prejudices and systems which harm and wound God’s creatures and creation.

In the final renunciation, they renounce “all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God,” making it clear that sin, at is base, is that which pulls us from God’s love for us or that which breaks our ability to love our neighbor.

Christians in Ottawa County would do well to stop forming protests to a bunch of secular humanists using the word “Satan” to get a rise out of you, like a bunch of Hogwarts students warning about the dangers of saying “Voldemort,” lest the dark lord come and get you.

Instead, Christians should be concerned with those forces in our society – those forces in some of our very churches – which are complicit in systems of poverty and inequity, which oppress the marginalized, which criminalize women’s health, and which lead to queer kids thinking they are broken.

Those are the things dark forces are actually supporting right now. And who knows, if Christians did a better job protesting actual evil, they might find the Satanist next to them can be an inter-religious ally in the struggle for justice, peace, and love.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Support for Israel’s war must end: Terrorism does not excuse genocide

Below is my column in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

One of the great blessings of my life has been the opportunity to make a few different visits to the Holy Land, both to study and participate in archeological work during my undergraduate and graduate studies, and also in the context of a spiritual pilgrimage as a parish priest.

Last year, as my daughter is now old enough to go with us, I began laying plans for another pilgrimage to the Holy Land with members and friends of my parish, St. John’s Episcopal Church. Wanting to plan far enough in advance, we set a date in 2025 and began collecting names of those interested. Within weeks of registration opening, though, Hamas led a terrorist attack into Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, sparking the current conflict which has consumed the region and tremendous cost of human life.

The attacks by Hamas in October of last year were by far the worst and deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the modern nation of Israel. A significant motivator for the attack, according to research done by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank, found that Hamas invaded as revenge for what it saw as past attacks by Israel; the continued occupation of the West Bank; the arrest of Hamas leaders; and the isolation and bombing of Gaza.

Just a few years ago, in 2017, Hamas had taken a more moderating turn, even releasing an updated charter that signaled acceptance of a two-state solution as an appropriate temporary measure. It still included some hateful language, but it was a tremendous approvement from their 1988 founding statement. Hamas had even begun to publicly punish anyone who instigated attacks within Gaza that might break the fragile ceasefires in place.

This moderation did not, however, produce any substantive changes from the nation of Israel or the larger global community. Instead, in 2021 and 2022, we saw some of the deadliest years for Palestinians as the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, allowed for an increase in Israeli settlements in the West Bank (contrary to established international law). The settlers themselves increased their attacks on Palestinians in their attempts to gain more land for themselves.

A common refrain from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights problem was to say, “Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. And in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?”

While he regularly condemned violence and advocated for nonviolent resistance, King also knew that when people feel unheard and in danger, when it feels like nonviolent resistance produces no survivable solution, that explosions of violence are often the result. And while we can condemn the violence of riots and terrorist attacks like last October, we must ask if there is something the rest of the world is not hearing that has resulted in this violence.

This was clearly a part of what led to the attacks last October. When Hamas official Basem Naim was interviewed after the attack, he said, “We knew there was going to be a violent reaction … But we didn’t choose this road while having other options. We have no options.”

Over the past 16 years, the Gaza strip has become a large prison encampment and not an actual functioning place to live, with 97 percent of the water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption. Over 70 percent of families depend on international aid for their basic needs. Given competition from other terrorist groups, and the increasing right-ward swing of the Israeli government, Hamas has sought to increase its own public image as an Islamist resistance group. It continually seeks to undermine the Palestinian Authority which controls the West Bank (and favors negotiation and cooperation with Israel).

Ironically, both the right-wing forces in the Israeli government and the terrorists at work in Hamas need the other to continue the fight. The terrorism of Hamas has become cover for increased Israeli settlements and horrific attacks on civilians by Israeli soldiers. To wit, the violence of Hamas continues the rightward tilt of Israeli politics. And, of course, the barbarity of the Israeli response fuels the anger and sense of helplessness in the Palestinian people, increasing the view that terrorism is the only way left.

Earlier this week, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees accused Israel of detaining and torturing their staffers in a ploy to get them to make false confessions about the agency’s ties to Hamas. This is not the first time that Israel has sought to discredit United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), but this latest action is perhaps the most brazen. This action follows what we have seen in documentations of abuse of other Palestinian detainees.

On Feb. 29, over 100 people were killed when trying to access humanitarian aid from a truck, with another 760 injured. While Israel claims it was firing into the area in response to looting, witnesses say there is ample evidence that the Israeli soldiers were firing directly into the crowd. The United Nations Security Council met and debated a draft statement which would have blamed Israeli forces for “opening fire” on Palestinian civilians. The motion was supported by all members of the Security Council except one – the United States. The rest of the world sees the horror and genocide in the West Bank and increasingly expresses condemnation, but our country continues to maintain an utterly untenable middle ground.

In response, the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem (which includes Archbishop Hosam Naoum, the leader of my own church in Jerusalem) has published a statement describing the Feb. 29 incident as a “wanton attack,” calling for an immediate ceasefire to enable humanitarian relief, and condemning violence against civilians.

I still hope that I will be able to lead that pilgrimage next summer. (If you might be interested in coming, you can see more details online at If we do go, we will spend time with the Anglican Cathedral and its mission of peacemaking in the region. The current state is wholly untenable, and I cannot imagine it continuing. Something must change. I hope to see that change.

Unfortunately, nothing will change until you and I speak up – no matter our political allegiances – and speak up, insisting that we can no longer support the actions of Israel in response to terrorism. Terrorism is wrong, absolutely, but to answer it with genocide and settlement expansion only escalates the wrong and does nothing to promote healing and a future for all those who call this land holy.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

The stretching experience of Lent

Below is my column in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

Linguistics and the development of languages are subjects that have long interested me. As I studied Biblical Greek and Biblical Hebrew in college, eventually minoring in both languages, I was fascinated by the way that translation is an imperfect art, how some words cannot be fully translated with the same sense of meaning conveyed in the original languages.

As I continued to study, I also learned how the development of the English language carries many of the same intricacies of meaning. Next week, Wednesday, Feb. 14, most Christians around the world will begin their observance of the Season of Lent.

In most Romance languages, the season is known by some variation of the Latin term Quadragesima, which means fortieth (as in the 40 days before the celebrations of Easter). So, for example, in Spanish the word for Lent is Cuaresma, or in French it is Carême. However, in English we took a different approach to the season. The English word Lent comes from the Old English word lencten, which is related to our current English word “lengthen.” This word lencten was the word used to denote the spring season in Old English because this is the time during which the days noticeably begin to lengthen once more (a change even more noticeable in the British Isles than farther south in Continental Europe). Eventually, it also passed over into the spring liturgical season we now call Lent.

I have long loved this idea that Lent is a season to lengthen, particularly since I developed an appreciation for the importance of yoga and core exercises to maintain a healthy body. To see Lent as a season to lengthen can entirely change the way we might approach the Season of Lent as well. Instead of seeing Lent as a dour season we suffer through, feeling rather bad about ourselves and trying (often unsuccessfully) to use disciplines to mortify the flesh. What if we saw Lent as a time to stretch spiritually? How might that change the way we approach the season?

Take the question of Lenten disciplines, practices you take on or joys you give up during the 40 days. For example, I often abstain from alcohol during Lent. If I view this as a lengthening, a stretching, habit, I’m invited to let this be an exercise in health, stretching past my temptation to reach for a drink at the end of the long day so that I might instead reach elsewhere – toward my family, time spent with friends, or even just a hot cup of tea. Similarly, another good Lenten discipline in the Episcopal Church is to take up one of the Daily Offices (this is particularly given a resource put out by Forward Movement, available at or on your smart device using the “Day by Day” app). While I pray morning prayer each day in the church, Monday through Thursday, at around 9 a.m. (anyone can join me!), I often have found that praying the night prayers of Compline during Lent stretches me spiritually. It reconnects me to God at the end of the day, as I reflect upon what has happened, where I could have done better, and entrust myself to God’s loving care.

And with all of the anger and frustration that is still boiling in Ottawa County, I think this year’s Lent is a good opportunity for any Christian to ask what it might mean to stretch your own understanding of those with whom you disagree. What would it look like to “drop the content” of the argument (just for a moment, as therapists often encourage couples) and get curious about the emotions, the fears and values and even hopes that animate the rhetoric?

For example, if you are a Christian who is fundamentally opposed to Christians like those in my church who will be putting on the second annual Pride Festival this year, might you ask what it feels like to be a queer person of faith in this community? I know you think that people like me are reading the Bible through a cultural lens – but what if the actual cultural lens was the more conservative view, an older understanding of sex and gender that we now know scientifically is fundamentally different than what ancient people understood.

After all, as I told someone who was asking questions about this in my office a few weeks ago, in the end, there are only six verses in the entire Bible that might deal with these questions (and even there, scholarship increasingly casts doubt upon many of those interpretations – you can see more that I’ve written on that online at essays). On the other hand, there are more than 2,000 verses in Scripture about caring for the stranger (better translated immigrant) orphan, widowed, and impoverished among us. Why aren’t those the ones that occupy the dominant voice in “biblical” Christianity?

So, if you want to lengthen, perhaps try on some different views on sexuality and gender than those with which you were raised. Even better, go out and grab a cup of coffee with a queer Christian. You’ll probably find out you have far more in common than you think.

And lest you think I’m letting myself off the hook, I think that progressives in our community (including myself!) could also benefit by trying to stretch our own perspectives toward those with more conservative views. Could a few conversations with more conservative friends help you identify shared values and find ways to come together around those rather than trying to prove them wrong? I know that’s happened to me more than once. Sure, maybe that might not be possible at the extremes … but I have a hunch there are more shared commitments than many of us realize.

So, try to stretch yourself this season, no matter where you find yourself spiritually or politically. And if you’ve sort of lost touch with church in the years following the pandemic, this is a great time to reconnect. After all, stretching in community is best, because then there is someone to catch you when you fall.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Competing celebrations of January 6: Insurrection or Epiphany

Below is my column in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

The other day, I read somewhere in social media that January 6 has become a “high holy day” for those on the far-right of our country who praise the patriotism of the Capitol Insurrection that occurred three years ago on Jan. 6, 2021.

I was surprised to read that because the author clearly didn’t know that January 6 is already a high holy day – in the Christian religion at least. Coming after the Twelve Days of Christmas (which run from December 25 to January 5), we arrive on January 6 to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

Though it is often neglected in contemporary Christianity, the Feast of the Epiphany is actually more ancient than the other incarnational feast, that of Christmas. There are references to Epiphany as a celebration of Christ’s baptism as early as the second century. By the fourth century, it had become a mainstream practice in Christianity. It was in the late fourth century that the celebration of Christ’s birth on Christmas Day began to be celebrated. Christmas didn’t fully overshadow Epiphany until the early middle ages.

Originally, Epiphany on January 6 was a double celebration. It was both a celebration of Christ’s birth, but also of his baptism in the Jordan river. You can see that in the way the feast is celebrated in Christianity. In western Christianity, Epiphany has developed primarily as a commemoration of the visit of the magi to the Christ Child. (This is why many nativity scenes in churches don’t have magi when you come on Christmas – but if you look around, you can often find them hidden on windowsills, making their way as the follow the star in the east). In eastern Christianity, the emphasis of the Epiphany is still the celebration of Christ’s baptism, where the heavens broke open and Christ was declared the beloved son of God.

In my own Anglican tradition of Christianity, always eager to embrace the middle way, we celebrate the magi on January 6 and the baptism on the following Sunday after January 6. Indeed, you’re welcome to join us for the Epiphany celebrations on Saturday, Jan. 6 at 6 p.m. It’s a small but solemn chanted service which includes incense (one of the gifts of the magi). And then the next day, on January 7, we will celebrate the Feast of Christ’s Baptism at our 8:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. liturgy.

Three years ago, when I was finalizing my own preparations for the evening’s Epiphany celebrations, I was sitting at my computer when news started appearing that the rally then-president Trump was holding to protest the election had transformed into an assault and invasion on the Capitol building. I led online prayers, using the great litany and supplication in our prayer book (an ancient rite intended for use especially in times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster)

One of the most painful parts of the experience for me, as a Christian and priest, was the numerous symbols of Christianity that were scattered throughout the invading crowd. To see people joining hands in a prayer circle while others in the same group assaulted police officers was shocking. A new Washington Post–University of Maryland poll has indicated that while most Americans have not bought into the revised narrative of the Insurrection that President Trump has sought to spin, fewer Republicans now believe those who stormed the Capitol were mostly violent or that Trump bears responsibility for the events. This is not true throughout the Republican party as polls also indicate that a majority of Republicans believe punishments for those who participated in the insurrection have either been fair (37 percent) or not harsh enough (17 percent).

And while January 6 will likely live in infamy as a stain upon our country for most Americans, I do hope that the idea of it being a day to celebrate will certainly fade away soon. This is particular true for those in our country who are followers of Jesus Christ. Would that Christians instead turned to the lessons of their own Christian holiday on January 6.

After all, on the Epiphany we celebrate that the first people outside of Israel to witness and worship Christ were not Jews from another country, but were pagan astrologers from Persia! Epiphany is about how in Christ the light and love of God has been spread abroad to all people, it is no longer the property of the few or the chosen. And after the magi visit, of course, they have to return home by another way because King Herod is worried that the Christ Child is a threat to his own political power.

And so, on Epiphany, we have the all-embracing light of God celebrated, even as the political and religious powers of this world use violence to maintain control. Perhaps that truth can be a reminder to

Christians everywhere to be wary of those who cling to political power, who will use violence and intimidation to achieve their ends. Instead, those who choose to follow the Prince of Peace know that true change comes through the power of love unleashed in a broken world. And it is the light of that love that should draw us to worship – but also to be those who work peacefully and yet with passion and conviction so that this love, peace, and justice can be a reality for every human being in this world.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Venn diagrams of right-wing belief (or, Ottawa Impact is not the only problem)

 Below is my column in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune

There is much happening in our society right now, much of it interrelated. And it is essential for us to be clear about connections and relationships.

Yes, Christian Nationalism is on the rise, as I said in my column back in February. (If you share my concern, join the Unifying Christians event happening at the end of this month – information and tickets are online here: But not all forms of right-wing belief are Christian Nationalism.

Take Ottawa Impact (OI), for instance. While some of their views are clearly Christian Nationalism, others are just wrong. Cutting millions of dollars from the Ottawa County Department of Public Health clearly has nothing to do with Christianity. Indeed, fighting against public health – even refusing to receive grants that would help people because the word “COVID” appears somewhere within them – this is clearly the opposite of Christian values, right?

The difficulty is that all of these areas are like overlapping Venn diagrams. Certain views and groups and people overlap in one area but not exactly in another. And so, it becomes difficult to put your finger on the difficulty, the concern, that is gnawing at our collective values and community consciousness.

This is happening in Grand Haven right now, and the Venn diagram illustration may be helpful. Given the toxicity associated with OI, we now have a situation where candidates run for local office, insist they are not associated with OI, but still holding concerning views. I’m speaking of City Council candidates DeAnna Lieffers and Steve Skodack.

I want to be clear. I can believe Lieffers and Skodack when they tell us they are not affiliated with OI. (It would surprise me for any smart conservative to choose to align with that group at this point.) But at the recent City Council debate, Mayor Pro-Tem Ryan Cummins raised an essential point. He noted that it is not enough to ask if someone is affiliated with OI, you must also dig into their actual ideas.

When you do that, it becomes clear that Skodack or Lieffers may not be OI candidates, but they exist in an overlapping Venn diagram of far-right conservative beliefs.

For example, when discussing the proposed charter change in the debate itself, Skodack insisted that more government doesn’t make things more efficient (a strangely anti-government view for someone who wants to serve on City Council). When you dig into his social media, the overlap becomes clearer. Skodack clearly aligns himself with Restoring Ottawa and their attempts to ban books in our schools. He reposted Ukraine conspiracy theories involving the Bidens, along with posts questioning the integrity of our last election. And he posted that he thinks welfare should be as difficult to get as veteran benefits. Why would anyone think either should be difficult to get?

To his credit, Skodack talked with me a couple times, but it didn’t make me feel much better. He decried OI in one breath and then supported the ending of grants with COVID in them with the next. When I asked him about the Pride Festival I helped lead, he suggested we should tone it down a bit next year, perhaps putting any drag shows behind closed doors. I asked if he wanted to put walls around the boardwalk, where you can see far more skin on a given summer day, and he said that was different.

Yes, because one idea is hiding people who do not fit gender stereotypes, queens who fought for the LGBTQ community and who helped start the Pride movement as we know it. The other is impossible without ending Grand Haven’s status as a beach-town destination.

Lieffers, for her part, articulated in the debate her own belief that climate change does not affect our city on a local level (a rather shocking idea in our waterfront community and one that was not, thankfully, shared by any other candidate). When you dig into her social media, it becomes even more concerning. In addition to pro-Trump posts and vaccine skeptic posts, Lieffers posted a video of someone shooting at a case of Bud Light with the caption “Kid Rock speaks for me” (likely in response to Bud Light’s brief connection with trans activist Dylan Mulvaney). How can someone post a video like that in an age of rising violence against trans people?

Sure, Skodack and Lieffers are not OI candidates, but the diagram of overlap is concerning. And you see that overlap in the current debates surrounding charter change. The fact that so many of those who support OI and their brand of “transparency” and “good governance” is one of the reasons I got involved with charter change in the first place. That’s not to say that everyone opposed to charter change supports OI, because that’s not how a Venn diagram works. The correlation, though, is noteworthy.

The correlation is also there between those who support OI and those fighting once more against two needed millage proposals that would give our kids the schools they need. I know I am not the only family who lives in Grand Haven precisely for our schools. But groups like OI and Restoring Ottawa are bent on doing whatever they can to block needed resources to our schools.

All of these things have a lot in common. They involve fear of the other, the desire to control those who do not fit within your viewpoint, and dangerous attacks on the marginalized and vulnerable.

No matter your own beliefs, I hope you’ll take the time to vote next Tuesday. But before you do, dig into the views of the candidates running for office. Read the details of questions like charter change and the public school millage proposals. And ask yourself: What choice will advance the common good of all residents, and not just protect the privilege of the few?

About the writer: The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at The views in this column are his alone as a private citizen. They do not necessarily reflect the views of his church.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

City Council, the BLP, and an investigation

 Below is my column in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune

This has been quite a few weeks for Grand Haven, our City Council, and the Board of Light & Power (BLP). As what happened over the past week is already being spun by the BLP and their allies, it is important to take a step back and ensure we are all clear about what became public on Thursday, Sept. 14, and the process behind it.

Before anything with the whistleblower, on Aug. 16 all City Council members were provided written attorney opinions and clear documentation of wrongdoing related to the BLP’s campaign to stop the charter amendment. This includes notification the full board received from the city attorney on Aug. 25 that they had crossed the line on election law. The City Council did not release this, but held it for consideration at a closed session on Sept. 5. At that meeting, City Council was prepared to make public the city attorney’s written opinion, but then things became more challenging.

At this closed session, the city attorney shared the news that a BLP whistleblower recently approached him with new and further allegations of misconduct by the BLP administration and board. The whistleblower claimed that the BLP attempted to delete records after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, made false and misleading statements to employees regarding the charter amendment, attempted to avoid compliance with the Open Meetings Act, and pressured employees to sign the so-called “unanimous letter” along with pressuring them to contribute funds and distribute door signs in opposition to the charter amendment.

Based upon this new information, the city attorney suggested that council not yet release the likely violations of election law he had found, but to give time for a preliminary investigation of the new whistleblower allegations. The gravity of the allegations and the suspected involvement of both the BLP management and the board required careful attention to check their veracity.

It is important to be crystal clear that no deliberation nor voting can take place in a closed session of City Council because of the Open Meetings Act. Rather, the general and preliminary approach agreed to by the council members was to check out the whistleblower allegations and then to figure out how to handle both the original city attorney report and also the new whistleblower allegations.

On the following Sunday, Sept. 10, the alleged misconduct at Michigan State University (including the issues with how it was kept under wraps for months) hit the news. The following day, with that issue of an improper (and not impartial) investigation fresh on his mind, Mayor Pro-Tem Cummins met with the city manager to see if there was an update on the whistleblower allegations. The city attorney was brought into the discussion, and he shared an update on obtaining and reviewing records. Mayor Pro-Tem Cummins reached out to Councilmember Lowe, who noted that she shared his concerns about the need for this to be done efficiently and impartially and that the City Council needed to make that decision sooner rather than later. They began working with the city attorney on a resolution formally to move the investigation from the hands of the city to an independent party to be considered at the next meeting.

On Wednesday, a few days later, the city attorney informed Mayor Pro-Tem Cummins, Councilmember Lowe and the city manager that the sheer volume of emails provided by the whistleblower’s attorney would make a quick analysis of the material impracticable. The city attorney suggested instead a better approach would be for him to meet with the whistleblower and their attorney to get a better handle on the allegations.

After the meeting, he circled back to Mayor Pro Tem Cummins and Councilmember Lowe on their resolution, suggesting some edits given what he had learned from his investigation. With his edits included, the resolution was placed on the agenda for consideration at the next scheduled City Council meeting on Sept. 18. The city attorney also updated all of the councilmembers on what he had learned from his investigation.

The goal of the resolution considered by the City Council this past Monday was to deal in a timely and open manner with the serious whistleblower allegations, and to do so external to all the politics and personalities that had already muddled so much of the City Council-BLP relationship. Mayor Pro-Tem Cummins and Councilmember Lowe had no conversations with Mayor McNally nor with councilmembers Fritz and McLaughlin in advance as that would have constituted a violation of the Open Meetings Act. The next soonest opportunity to have a conversation with all members of the council was at their next meeting. On Thursday afternoon, when making the council aware of what he learned during his investigation, the city attorney did share a copy of the resolution with all of council prior to the meeting packet going out.

At the City Council meeting on Sept. 18, it became clear that both Mayor McNally and Councilmember Fritz were opposed to the resolution. However, they gave different explanations for their reasoning.

The big frustration for Mayor McNally (and somewhat for Councilmember Fritz) seemed to be that this resolution was different than what was first agreed to in the closed session and that there wasn’t another meeting to change course. What they seem to miss is that nothing was technically agreed to in the closed session (remember, that would have been a violation of the Open Meetings Act) and that Monday’s City Council meeting was precisely the new meeting, the first one where they could now discuss openly and make a decision, given the results of the city attorney’s investigation thus far, regarding the best path forward.

Councilmember Fritz also said he believed that the investigation should be conducted only by the Ottawa County prosecuting attorney or the Michigan Attorney General’s Office. This, however, would have been an escalation of the steps proposed in the resolution and could have pushed the investigation out for years. The resolution considered by the council did require the city attorney to also inform the attorney general of the whistleblower allegations and of possible campaign finance or election law violations. That way her office can decide whether and how to conduct their own investigation alongside the one the city launched. But the city’s external investigation will provide answers sooner that can hopefully clear up — in an impartial manner — many of these questions we now all have.

One last point on the process. BLP allies are claiming that the City Council, by approving this resolution, did not follow the legal advice of the city attorney. That is patently false. The city attorney worked on the drafting of the resolution itself. At no point during the meeting did the city attorney advise council against passing the resolution. Quite the opposite. At the meeting, the city attorney explained to City Council the difficulty with further internal investigations.

Don’t let the spin by the BLP and their allies distract from the truth.

BLP officials were angered that the full board was not briefed on the developments by the city attorney. They even suggested they should have been allowed first to do an investigation — of themselves. This is smoke and mirrors at best, or delay and obfuscation at worst. The full board had been informed weeks ago on Aug. 25 of the city attorney’s own written report. Within a day of the city attorney’s meeting with the whistleblower, the general manager and the chairperson of the Board were informed. Why would the City Council need to wait for a full meeting of the BLP Board before investigating a whistleblower complaint against the board? Does anyone think the BLP Board should investigate its own alleged wrongdoing?

If the BLP has nothing to hide, they should welcome an investigation. They should be grateful that those on the City Council who called for one didn’t wait, they didn’t hold it as an internal matter and have the city attorney investigate it further. They didn’t schedule more meetings of the City Council or with the BLP Board to talk about it — running the risk of this all spilling out closer to Election Day. They said this needs to be investigated promptly, impartially, and as soon as possible.

The BLP officials’ real anger behind all of this is that the continued misconduct of the BLP when it comes to FOIA requests, the Open Meetings Act, and their unethical (and perhaps illegal) use of ratepayer funds and electric utility employees to sway a ballot question is all finally coming to light. The fact that they are fuming and on the attack only indicates to me that the claims of the whistleblower are likely going to be substantiated.

So, I would like to express my gratitude to the City Council members who tried their hardest to do right by the residents of Grand Haven, the whistleblower and the BLP. They refused to allow these extremely serious allegations to be kept secret from all of us who truly believe the public’s business is public. They have been met with personal attacks, which is all the more unfortunate. But perhaps we can now get to the bottom of these concerning issues and determine the best way forward.

About the writer: The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. The views in this column are his alone as a private citizen whose employer is a BLP ratepayer. They do not necessarily reflect the views of his church.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

The BLP governance structure is broken; let’s fix it

Below is my article in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune

Last month I joined a secret cabal.

Well, I would guess some of you are sure I’m already a member of several – and it’s true, I am one of those who was waiting with bated breath for the premier of the new “Ahsoka” television show in the “Star Wars” universe … but stay with me here.

Like many of you, I’ve been tremendously disappointed with the lack of accountability and responsiveness the Board of Light & Power (BLP) has shown to the city, the ratepayers, and members of the community. A couple months ago I wrote a column about the pressing issues of climate change – one that did not even mention questions of energy generation – only to be greeted the next day by a multi-page critical email (that included personal attacks) from the BLP General Manager. I expressed confusion as to why he was writing to me with such biting criticism on a column that did not even mention his organization – particularly from his work email and clearly in his role as a municipal employee. He responded with several more pages which, I confess, I did not read.

But even I can be cranky and verbose, and so that’s not the real issue. Instead, this kind of combative behavior is symptomatic of the deeper problems with the way the BLP is governed. The fundamental role of a board is to exercise what’s known as its fiduciary duty – basically its obligation to its mission and clients or customers. This means keeping the mission at the forefront and making good decisions that fulfill that mission, using resources well, and being responsive to the community. That’s not what the BLP has chased after for several years now.

It took a grassroots movement of over 1,000 people to stand up and say no to putting a fossil- fuel burning power plant on the environmentally vulnerable Harbor Island. When contamination was found on the island – not only from its former use as a city landfill but also from half a century of coal-burning power production, BLP fought every step of the way to investigate and remediate the damage, refusing to work with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) or engage collaboratively with the city. Instead, they hired their own lawyer and public relations firm – at the cost of ratepayers’ hard spent dollars – to protect themselves instead of what truly needs protecting: the beautiful and amazing community in which we all live. When a member of our City Council sought to ensure the fragile waterfront ecosystem of our community could be protected through an amendment proposed to the Planning Commission, the BLP fought that as well.

And lest anyone think they have heard your voice and turned back from fossil-fuel based power generation, they recently renewed the permit that allows them to build on Harbor Island.

So, when I got a phone call inviting me to join the Board of Light and Power Charter Change Coalition (BLPCCC), I was curious to see what this group was – given the claims made by letters in this newspaper and at City Council meetings about back-room machinations and that this is all about trying to steal BLP money. Imagine my surprise when I found myself in a small room in a public library with around a dozen people from all ages who simply cared deeply for Grand Haven and wanted to stop the continued damage BLP is doing – damage the current governance structure has not put an end to on their own, despite their duty to the community.

And it really is – despite the nearly half a hundred thousand dollars BLP is using to fund this battle – a simple and clear question of governance. Energy management was overseen by the City Council for over 60 years before 1959, when a new coal-fired power plant was constructed and a different structure was called for. Hence, the original charter change was approved which established the BLP as we know it. But that governance structure isn’t needed anymore. The BLP doesn’t generate any power; it purchases it from the grid. It’s half the size it was when it was a power generating utility. Other city departments are the same size in our city governance and function quite well. And, no, despite the (slightly misogynistic) claims from the BLP (in an insert sent to customers) that our City Manager is not qualified to be in charge – she wouldn’t be the one running things. Instead, the City Manager would appoint a qualified director to lead the new Department of Energy. Just like she does for Public Safety. Just like she does for Public Works.

Like I said, it all comes down to governance. Originally, I thought working to get new people elected to the BLP was the way to change things. However, whereas our City Council members serve four-year terms and the mayor serves a two-year term (and thus they all have to be responsive and responsible to the people or they won’t last long), members of the BLP board serve six-year terms – meaning that when things go off the rails it takes far too long to set them right.

And when the community does elect someone to stand up and be a voice for the community – which they did when they elected Andrea Hendrick to the board – that person is met with discrimination and sexism. Though the BLP touted the Human Relations Commission as vindicating them entirely, that’s far from the case. The report itself reads, “What this investigation has determined is that there is a pattern of highly concerning behaviors not only by members of the Board of Directors but also by the administrative staff, and those behaviors have served to undermine and silence a board member who often holds a minority opinion on the board.”

This governance clearly does not serve our community well. And the grass-roots folks who are a part of BLPCCC are putting their heart and souls into protecting Grand Haven. The BLP can write checks for tens of thousands of dollars, while at our meetings we have counted the cost of copies down to a partial penny. When we were short of what we needed to get the word out, members literally offered to write a check to help get us over the finish line.

Don’t believe the BLP propaganda. Spend some time on the BLPCCC website at So far, I’ve discovered being a part of cabal means spending two hours weekly with people who print out emails and take notes on every minutia to ensure they are doing it right. If only the BLP put as much effort into serving Grand Haven and listening to the community as this group does, we’d be in a different place entirely.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at The views in this column are his alone as a private citizen whose employer is a BLP rate-payer. They do not necessarily reflect the views of his church.