Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Standing against harassment; supporting public servants

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

A local community activist, Nick Brock, reached out to me last week to see if our church would be interested in hosting a community event.

Nick knows that I share his concern with the behavior of a small segment of our community’s population when it comes to COVID-19 restrictions. Simple disagreement is no longer enough for some people who have chosen the path of vitriol, shouted threats, and violent language and behavior. This is all the more distressing for me as a priest, because so many of the people engaged in this sort of behavior call themselves Christians.

The cost of this behavior to the Christian witness is serious and cause for concern and frustration among all those who claim to follow the prince of peace. But there has been another cost: those on the receiving end of abuse and harassment.

In our own community, we’ve seen the president of the Grand Haven school board, John Siemion, resign after 22 years of faithful service upon advice from his doctor, for his own mental and physical well-being.

Shortly after Siemion’s announcement, our school superintendent, Andrew Ingall, announced his retirement. While he did not address the controversy of COVID-19 precautions as clearly as Siemion, Ingall did make it clear that “it is high time for me to attend to the physical and mental wellness of myself and my family.”

Our school board members have been subjected to some of the worst treatment imaginable through emails and phone calls.

In Ottawa County, our Board of Commissioners meetings have been overrun by crowds of people who bully any who disagree with them, threaten violence against public servants, and do all this while singing hymns and praying prayers. In Kent County, the health director had someone try to literally run him off the road on the interstate. Someone else told him that they hoped someone abused his children and make him watch.

And then there is our Department of Public Health. These are medical professionals who have given their lives to public service and the common good. They are not partisan hacks or part of a conspiracy to steal anyone’s rights. They are using science and medical knowledge to make decisions that will best protect their community in an ongoing pandemic. And the way they are being treated, the way all of these public servants are being treated, is contrary to the core teachings of Jesus Christ.

Which brings me back to Nick Brock. He reached out because he wanted to find a way to bring a little light into the dark world of public servants. And so, our parish campus is holding an outdoor event on Sunday, Oct. 10, at 4 p.m. The event will be on our church grounds (524 Washington Ave., here in Grand Haven) and have the purpose of showing public support for the Ottawa County Department of Public Health and emphasizing the importance of civility and nonviolence in community activism.

If you’d like to come, you are invited to bring “thank you” cards that will be distributed to health department employees. Attendees will also be invited to sign up to “stand in solidarity” with one of the 150 employees of the health department who are working so very hard to protect our community.

I’ll be one of the speakers at the event, but I’m particularly glad to know that a new nonpartisan political action committee, Ottawa Integrity, will be there speaking as well. As they say in the letter of introduction on their website, “Ottawa Integrity is driven by a desire to protect, promote and uphold integrity for the people in our community.” I hope this organization can provide a channeling force for the many residents of our area who want to counter the hate, vitriol and misinformation that continues to persist. You can find out more about Ottawa Integrity at ottawaintegrity.org.

Christians must make it clear that the behavior of some people in our community, the way public servants and officials have been treated, is not in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ. And we must work to bring healing to the wounds that have been inflicted, so that those who serve our community can know they are appreciated, respected and supported.

About the writer: 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 www.sjegh.com.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Christianity, Afghanistan and 'Just War'

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

The withdrawal of United States troops from Afghanistan, along with the collapse of the Afghanistan government and the resumption of control by the Taliban, has been a painful episode to watch play out over the past couple of weeks. So, I’d like to reflect on this experience a bit, and also take a moment to look at what Christianity traditionally believes about war.

First, I believe our country could have done all of this better. At the same time, I’m grateful for the insight of an American history professor at Boston College, Heather Cox Richardson, who has provided some helpful analysis I’d like to share with you.

The roots of the end of this war occurred when the Trump administration cut a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, agreeing to release 5,000 imprisoned Taliban fighters and to leave the country by May 2021.

That’s right, this is the deal the previous administration cut. And it was a deal that did not involve conversations with the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

When Biden took office in January, only 2,500 troops were left in the country. Biden had to decide whether to go with Trump’s agreement or to begin a new troop surge in violation of the agreement, putting even more U.S. service people at risk after 20 years of war. He delayed the exit date to the end of August (prompting Trump to publicly complain), but proceeded with the withdrawal.

And, as we all know, the Afghan army crumbled in the past weeks. The Taliban has been restored to power, claiming victory over the United States. And the United States government is working on evacuating the remaining Americans in the country, several of whom are Afghan-Americans who are still unsure whether they want to leave or stay.

The violence has not yet stopped. From the attack on the airport in Kabul to the United States attack on a suspected terrorist vehicle that killed 10 civilians, including children, we are seeing more and more the horrible human cost of war, a cost that has been borne for 20 years by all sides in this conflict.

All of this gets us to the question: How do Christians understand war?

Far from thinking America needs to go to the ends of the earth to fight for democracy, as has sometimes been the apparent view in American Christianity, most modern Christian theologians hold to a “Just War” view of the question.

Though “Just War” theory goes back to Greco-Roman philosophy, it was best laid out in Christian understanding by Augustine of Hippo, and later by Thomas Aquinas. In “Just War” theory, there is a resistance to the required violence of war while also recognizing that sometimes it is the lesser of two evils.

In the view of Aquinas, the war must be waged by a lawful government, for a just cause due to a wrong done by those attacked, and with those fighting having a just intent to promote good and avoid evil. Aquinas was also clear that war should always be the last resort, done in the pursuit of justice. Later developments also made it clear that there must be a probability of success and that noncombatants must be protected.

What is so difficult to me about the Afghan conflict is that the original reasons for the conflict have long since disappeared. The original reason for the war given by President George W. Bush was to bring the al-Qaida leaders – who coordinated the 9/11 terrorist attacks – to justice. The Taliban refused to turn them over and so we invaded the country to go get them. Within months, however, al-Qaida fled to Pakistan and the war turned into a battle against the Taliban and us as we sought to build a Western-style democracy.

In the years that have passed, almost all forms of this being a just war have evaporated. It no longer had anything to do with al-Qaida and the wrong done on 9/11, particularly after the capture and death of Bin Laden. The war became a proxy battle, with the Taliban having not inflected any injury on our country other than fighting against our establishment of a different government in their country. Far from a last resort, war became the only tool we used. And as the probability of success dwindled the loss of non-combatant life continued to grow.

As a Christian, I think much of the past 20 years was an immoral use of violence and money with no backing or support in the Christian tradition. I wish we would have exited differently, but even more so I wish we would have exited so much earlier, before the situation had become as bad as it did. And I think, in the end, exiting when we did was simply the lesser of two evils was the path we took.

And I hope we are chastened, as Americans and as a country, and that in the future we will give a much deeper consideration to whether the use of war is indeed the right, just and proper solution to the issues that face us.

About the writer: 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 www.sjegh.com.

Friday, August 13, 2021

GHAPS Board Needs Support to Protect Our Kids

Below is my column today in the Grand Haven Tribune.

Earlier this week, I attended the August 9 meeting of the Grand Haven Area Public Schools Board of Education. I attended because I wanted to speak during the public comment. The district had recently announced to parents that masks would not be required in the upcoming school year and, with a young daughter beginning young-fives at one of our elementary schools, I wanted to share my concerns about this decision. However, what I heard at that meeting changed what I said.

I arrived about ten minutes after the meeting began (reference the note above that I’ve got a small child at home!) and signed in to speak during the public comment period. The room was packed with area residents and parents. I assumed, given the handful wearing masks, that it was because of this recent announcement. 

My wife and I have recently decided that, given the rise of the Delta variant, we are going to start masking when indoors at public places once more. However, we’d gotten out of the habit and so I didn’t have any in my truck. I tried to tell myself that surely most of those unmasked in the room are vaccinated and that even though vaccinated people can still transmit the Coronavirus—particularly the Delta variant—I was hopefully not in danger.

These are the calculations we all make in this new world we inhabit.

The first person who rose to spoke after I arrived was a recent graduate of the Grand Haven High School. She said she wanted to talk about Critical Race Theory (CRT) and its use in our district. She talked about how CRT teaches people they are racist and is damaging to kids. She shared a story told by an author they read who is a black man. He was walking down the street at night and a younger white woman crossed to the other side with her children, clearly afraid of the large black man in the baggy coat. She said how horrible it was to tell that woman she was doing the wrong thing, when she was just protecting her child.

She was protecting her child… because she assumed black men are dangerous. 

The student was oblivious to the irony in this statement, the reality that had it been a large white man she very likely would have responded differently. Person after person got up to speak against Critical Race Theory, making all kinds of claims about how it damages people and tells them they are bad based upon the color of their skin. 

People talked about masks, too, urging the Board of Education to stand against any requirements that might come from the health department or the CDC. One parent claimed that the people dying in hospitals right now are vaccinated. She said she didn’t have a study to cite, but she knew it was true. (This is patently false—according to data collected by the CDC, more than 97% of people entering hospitals with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.) One parent pointed out that kids could do a saline flush of their nostrils and then swish with Listerine, and that this could be done instead of requiring masks. This parent neglected to note that the researches in the Penn State study said explicitly that “the findings need more testing in clinical settings but could provide another layer of protection to be adopted in addition to wearing masks and social distancing to prevent spread of COVID-19.” Yes, in addition to wearing masks. 

By the time it was my turn to talk, I struggled with what to say. What was clear to me is that our Board of Education is currently trying to stem a tide of misinformation and conspiracy, they are the last line of defense to protect our children against the false claims of so many people who continue to trust their own opinions over those of the scientists and those who study the impacts of race and bias in our culture. 

The first thing I told them was that I wanted to give them all a hug. What a difficult time to be on a Board of Education. I told them I could not imagine how, over the past few years, questions that used to be nonpartisan have become so politicized. It used to be that conservatives and liberals both generally listened to doctors and healthcare professionals, trusting that they are using the best of research to keep us safe. It used to be that conservatives and liberals both agreed that we needed to work to undo the continuing effects of centuries of racism and oppression in our country. Admittedly, there were different approaches at times, but we agreed to follow facts and, most importantly, we agreed that the problems are real. 

This is, sadly, not the world we live in today. 

Critical Race Theory is grounded in the critical theory approach to sociological questions. The whole point of this approach is that social problems come from social structures and cultural assumptions and not from individual intent. It emphasizes listening to the stories of people of color and seeking to understand their experience as they inhabit the system and culture. It is the opposite of telling someone she or he is a racist.

And, contrary to the claims of so many at the Board meeting, we do know that masks make a difference. One parent’s point that cloth masks are not as effective was right—but that parent missed the implication, that kids will be safer with three-layer paper mask protection. 

My daughter just turned five, she cannot have access to a vaccine, and I’m scared that she will be going to school at the end of this month and might have a teacher who is both unvaccinated and unmasked. I hope the Board doesn’t bow to the pressure of the loudest voices in the room. I hope they follow the recommendations of the Ottawa County Department of Public Health and the CDC and require masks for all students until vaccination rates rise high enough and transmission rates decrease enough to make our society safe once more.

When I finished talking, the room was quiet. It had been full of applause after all the previous speakers and I gave into my baser instincts and turned and playfully said, with a smile on my face, “What no applause?” I shouldn’t have baited the crowd and regret it—particularly because the response was heckling so intense that I immediately left the meeting. A high school student followed me out and thanked me for speaking up. He said he had been learning about CRT in school and nothing that people were claiming was true, it wasn’t representative of what kids are being taught. I thanked him for his encouragement.

The Board of Education is under attack… and they are the last line of defense to protect our kids from people who don’t believe in racism and who don’t believe in science. More of us must speak up so that the Board knows that we want our kids to be formed by the best research out there to help them actively work against racism. More of us must speak up so that the Board knows we want them to follow the recommendations of health professionals. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The gifts LGBTQIA+ people bring to the church

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

During Pride Month on my “Christian MythBusters” podcast and WGHN radio spot, I’ve been talking about the relationship between Christianity and the LGBTQIA+ community. The last episode in that series is one I’d like to share with you today, in this column.

I’m writing this because it is something that often gets overlooked in discussions surrounding the place of LGBTQIA+ persons in the church: the gifts that the individuals of this community can bring to the church – indeed, the gifts that many of them already bring.

When meeting with one of the same-sex couples at my church back when they first joined, they shared some of their story with church in the past. It broke my heart. I then told them that not only would they be welcome here, but that I was excited to see the gifts I knew they would bring, how they would bless us. They expressed surprise at this response – because the best they’d ever gotten from the church was being tolerated. They’d never been celebrated.

In an essay called “The Body’s Grace” by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, he talks about the gifts that same-sex couples can bring to the church. He notes that for far too long the church has often treated sexual intimacy as only good when it is for procreation. The Roman Catholic Church today still treats the desire to procreate as an essential component of the sexual act between a married couple.

The problem with this view, from Archbishop William’s perspective, is that it depends on a strained reading of the biblical text. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, when the mother of the yet-to-be born prophet Samuel weeps because she doesn’t think she can have children, her husband responds by asking if he, as her husband, is not more than 10 children. In the passionate Song of Solomon, both the partners in the relationship clearly delight in sexual intimacy using some pretty strong and descriptive language that doesn’t have a lot to do with making babies.

In the New Testament, both Jesus and Paul talk about marriage and sexual intimacy, but neither uses procreation as the rational or functional justification. Indeed, Paul’s emphasis in both First Corinthians and in Ephesians is the partner willingly giving herself or himself to their beloved, that this is the richness of the sexual relationship.

Williams suggests that this giving yourself to the other, this mutual delight, could be described as “entering the body’s grace.” And he then wonders if “we are afraid of facing the reality of same-sex love because it compels us to think through the processes of bodily desire and delight in their own right.” That is, Williams is suggesting that one of the gifts same-sex couples bring to the church is that they can help straight couples understand marriage and sex better – because their relationships as same-sex couples are not founded upon procreation in the same way, but instead on a mutual delight in the other.

I’d also suggest that the commitments I’ve witnessed in same-sex marriages can be instructive for straight marriages in the church. Many same-sex couples have faced significant adversity in their own lives and that has helped them build a rock-solid commitment and trust in one another – and I have a feeling they could teach straight couples how do to that better.

Many LGBTQIA+ people also know what it feels like to be rejected by your church, even by your own family. In response, they have built rich communities and friendships, places where the lack of blood relationship does not preclude deep commitment and trust. They can teach straight and cisgender people in the church who have experienced rejection from their own families or churches how to move forward, how to forge lasting relationships in other ways.

And it’s not only gay and lesbian individuals and couples who have wisdom and gifts to bring. Bisexual, queer and questioning individuals can help us better understand that sexuality isn’t a black and white question, but that it is a spectrum of attraction that functions differently in each individual. Pansexual people love people for who they are, regardless of their gender, a truth that has its own richness. Asexual people find delight in many other places in life and lack the desire (even the sometimes obsession for sex) that others have.

And people with different gender identities, whether transgender or intersex, have much to teach us about the biology and spirituality of gender. They are often invisible, many times even violently pushed to the side or hidden from view, but they are also a part of God’s created order – worthy of love, celebration and inclusion. They have much to teach cisgender people.

So, I’ll hope you’ll take these final days of Pride Month as an opportunity to learn, to make new friends, to grow in your own understanding of sexuality and gender identity. And I hope that churches that are not affirming will wrestle with these questions once more. Because, let me just say, as the pastor of an affirming church, by not having LGBTQIA+ people publicly affirmed in your pews – wow, you are missing out on some absolutely amazing and godly people in your own congregation.

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 www.sjegh.com.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

City Council Needs to Give BLP a New Mandate

Below is my column in the Wednesday, May 5, 2021, edition of the Grand Haven Tribune. You can read it on their website online here. 

In last month’s column, on April 7, I wrote about how I believe the Grand Haven Board of Light & Power (BLP) should pause their plans to build a $46.6 million dollar natural gas-burning power plant and office building on Harbor Island to replace the local generation ability lost when the coal-burning J.B. Sims power plant was shut down.

Like many in the community who have been pushing against this path forward, I was contacted by BLP General Manager Dave Walters who, as one might expect, disagreed with my opinion column and sought to provide an alternative perspective. I met with Walters on Zoom late last month, along with Vice Chairman Gerry Witherell, to discuss the current plan and what has brought the BLP to this place.

I have not changed my fundamental view that the current approach of the BLP is fundamentally flawed and must change course. What I want to do in this column is to try to give the BLP a fair shake – but also to be clear about my continuing concerns about the current path being taken in our community.

Also, I have a hunch that this situation is an example of the increasing polarization of our culture and community, the inability to see the entirety of the perspective of those with whom you disagree, the inability to recognize the spectrum of opinions instead of just arguing with who you think are your enemies. I want to acknowledge that Walters made several points in the course of our conversation that are indeed important and are often missed in this current community conversation.

First, Walters had long been an advocate for shutting down the Sims plant. Furthermore, when the board of BLP made that decision in 2018, not all community residents responded with the joy that I did. For some, they did not have the concerns I have about the environmental impact of a coal-burning power plant. For others, they feared community vulnerability with the loss of local generation of power to supplement what we can get on the grid. Regardless, for the many in the community who are currently urging the BLP to step back from plans to build a natural gas plant, there are others in the community who were opposed even to closing the coal-burning Sims plant.

The second essential point is the demand to build something didn’t arise from the BLP itself, it arose from members of our community and our own City Council. The 2018 report from Burns & McDonnell argued that “it is less expensive for GHBLP to source all energy and capacity from the MISO (Midcontinent Independent System Operator) network than to dispatch from a local on-system resource.” However, the town halls at that time found that 53 percent of the 134 residents who attended the meetings believed that some form of local power generation was important, with 40 percent of those present believing it was very important. The November 2018 City Council resolution that authorized the decommissioning of the Sims plant also required that the board of BLP be willing to commit “that by June of 2023, Grand Haven will have the capacity to generate a majority of the local electricity within the service area.”

When the BLP came back to City Council for plans to do what the council asked – and what a majority of residents who were surveyed asked – the updated report from Burns & McDonnell in June 2019 found that the proposed 36-megawatt (MW) plant would actually be cost prohibitive. Burns & McDonnell recommended the Board do further analysis and “evaluate alternatives for power generation, utility operations and Harbor Island redevelopment.”

Following this recommendation, in 2020 the Board contracted with Progressive AE to figure out a new solution to the issue of power generation and distribution in the city of Grand Haven. Given the articulated community desire for some local power generation, Progressive AE recommended, in their September 2020 Master Plan, that the BLP construct a “12.5-megawatt combined heat and power plant (CHP) using natural gas engine-generators.” To be clear, this recommendation was not based upon an open question of what is best for power generation and distribution given geographic and economic realities. Rather, it was how to do what the BLP wanted to do – build a plant to provide local power generation – based upon their understanding of perceived community needs.

Finally, it is important to note that the proposed 12.5-MW natural gas-fired plant would operate as a “peaker plant.” That is, the majority of the time the BLP would continue to operate as it has since the Sims plant shut down – distributing power it purchases off the grid. The plant would only operate when the cost of purchasing off the grid is more than the cost of generating with the natural gas plant. It would also provide a backup if there was a significant failure of the grid. There is also possibility of this plant converting from natural gas to hydrogen.

Along these lines, the BLP has been working to increase the amount of renewables in our energy purchases. Last year, according to Walters, they increased the percentage of renewables in the portfolio 50-60 percent. In the first part of 2021, renewable purchases are up again, currently 36 percent compared to the previous year. As of our conversation, more than a quarter (26 percent) of our current portfolio comes from renewable energy sources. What is troubling, however, is that methane landfill purchases are included in those numbers. While this is a “renewable” power source, it is toxic and far from clean and green – which is what most people assume is meant by the term “renewable.”

However, like I said, there are still issues I see with the approach being taken. First, I believe the City Council erred when they directed the BLP to ensure we continue to generate power locally. The two town halls the BLP hosted had a total of 134 residents attending – that is 1.2 percent of the citizens in our community. And even then, it was only barely a majority that desired local generation. I would be curious if a robust community survey would still express a desire for local power generation, particularly based upon fossil fuels. I also think that City Council should engage in that survey and consider giving new direction to the BLP.

Furthermore, though there are many energy companies that argue that peaker plants are an essential part of the future of power generation, providing a backup and supplement to the increasing use of renewables, the technology continues to change. An analysis by Physicians, Scientists and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy in 2020 found that the increasing power and decreasing costs of battery storage are increasingly more effective than peaker plants. A report by the University of Minnesota back in July 2017 found that “storage plus solar already could be more cost effective than peaking gas plant.” The same study found that, “Beyond 2022, storage was found to be more cost effective than a simple cycle gas-fired peaking plant for meeting Minnesota’s capacity needs.”

In our conversation, Walters was clear that batteries are absolutely an essential part of the ideal BLP energy portfolio. However, he insisted that batteries are best for “daily balancing and not for seasonal balancing.” He also several times pointed to the failures of the grid in Texas. However, the state of Texas is not fully integrated in the national grid and, as BLP-contracted studies note, the MISO grid we participate in has an excess of power and is certainly stronger than the grid in Texas given its interconnections with the rest of the country. And, of course, the reliance upon natural gas for peaker plants is, for some of our residents, unacceptable due to its connections to fracking and environmental concerns about that and any power plant generation that uses fossil fuels.

And, despite the BLP claims that their current proposal is simply following the directions of the City Council, remember that the original resolution from the council allowed the closure of Sims so long as “Grand Haven will have the capacity to generate a majority of the local electricity within the service area.” By the BLP’s own admission, this new natural gas-fired plant will not generate a majority of our local electricity, but only will operate very rarely.

So, where does that leave us as a community here in Grand Haven? I remain convinced that we need to have a true and robust conversation and study. For that to happen, City Council needs to issue a new mandate to the BLP that requires they engage in an independent study of both community desire and effective power distribution and generation in our own time and place.

Despite the views of the BLP, I do not think an adequate conversation nor an adequate study has yet been undertaken. The entire current process is based upon the idea that our residents want local power generation – an idea that is based upon two town halls with minuscule attendance (attendance that is dwarfed by those who have signed the petition that Grand Haven Energy has created) and a mandate from a City Council that was not re-elected.

In 2021, the BLP held what they called a “community meeting,” which actually was a meeting that simply allowed any individual to speak for up to three minutes. Following that public comment, the board voted 3-2 to not further involve the public and those comments made in the session were never addressed.

Finally, the first study we did found that there was not a need for local power generation. The second study was specifically asked to find a way to make it happen – and they did precisely that. All that to say, it is time for a study that looks at all the property available in our city, with an eye to the emerging edges of the energy market and finds what truly is best for our lakeshore community. I believe this is what our community wants. It is time they are asked in an open and robust manner.

I want to be clear, I believe the BLP has been put in a tough spot by an outmoded mandate from City Council and by residents in our community who want local generation no matter the environmental implications. At the same time, I urge the current members of our City Council to hear those in our community who think we are not moving in the right direction. It’s not too late to change course.

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 www.sjegh.com.  


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Continued Pressure on BLP Needed to Save Grand Haven

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

Christians are a people of resurrection. This Wednesday in Easter week, just a few days after the Day of the Resurrection itself, that should be clearer to us than ever. We are a people who believe God is at working bringing new life out of the death of this world—and that we are called to be a part of that work.

There are some people in Grand Haven trying to do that work right now with Harbor Island, the power plant that used to exist there, and the Board of Light and Power. Unfortunately, they are still not truly being heard. Our community is not being heard. 

Like many residents, I was glad to see the J.B. Sims coal-fired power plant retired in 2020. It was no longer economically advantageous and it was far behind the cleaner energy generation options available today. As a Christian who believes God has given us stewardship over creation—a stewardship we have often squandered as we have been complicit in violence against creation. Climate change is an increasingly pressing reality around the world, with the effects of climate change having particularly negative impacts on the lives of the poorest in our world. We must do better.

The Board of Light and Power (BLP) wants to construct a natural-gas fired plant to supplement the grid and the power needs of the city of Grand Haven. However, as one of my fellow community columnists, Mike Troupos, noted earlier this year, this is an economically-questionable decision because the plant only works economically if it functions for thirty years and it is rather unlikely, given the pace of change and regulation when it comes to power production, that a natural-gas fired plant will be desirable in another decade and certainly not in another two. 

BLP Vice-Chairman Gerry Witherell, an advocate for the current plan, has touted how in the current practice of only managing energy distribution, they have not had to reduce any employees. That makes the rush to construct another fossil-fuel plant even more head-scratching to me. 

Thankfully, the Grand Haven Energy Organization (GHEO) has been putting increasing pressure on the BLP and the City Council to re-think this plan, to pause and get more community input. Witherell insists that we need to move forward with the plan, but former City Councilman Josh Brugger in his own letter to the Tribune offered a sensible middle-of-the road plan to ensure distribution and continuing to run the snowmelt boiler without issuing roughly $45million in bonds to finance a fossil-fuel burning plant on some of the best real estate the city owns. 

There is currently a petition being circulated by GHEO (you can sign it at ghenergy.org) urging City Council to delay this decision, to request that there be an objective and independent study of the plan and that the results of that study be made publicly available. Furthermore, a collection of youth activists are urging the creation of a Community Sustainability Plan before moving froward with the proposed Harbor Island project. Surely, in 2021, there are better ways to meet the energy demands of Grand Haven than burning more fossil fuels and doing more damage to the environment. Their last petition garnered 250 signatures and didn’t move the needle. In fact, instead of listening the BLP is now spending nearly $50k to hire a public relations firm that can convince the community their plan is a good idea. The residents of this city must demand change.

We live in one of the most beautiful cities in the State of Michigan. We also know, living so close to the lake, how dependent we are upon the nature around us life, how much climate change can adversely affect our city. We know the power and beauty of the dunes and the detrimental effect upon all aspects of the ecological system when they are battered. Coastal scientist Charles Shabica told NPR in a 2019 story that the warmer atmosphere from climate change will result in more intense storms causing even more erosion and damage to structures along the shore. The City of Grand Haven should be leading the way in combating climate change, making smart decisions for power generation and doing everything we possibly can to reduce the effects of climate change and save our city. 

But nothing will change unless we continue to put pressure on those in leadership to step back from this plan, truly engage the community, and come up with a science-driven solution that will lead us into a safer and healthier twenty-first century.  

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 www.sjegh.com.  


Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Rethinking the Episcopate: Apostle, Priest, and Pastor

Since last summer, our diocese has been living without a bishop. I won't go into the details (you can get the skinny on our diocesan website here), but it has meant I've done a good deal of reflecting on the ministry of bishop as I've experienced it in the Episcopal Church, both as a lay person and as a priest. And I have some... thoughts.


I also want to acknowledge that I offer these thoughts gingerly. What I'm writing here isn't about what has happened in our diocese, what is happening now, or what might happen at the end of our bishop's suspension. This isn't about agreeing with or not agreeing with current or past diocesan leadership, but is an attempt to reflect upon what I, as one lone priest, might hope for from the ministry of bishop in The Episcopal Church of the twenty-first century. 

Though it might be risky to write something like this while your own bishop is suspended... and when there are a multiplicity of views not only on his return but also upon the very shape and structure of the ministry of your diocese and a diocese with whom you are in partnership... I converted to the Episcopal Church because I believe in the apostolic ministry of the bishop. Of course, it's much more than that and there are now a host of reasons why I am an Episcopalian... but I believe in the office of the bishop. I believe it is one of the fourfold ministries necessary for the church to be who God calls her to be. 

I also want to be clear that none of this is a commentary on previous bishops with whom I have served, but is instead a commentary on what I perceive in the broader Episcopal Church, the continued patterns we repeat over and over again. 

Being a bishop must feel like an impossible job at times. I get that, I truly do. But part of the reason it is an impossible job is that we have so often lost sight of the true nature of the job itself. And so, I think we need some fundamental rethinking of this office in the Episcopal Church. 

There are two key questions to be answered when it comes to the ministry of a bishop. First, what does our prayer book envision for the ministry of a bishop theologically and practically? Second, what do churches in our time need from a bishop so that Episcopal parishes can reverse decades of decline?

The catechism begins its exploration of the four-fold ministry of the church (laity, bishops, priests, and deacons) by saying each one's first job is to represent Christ and his church and that each one is called to participate in the reconciling ministry of Christ. On page 855, the catechism says that the ministry of a bishop, specifically, is to represent Christ and the church, "particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor." Further, the bishop is called to "guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the whole church, to proclaim the Word of God, to act in Christ's name for... the building up of the Church, and to ordain others to continue Christ's ministry."

As an apostle, the bishop not only connects the church to the first apostles but also to the church catholic. An apostle is someone who is sent, in its literal meaning of the word. This means that a bishop must be deeply committed to the evangelistic ministry, a leader in supporting new ministry and working to push the edges of the church into the places she is hesitant to go. Their apostolic role is also one of leadership and should model that in all ways. The apostolic nature of the church is one of its four marks in the Nicene Creed. 

As the chief priest, the bishop at the altar with her clergy and people is the fullest experience of Christian worship. The diocese must have a regular and sustained experience with their bishop at the altar, serving as the Presider of the sacrifice of Holy Eucharist. A bishop must take seriously priestly vows to lead worship according to the Book of Common Prayer and celebrations of liturgy by a bishop should be the fullest and best experience of the liturgy of our prayer book. Innovation is required at times when the prayer book does not envision a circumstance, but rather than cultivate novelty, a bishop should blend into the mass so that the liturgy of Eucharist in the prayer book is what carries the day. Bishops often, by nature of who is elected, have a very strong personality. Every effort must be made to sink into the liturgy, to make it clear that as presider you are not star but simply have one with a particular role... and to do that role well, with care, preparation, and reverence. 

Finally, the bishop is called to be a pastor. In the church of my upbringing, there was a movement toward the use of shepherd for an image, one that I liked. A bishop is a pastor to the clergy of the diocese in the same way I'm a pastor to the members of my parish. Ideally, the bishop is someone I would call when I'm scared or anxious. The bishop is someone who might come to my home for dinner on occasion. When I am experiencing struggle or crisis, the bishop comes alongside of me—not to fix things, every priest knows your job is a pastor isn't to fix things, but to be the presence of Christ in the wilderness. The Bishop as shepherd keeps any eye on the edges of community, always careful not to lose any of those God has entrusted to you... so far as that is in your power.

Apostle. Priest. Pastor. These are the three fundamental calls of a bishop. But, as I said, there are four other ministries the bishop has, ministries that are in many ways derivative of the first fundamental three:

  • Guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the church – This is derivative of the role of apostle and pastor, I would say. That is, if you understand the pastor as being the shepherd, you know the importance of the task of guarding. It is the job of the bishop to guard the faith of the church, to ensure that what is taught is theologically and Scripturally sound. This means that, while a bishop need not be a theologian or scholar, a bishop should be theologically and Scripturally competent. The bishop should be able to exercise that teaching role well. The bishop guards the unity of the church by connecting us, through teaching and action, to our early church roots while also being attentive to those on the edges of the Christian community so that the unity of the church is not achieved only at the expense of those on the margins. The bishop also guards the discipline of the church by ensuring that things like canons and rubrics are followed. This is why a diocesan liturgy should be pristine and sound from a prayer book perspective. It is why policies surrounding finances and personnel should be kept zealously in a diocesan office, to model that practice for parishes. And it is why for a bishop to openly advocate for communion regardless of baptism, contrary to the rubrics of the prayer book, contrary to the canons of the church, and contrary to the express will of general convention is the height of episcopal  incoherence… Especially when many of those same bishops supported discipline against the Bishop of Albany. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the Bishop of Albany needed to obey his vows when it came to the discipline of the church and the life of LGBTQ Christians. I just also think that we need some more consistency on this as a church if we don’t want to look like a massive hypocrites
  • Proclaim the word of God – A bishop needs to know how to preach. The bishop should have training and skill in rhetoric, the mother of homiletics, and must know the difference between traveling around the diocese doing a pitch for your vision for the church and studying carefully the Scriptures appointed for the day and preaching the Good News of God from those Scriptures as it relates to the life of the gathered congregation. 
  • Act in Christ's name for the building up of the Church – The job of the bishop is not to ensure the diocesan structure continues to grow and expand. The job of the bishop is to ensure that the local parish, that each local parish, is being built up. True, that sometimes means a bishop must make a difficult decision that will be unpopular, but if the true goal of the bishop is the building up of the church, that decision will be made in good faith. A bishop should constantly be asking how his leadership and energy is helping to build up the local congregations of the diocese. 
  • Ordain others to continue Christ's ministry – The discernment and selection of appropriate candidates for the Sacred Order of Priests and the Sacred Order of Deacons is how the ministry of Christ will continue. This means that you care deeply about the process being one of discernment of God's call—not a series of hoops for people to jump through or a hazing ritual. It also means that while people are in formation for ministry, you know that they are very much the babies of your flock. You care for them. You read their ember day letters and respond. When they are in crisis, you are present. And you ordain them to a vowed life where they will continue the ministry you have sought faithfully to embody.
Now, you may notice a few things that are not on this list...

A bishop is not called to be the CEO of a diocese. I say this as someone who deeply loves administration, someone who is currently pursuing an Executive Masters in Nonprofit Administration from the University of Notre Dame. I take very seriously the administrative nature of my job as rector. But a bishop is not called to be a CEO. That model, that sees the diocese as a corporation and the bishop as the CEO, is a model that must die. The bishop must have a competent administrator at the center, one who will keep the complex organization of the diocese functioning efficiently. But the bishop's focus should be being an apostle, priest, and pastor. 

A bishop is not called to be a manager of institutional decline. If your solution to the Episcopal Church today is that more churches are going to have to close, then you have lost the apostolic vision of the church catholic. If you continue to think we need to get rid of and let go of our buildings, you have misunderstood one of the biggest lessons of this pandemic. Sure, sometimes churches close. It's been happening for a couple thousand years. But the church persists because of her apostolic tenacity—because of the apostolic work of planting new communities and building up existing ones. The bishop is called to be the leader of that apostolic vision. 

A bishop is not called to be the the priest's boss. I have made a vow of obedience to my bishop, but this massively different than the bishop being my boss. Bishops shouldn't micromanage their clergy in their cures. I have been particularly uncomfortable with the readiness with which so many of our bishops have used pastoral directives to force very specific and limited responses to the coronavirus, for instance—responses which are sometimes even contrary to the actual recommendations of health professionals. I remain unsure if a bishop can truly close a parish in a pandemic—circumventing the canonical right of the rector to use and control of buildings. Once this pandemic is done, we need to think about the way we have allowed bishops to exercise authority and how several of them have related to their clergy.

Finally, a bishop is not called to be a systems agent. Once again, I say this as someone who finds family systems theory tremendously helpful in my own life and in my vocation as a priest. But if you think your job is to play with the system to move it in a certain direction, then my guess is that you do not spend a lot of time as apostle, priest, and pastor. 

What might this mean for the Episcopal Church of the twenty-first century?

Well, it means I think we actually need more bishops and not less. I think more of our dioceses should structure collaboratively when it comes to the administration of ministry (central offices for finance, communication, children & youth ministry, etc., run by a solid administrator as a canon) but should then push the episcopate back down to the grassroots level when it comes to the ministry of a bishop. A Bishop, like a shepherd, should smell like sheep. A bishop shouldn't have oversight over more congregations that can be adequately led and pastored by one person. We must reverse the trend of bishops holding multiple jurisdictions. Rather than the increase in a multiplicity of diocesan staff, I would rather we saw two or three bishops (an ordinary and suffragans—but suffragans with true oversight over their part of the diocese) who are able to be the apostle, priest, and pastor to Episcopalians in that area and who are supported by a strong central office.

This also means we need to fundamentally rethink episcopal compensation. I know this is verboten, but I do not see how Episcopalians can preach with a straight face about income disparity and at the same time approve compensation packages for a bishop that approach three to even four times the minimum salary for a priest. Does offering less than $150K for a salary package mean you won't get candidates? No, it just means you'll get different candidates... and you might get candidates with a keener interest in being, you guessed it, an apostle, priest, and pastor to a geographic gathering of Episcopal congregations. 

Finally, we need to restructure our approach to discernment of episcopal and discipline. The current model of a packet of information followed by videos and (the unfortunately named) "walkabouts" means that you often wind up electing the person who is best at the soundbite. I fail to see how this model enables you to discern who has the skills to be an apostle, priest, and pastor. And there have been a handful of examples over the year of the most electable candidate proving to be far from the most gifted apostle, priest and pastor. Also, our discipline model continues to treat bishops as above the fray from true consequences for their actions. Bishops who commit misconduct often wind up with a year of paid leave... something unheard of in the larger world, including the world of normal parochial ministry. Compensation and terms for discipline must be removed from the bishop's peers and placed in the hands of the broader church. 

I don't know what to do with all of this. Heck, probably just writing this means I'm sealing the deal on being even MORE unelectable to the episcopate, should that opportunity ever come in the distant future. But, to be honest, I wouldn't really want to be a bishop in the way the vast majority of bishops are forced to function. Being an apostle, priest, and pastor has appeal and I could see a calling to that later in my life... but that just isn't what the many bishops get to be.

And that brings me to my last and perhaps most important point. The issues I have identified above are not the fault of the current or previous bishops of our church. They are the fault of clergy and lay people who have written these scripts and then expected bishops to follow along. We have created the systems in which our bishops currently function and when they try to break these systems they are broken down by the system in return. 

Our bishops cannot fix this. Only we can fix this. And we must if the Episcopal Church is ever going to reverse decline, turn from blind partisan allegiance, and become a true force of God's reckless love in an increasingly dark world. 


Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Coming back together after the 2020 election

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

Today marked the next public step of the 2020 public election, as Congress meets to count the electoral votes and officially declare the winner of the election. Then, 14 days later, we will witness the peaceful transfer of power as Joe Biden is inaugurated as president of the United States.

Normally, these final two weeks are not carefully watched by the media or the general public. However, “unprecedented” is President Trump’s favorite mode of operations and ever since the election he has launched a passionate (and, so far, completely rejected) campaign to claim the election was rigged. As leaders on both sides of the aisle have noted, his actions and the actions of those who support him are undermining the very foundations of our democracy, and they are doing so without having launched a single court challenge with evidence sufficient to change the election.

Given the news earlier this week of President Trump pressuring the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, telling him, “I just want to find 11,780 votes,” it seems the painful controversy and division of this presidency will continue right up until the final moment when Joe Biden places his hand on the Bible and swears an oath to serve as our president and to preserve, protect and defend our Constitution.

Given that the president’s challenge to the 2020 election has no legal standing, is without evidence, and is certainly doomed to fail in Congress just as surely as it failed in the courts of our country, I do not believe this fire and fury will result in a change, thankfully.

The real question, for me, is what will happen after the inauguration.

Our nation is bitterly divided, likely as divided as we were in the late 19th century when the contested election of 1876 motivated Congress to create federal law to govern the counting of electoral votes. Some even think we are as divided as when we were on the cusp of the Civil War. There is no way of knowing for sure, but we must find a way, as a people, to come back together.

The idea that all politicians are deceitful has now been brought to the full conclusion of the idea. We earnestly need a commitment on all sides of the aisle to bring debate back to demonstrable truths based upon evidence and facts. The world of social media, along with the social isolation of the 2020 pandemic, has meant that we are even more locked in our echo chambers of only hearing the voices of those who agree with us. We must find ways to listen to one another, to find the points of policy and ideology on which we do disagree and also to locate and cling to underlying convictions many of us share.

Most importantly, we must find ways to return to a commitment to issues that used to (in theory, at least) garner bipartisan support: policies which combat racism, laws and regulations to protect our planet and environment, help for the poor and struggling, support for free and fair elections, increasing the quality of education, particularly early childhood education and college for low- and middle-income Americans, safeguarding the important role of the press in holding our leaders to account, and cooperation with our international allies in building a more peaceful and just world. Our parties have always approached these questions from different angles, but over the years we have done tremendous work in all of these issues by focusing on what is best for our country.

I also hope our political leaders in the Capital can find agreements on other issues that already have strong bipartisan support among the citizens of this country. The number of Americans who want stricter gun laws has continued to rise, now standing at 60 percent. Specifically, 72 percent of Americans support the requirement for a license before a gun purchase and a national red flag law, and 83 percent of Americans support the requirement of a background check in private and gun show sales. In the area of health care, 68 percent of Americans support the creation of a “public option” in the health care marketplace, an essential change and one that should be bipartisan (particularly since 56 percent of Americans now support Medicare-for-all).

Republicans should also stop fighting the culture wars of the previous generation. To date, 67 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage. Surely, we can stop having to fight for equal protection for our LGBTQ citizens.

Similarly, only 20 percent of Americans believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. Surely we can come together and work constructively on policies that will continue to lower the abortion rate instead of fighting for its legality.

It just takes one leader in a political party to bring people together, one person willing to stand up and then to do the hard work of committing her or his colleagues to work together to solve the problem in front of us instead of lobbing attacks at the other side. After all, when the new Food Stamp program seemed bound to fail in the 1970s, it was Republican Sen. Bob Dole joining with Democratic Sen. George McGovern that led to the compromise which enabled the proposal to become law.

Given the past several years in our country, I know my hopes for bipartisan work to rebuild our country in a manner that is more just is unlikely. There is too much money to be made and power to be gotten by keeping the partisan battles going. But we, as citizens, no matter what your party, must demand more from our leaders in the year to come than we got from them in the years that are past.