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Jay Van Groningen, Part 1

We don’t have to start from scratch when we commit to social justice work. Others have been on the path already. Their education and experience can dwarf our own and listening to them will surely help us understand the landscape and ways we can be strategic. I interviewed Holland resident Jay Van Groningen to learn about his experiences in social justice.


From 1958-1970 Jay experienced first-hand the racism of the “Yellow Ban” of people with slant eyes and yellow skin while living in Australia. He attended college in NW Iowa. He graduated from Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi where he focused on justice work led by deacons who concentrated on “mercy.” While at seminary he focused on becoming a deacon.


While in Seminary he taught in the Mississippi Delta and saw the gap between rich and poor. Wealthy farm owners had comfortable lives and went to churches that reflected their wealth while employees had no heat, cracks in their floors and no running water in their shacks.

For twenty-six years he worked for World Renew in North American relief and development with experience in refugee resettlement.


In 1982 he moved to West Michigan. In 1989 he discovered the work of the Christian Community Development Association, a national Evangelical Association focused on urban development.

At a 2000 conference he heard John McKnight speak about Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), and the contact with McKnight proved influential. Jay left the conference with a deeper appreciation of giftedness. McKnight approaches community development from the belief that all people are gifted. The development process starts with asking what gifts neighbors have and what they’d like to accomplish.


Along the way, Jay has spent ten years starting non-profits from scratch. “You can build a non-profit with little to no money, as long as you start with good people. They can outperform many church led “mercy” efforts if they devote themselves to listening.”


Jay is retired but remains active in social justice work. In 2008, he and his family intentionally “planted” themselves in a Holland neighborhood so they could convene meetings with neighbors and serve in the role “connectors.” The area had a reputation as “gang-troubled” while overlooking all the good people that lived in that neighborhood. He helped convene the Westcore Neighbors non-profit which is celebrating its tenth year. Westcore sets out to accomplish only those projects neighbors agree to do. One emphasis is on affordable housing. With the support of City of Holland government, Westcore examines ordinances, looking for those that create barriers to affordable housing. Van Groningen continues to train neighborhood connectors. He operates now under the non-profit Great Lakes Urban. It is dedicated to training neighborhood connectors who encourage neighborhood members to dream and listen to each other. He’s helped six neighborhoods move to this model of development.


In the immediate past, Jay has participated in three Circles cycles as an Ally (see my post of March 7th of this year to learn more about Circles).


He points to Heights of Hope, a neighborhood organization in Holland Heights, as an example of what can be accomplished. Residents have been committed to building a community that carries itself out of poverty. The seed for what’s happened came from Tracy Forbes moving into the neighborhood. She listened for a year to residents while they expressed their hopes and fears. Residents wanted a place to meet and discuss ways forward. Eventually, they came together and got a zoning variance to designate a building where they could “connect to and value each other.” Their homepage contains the following:


Heights of Hope is a Christian Community Development organization nestled in the Holland Heights community. We are committed to the practice of Asset Based Community Development, which means we rely on the skills and talents of our neighbors and community partners to make our neighborhood even better than it already it is!


Our team lives primarily in the neighborhood that we focus most of our efforts in, and we work carefully alongside neighborhood leaders to empower, encourage, and let their God-given gifts be used in unique and meaningful ways. We believe that our neighborhood can be one that is affordable, but also healthy, safe, and thriving.


In Part 2 Jay shares what he’s learned over the years and how those learnings have informed his philosophy of development.

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© 2019  Jack H. Bender