Mercy and Justice Staff Report Escalating Intimidation

| |

Editor-in-chief’s Note: This story, published Feb. 22 under a different title, was revised on Feb. 23. We regret unintentionally conveying a diminished sense of the seriousness of the situation for staff in our earlier version.

Christian Reformed Church executive director Colin Watson Sr. informed the Council of Delegates at its recent meeting that there has been an increase in the number of offensive comments, as well as racist posts, on social media and anonymous letters and postcards, leaving staff concerned for their safety. Some of the communications raised to the level of reporting to the police.

The 53-member Council meets three times a year to conduct the work of the CRC’s synod between those annual meetings. Its most recent meeting was by video conference Feb. 17-19.

Council members were shown a PowerPoint presentation displaying some of the concerning material and were told that several of the comments came from officebearers in the CRC. Some of the postcards and a letter were mailed directly to Mark Stephenson, serving as director of the CRC’s Office of Social Justice (OSJ) and Race Relations as well as the director of Disability Concerns. “The letter was sent by someone I know. And the return address was right on the letter,” Stephenson said. He said law enforcement officers visited the individual, and they believe the staff are not in direct danger. “But it's extremely upsetting,” he said.

Stephenson said that people have every right to object to communications that come from OSJ. “The concern is when there are personal attacks. That moves away from civil conversations.” He noted that much of it is publicly posted on social media. 

Members of the COD responded with deep concern to the seriousness of the details of the threats outlined in the presentation.

John Lee, Classis Iakota, said it was important to acknowledge and repent. 

“This is our problem, our reality,” he said. “And we need to own it and fight against it. Repent of it, confess it.”

Drew Sweetman, Classis Muskegon, said it is hard to think that these are people who are in our pews. “I’ve wondered if some of what we are experiencing is that we might be and probably are engaged in grief work,” he said, “part of what we’re facing as a denomination.”

Other delegates asked about security in the denominational office building in Grand Rapids, Mich. Director of  finance and operations John Bolt noted that there is a lot of security, including having unarmed security staff patrolling the building and requiring ID badges for entry beyond the reception desk. “We connect regularly with the Michigan State Police for guidance about security.”

Watson told the delegates that he appreciated their prayers. He implored delegates, “As we go about our daily ministry, if we even hear someone speaking in a derogatory manner, about anyone else, regardless of race, regardless of class, I would just ask that we please confront this. As Christians, I do believe that we can be different, be the salt and light God wants us to be. Please, as you hear folks denigrating others, if we could all just stop right there and say, ‘This is not Christian. This is not what God wants us to be, and we've got to stop this.’ We've got to be a light in society that ends this. Otherwise there is no hope.”

About the Author

See comments (19)

Comments

I am really disappointed that the editor of The Banner would run this piece under the title "Staff of CRC Justice Ministries Feel Threatened." The staff feel threatened because they have been threatened. And publishing that comment from delegate Bruce DeKam is disgusting. It rings of "they were asking for it." Try for some professionalism, Banner staff.

Delegate Bruce DeKam: "why people  react the way they do to what OSJ is doing."  

I know what OSJ is doing--fulfilling mandates given to them by Synod.  Whether it is the frustrated people Bruce speaks of or even delegates, it is the Council of Delegate's duty to implement what Synod has adopted and instructed our ministries to do.  Raising questions such as this--and it is not the first time--is a flagrant violation of a member's role on the Council of Delegates. As more and more COD members avoid or question accepting responsibilities given by Synod (using the COD as a soapbox or worse yet, as a tool to circumvent Synod), we reflect more and more the society around us and the games they play instead of being the beacon of light of light we're called to be.

A letter was sent to an employee's home, which required follow up from law enforcement. It sounds like more than a "feeling" of being threatened. I'm very alarmed that Rev. DeKam's suggestion is that we should consider what the OSJ did to deserve it.

"Confront it if you hear it." That is the solution recommended by denominational leadership? CRC members are sending racist postcards, letters threatening violence, and engaging in constant online harassment of denominational staff. Staff who are doing the job as it is asked of them by the governing body of the denomination. 

Well, the denominational leadership HAVE been hearing about it for years. The COD just received a PowerPoint FULL of examples. At what point is it the responsibility of employers to ensure that their employees aren't harassed for doing their job? At what point is it the COD's responsibility to address the problem of the culture in the CRC that enables members, including our own pastors, to belittle denominational staff, verbally abuse employees on the phone, constantly call into question their intentions and the legitimacy of their work?

Instead of “confronting” the problem, leadership has left OSJ staff to fend for themselves. Their budget has been cut, dedicated staff members have been driven out or abandoned in an environment so toxic that their only option is to leave to protect themselves. The people who are guilty of threatening OSJ are getting exactly what they want: the dissolution of the Office of Social Justice. And this is happening at the hand of the denominational staff themselves. 

It has to stop. Dig out the rot, don’t shrug your shoulders.

I will fix the headline for you: "Staff of CRC Justice Ministries Are Threatened." I also think Rev. Dekam should consider resigning from the COD for blaming the victims. 

The segment of the COD meeting about which the author purports to be reporting was not about the feelings of OSJ staff, but about the bullying and threats to which staff have been subjected for years. During my comments to the COD during this part of the meeting, I outlined seven specific areas of threat: lies about what staff write, claims of staff incompetence, name calling, sexist comments, racist comments, premeditated and concerted efforts to overwhelm staff with a barrage of email messages and phone calls, and threats of physical violence. After my remarks, COD members viewed a powerpoint presentation of email messages, social media posts, postcards, and letters which illustrated some of these threats. No, this part of the COD meeting was not about staff feelings. It wasn't even about the threats, which staff have endured for years. The real news is that the bullying and threats to which CRC staff have been subjected by CRC members and office bearers has finally seen some light of day in a COD meeting. 

Shame. If anyone else in the denomination was receiving threats of bodily harm (pastors, elders, etc) for doing their job, we'd be getting a very different article. Please consider revising ASAP. Also, now that we are aware of this threat, we need extensive reporting on the ways the leadership, both Mr. Watson and the Board, are stepping up to root these threats out within our churches. These are our brothers and sisters doing the work we've called them to do!

I really hope we'll be getting more from our denominational leadership than an encouragement to "call it out when we hear it". What specific policies will be undertaken to hold accountable those making threats? Will CRC members who are making threats come under discipline? Will the COD ensure that the churches of CRC officebearers who are making threats hold these officebearers accountable? Will this happen in public so that those who are actively undermining the integrity and unity of the church, not to mentioned threatening their brothers and sisters in Christ, can no longer hide behind message boards and anonymous postcards? Racist, sexist, and life-threatening harrassment is anti-Christ, and can be given no safe harbor in our denomination. It's actually that easy. Now COD: please go do something about it.

As a long time reader of The Banner I have always found Ms. Postma's writing to be fair and even handed. I appreciated reading the quotation attributed to COD Bruce DeKam. His observation/question was ridiculous.  As for the section detailing the security measures in place at CRCNA American HQ; that's shocking to this Canadian.  

In light of the author amplyfying DeKam's opinion about perceptions of the OSJ I think the author should have also included the fact that Synod assigns this work to the OSJ, reviews their work in subcommitte, and commends and thanks them for their work every single year.  

I really hope the COD takes action on Mark's presentation. Our CRCNA Employee Policy clearly states, "The CRCNA does not permit harassment or discrimination whether engaged in by fellow employees, supervisors, managers, customers, vendors, or other non-employees who conduct business with the denomination." I think it's very concerning that while the CRC is committed to protecting staff from harrasment by outside vendors, CRC pastors and officials, thus far, are somehow above being held accountable for this kind of behavior.    
 

I'm struggling to understand the reactions to this news story. I agree that the kinds of threats reported are completely out oif bounds under any circumstances. But nothing in the article suggests otherwise. The fact that one person suggests that we consider what a pastoral response might be and another suggests that we should try to undestand why people are reacting the way they do is simply reporting what was said in the debate, which a news story should do. Neither is suggested as justification for the threats.

As an Elder in the CRC and a professor at Calvin University, I find this deeply disturbing.  First, why were the staff of OSJ not interviewed?  This is poor journalism.  Second, the staff of our denomination are being threatened by some of the very office bearers they are serving, for the work they are doing as part of their Synodical mandate.  This is appalling.  The fact that law enforcement had to be involved at all speaks to the real and credible nature of these threats.  Bruce DeKam should resign, or be removed, from the Council of Delegates immediately for his suggestion that the staff of OSJ are somehow responsible for these threats.  When one part of the body of Christ suffers, every part suffers with it. 

If this was the first time I heard of such a thing happening within the CRC, I might state something similar to delegate Sweetman’s disbelief that “people who are in our pews” are doing and saying such things. Sadly, I know all too well that this kind of behavior is nothing new or uncommon within the CRC.

What is even more troubling to me, however, is that those who perpetrated harassment, intimidation, false accusations, threats of physical harm, and more, have not been formally disciplined or received any serious consequences from our denomination. This lack of official and consequential action is unconscionable! While I applaud Mark for what he has done to address the recent threat, it does not absolve our denominational leadership from taking official action on behalf of the CRC as a whole. It is my hope and prayer that the CRC will take the necessary, appropriate, and much-needed action to address such unacceptable behaviors sooner rather than later.

People doing denominational social justice and race-relations work get threatening letters, threats and trolled online. Others insinuate that it isn’t what it appears... and while no one uses the words “you are over-reacting” - that is the implication. These people doing the gaslighting - however - are not themselves being threatened, but ARE making excuses for those doing the threatening. How does this square with Galatians 6:2 “Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”?  It can be frustrating to do the work of Biblical justice, and have members of the body of Christ threaten, defame, and bully people for doing their denominationally-assigned jobs

My heart is breaking for the OSJ. I so appreciate the work that they do. Sending Loving Kindness to them. May you be blessed, may you be free from suffering, may you feel loved, may you be safe physically and emotionally and may you feel supported in the extremely important work that you do! You are loved!!!!

It would be good to turn these terrible circumstances (threats being made) into an opportunity to talk about underlying issues that have gone unresolved for many years.

There has been, and continues to be, a growing frustration among countless CRC members and office-bearers, over the use of ministry share resources by OSJ employees who are advocating one-sided political causes. And related to that, the ongoing efforts to censor and delete CRC members who raise legitimate concerns.

The OSJ Advisory Committee that was formed 2 years ago was supposed to address these concerns. Have they? I know from personal experience that the Committee has not responded to specific questions and concerns raised by the church Council at my local church.

Many of us are working very hard to follow both Scripture and our Church Order in raising concerns. But we keep running into a brick wall. Something needs to be done to bring that wall down & facilitate solutions, rather than constantly raising the wall higher.

I feel empathy for anyone who felt threatened. Let's move forward in an attitude of forgiveness, follow Scripture's guidelines for addressing situations where one brother or sister in Christ is wrong by another, and address the serious concerns that have arisen with OSJ's political activity and censorship.

Is that something the Council of Delegates can address?

I find the claim that OSJ staff are simply "fulfilling mandates given to them by Synod" about as precise as "Fox News reports the news". Technically true, but seriously lacking in nuance and context.

That said, just as threats against Fox News staff are completely unacceptable, the same with the OSJ and other denomnational employees. Whether or not we agree with these people or their political perspectives, they are human beings with families, friends etc. Moreover, for those of us in the CRC, they are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are living in tense times after a divisive election with Covid and economic anxiety. It is sad that our church body has failed to set a better example for the world around us by succumbing to so many of the same temptations as the Capitol rioters. 

Regarding "Security" in the CRCNA denominational offices: I have been asked to wait in the lobby along with colleagues of color until the staff memeber we were meeting with came from her office to escort us in to the meeting area. The delay made us all late for a scheduled meeting. 

On the same day, I saw an older white man approach the desk, saying to the attendant, "I'm here to see so-and-so," and just walk by. The man was not issued a visitor tag or required to wait for an escort. 

I regret that I did not report this inequitable treatment on the day that it occurred.

This seems to be an uprising among the denominational membership against the perceived leadership. Understanding, not retaliation is called for. Do we respond with anger, name-calling and threats or lament, a prayer, Father forgive them, and a thirst to understand what fears motivate so many into such dark places?

X