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Impressions from Grand Rapids

As a Canadian who has lived his entire life in southern Ontario (except a yearlong sojourn in northwest Iowa), living in GR has left many new impressions.

Impressions from Grand Rapids

Regular readers of my column will know that my family and I recently moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan (also known simply as GR). As a Canadian who has lived his entire life in southern Ontario (except a yearlong sojourn in northwest Iowa), living in GR has left many new impressions.

I was aware of Grand Rapids from an early age. Growing up in the Christian Reformed Church, I knew that a faraway place playfully referred to as “GRusalem” was the centre of gravity for my denomination. The denominational headquarters at 28th and Kalamazoo, the denominational seminary and college, even the headquarters of the GEMS and Calvinist Cadet Corps are found in GR. Many of my teachers, pastors and extended family are all graduates of Calvin College and seminary. But despite my previous familiarity with this place, living here has highlighted several new observations.

One thing that initially struck me was the “Michigan left turn.” Large urban roadways pass through parts of the city, but several do not allow left turns. The driver wishing to make a left turn must drive past the street he wants to enter and make a U-Turn at designated points further up the road before returning to make a right turn. To the uninitiated, this can be confusing (not unlike trying to comprehend temperatures in Fahrenheit).

There are several cultural treasures in GR. GR is often referred to as “beer city” due to the cluster of craft breweries found throughout the city. Some may wonder about the possible correlation between GR being a Calvinist hotspot and craft beer capital, but I suspect it’s just a coincidence. I am perplexed by the array of choices walking down the beer aisle in the grocery store (in fact, purchasing beer in a grocery store is a novelty in itself). Speaking of groceries, we have embraced the notion of milk in bottles rather than in bags. I am not sure whose idea it was to put milk in bags, but this is one area where those of us from Ontario can learn from our neighbors (neighbours?) to the south.

While there are things that we can learn from the U.S., the political climate is another matter. When the subject is broached, most of the Americans we talk with seem somewhat embarrassed and genuinely perplexed by their current situation. Thankfully, the cantankerous political situation has little impact on our day-to-day lives.

GR is the home to an event called “Art Prize,” an international art competition held annually whereby art is installed in venues all over the city and the public is given an opportunity to vote in awarding $500,000 in cash prizes. Meijer gardens is another cultural gem with its beautiful gardens and outdoor sculpture park. What’s more, we are less than an hour drive from the beautiful beaches and dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Another feature of GR is the plethora of Christian Reformed churches spread throughout the city. We soon realized that we could easily spend an entire year “church shopping” without visiting the same church twice. These churches appear to be a microcosm of a denomination spanning a wide spectrum of worship styles and a continuum of traditional to more contemporary leanings.

Other ex-pats
Of course, GR is also home to Calvin College, ranked recently #1 among Midwest regional colleges by the U.S. News & World Report. I am honored to work with many competent colleagues in a college that supports and values excellence in Christian education and research.

I have also discovered a fair number of Canadians embedded at Calvin College, many of whom cling proudly to their Canadian identity, as I suspect I will. While things here are similar to back home, including the presence of local Tim Hortons coffee shops, there is something inexpressible about being Canadian. Despite the many cultural and professional opportunities in GR, it will take some time before it feels like home.  

About the Author
Impressions from Grand Rapids

Derek Schuurman, Columnist

Derek Schuurman worked in industry for several years as an electrical engineer and completed a PhD in the area of robotics and computer vision. His interest in computers began in his early teens with his first computer, a ZX-81. Besides his technical pursuits, he has taught and written about a Christian perspective of technology. He is the author of a recent book which explores a Christian perspective of computer technology entitled Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology. He has taught computer science at Redeemer University College and at Dordt College and is currently a professor of computer science at Calvin College. He is a Canadian, but is currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan with his family.