Tag Archives: Grand Rapids

Weekend in Michigan: Initial Thoughts

I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for a number of reasons this weekend — including the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Music. It was an overwhelming weekend in many respects—and I probably should not be blogging about it so soon. Things need time to digest, ya know? But because I have to write something on here today and because all I can really think about right now is what I experienced this weekend, I might as well attempt some observations about it now.

Some observations:

Calvin College is ridiculously hip

I’d say that Calvin College is to Christian hipsterdom what Brooklyn is to hipsterdom at large. It’s the leading edge. I mean, this is the place that received national media attention when George W. Bush spoke at commencement in 2005 and sparked widespread protests among students and faculty. But it goes beyond politics. Calvin is also the only Christian college to boast a yearly concert lineup that (in 2008-09, for example) includes artists like Broken Social Scene, Fleet Foxes, Mates of State, My Brightest Diamond, Anathallo, Rosie Thomas, Anberlin, The Hold Steady, Lupe Fiasco, and Over the Rhine. They even had Sigur Ros perform on campus for goodness sake!

Western Michigan is ridiculously white
Maybe because I’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost 4 years and pretty much every place is homogenous by comparison, I am sometimes struck to be in places (in the Midwest, for example), where there is not a lot of ethnic diversity. Western Michigan—land of the Dutch Reformed, land of Sufjan Stevens—is one such place. I couldn’t believe how white this place was. Granted, most of my time was spent at Calvin “The evangelical Berkeley” College and Mars Hill “Rob Bell is my pastor!” Bible Church, but I also visited a Lebanese café and a hookah lounge, and they too were predominately white. Not saying it’s a bad thing. Just an observation.

Michigan wasn’t as bleak and hopeless as I imagined it would be
I sort of expected Michigan in this economic crisis to look a little like The Grapes of Wrath or The Road… with abandoned buildings, breadlines, and other such vestiges of a bygone industrial era. But no, things were far more alive than I expected (though it was cold and there were far too many strip mall Chinese buffets). Still, the Great Lakes State seemed to be surviving in admirable fashion. But then again, I didn’t go near Detroit or Flint.

It’s weird to go to a Lupe Fiasco concert at a Christian College

I’m still unsure how I feel about this. As part of the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College this weekend, rapper Lupe Fiasco performed. On one hand I think it’s fantastic that Calvin has such an open mind to bring someone like Lupe, a Muslim, to perform at one of the nation’s leading Christian universities. It was totally refreshing to be dancing and throwing up hands as the crazy beats were pumped throughout Calvin’s brand new Van Noord arena. It was great to celebrate some truly good music (I’m a big Lupe fan) and break down some stereotypes along the way. But on the other hand it all felt a little bit contrived and forced—more of a statement and corrective (we need diversity, etc.) than anything. Apparently because Lupe is more of a “socially conscious” rapper, he’s welcome at Calvin and is an expression of the integration of faith and music. And it was more than a little strange to be smelling pot, beer and cigarettes all around me inside this Calvin facility. Yeah, it’s a hip hop show, but it’s also Calvin—where the mission statement says, “We pledge fidelity to Jesus Christ, offering our hearts and lives to do God’s work in God’s world.” And I couldn’t help but find it troubling that the opening act—a local DJ—was spinning songs like Notorious B.I.G’s “Big Poppa” (Choppin o’s, smokin lye an’ Optimo’s / Money hoes and clothes all a nigga knows) while the hordes of teens and twentysomethings cavorted in the audience. Would anyone in attendance who didn’t know better ever guess that this was a Christian college? I’m not sure.