If the original plans for the Grand Rapids, Michigan Kroc Corps Center been realized, the $15 million facility would have been limited to four acres of Garfield Park, not far from downtown.
There’s nothing wrong with four acres; you can have a fantastic facility on such a plot of land.
But 20 acres is better, and Majors Marc and Karen Johnson are grateful for what they call “God’s intervention” to make the extra space a welcoming, safe place for the religious and character–building programs suited to Grand Rapids’ diverse population.
The Grand Rapids center represents what Major Marc calls “the sweet spot of Joan Kroc’s vision.”
“It turns out that residents around Garfield Park didn’t want the Kroc built there,” he explains, “not so much because we are The Salvation Army, but because they wanted to retain the park itself, and that’s fine.”
When objections were raised, Major Marc says, the Kroc project nearly died on the drawing board.
“But God had other plans,” he beams.
Several advisory board members spotted a former gravel pit and multiple plots of blighted land vacated by failed businesses. This new site was only five blocks from the original.
“We were fortunate to get that land, and the result is what you see here,” Major Marc points out. The Grand Rapids Kroc facility is a whopping 105,000 square feet, with additional outdoor features, such as two regulation soccer fields, one softball field, 24 community garden plots, a multi–family picnic area complete with sand, a sand volleyball court, a basketball court, a 450–seat amphitheater and a hill perfect for sledding in the winter or a slip ‘n slide in the summer.
The center even has a stocked fishpond for youngsters to enjoy.
Inside are the amenities one can find at most Kroc centers across the country: exercise equipment, a gymnasium, conference rooms and a water park for aquatics and year–round swimming (a big draw during long Michigan winters).
Perhaps the most important feature of the Kroc Corps Community Center in Grand Rapids is the chapel.
The Johnsons make sure not to draw any distinction between the importance of the worship and recreational aspects of the center. Encouraging worship has been their primary goal since they were appointed here over four years ago.
“On our first staff meeting here—we only had about five to six employees then—we gathered together to learn what was going on here,” Major Marc says. “The program director gave his report about the wellness and recreational activities and then said, pointing to another fellow, ‘And he will tell you the part about the corps!’”
Major Marc said at that moment he felt his spirit wounded, so he spoke up, “Wait a minute. The last time I checked, there is only one ‘and’ in our name, and that is ‘Ray and Joan Kroc.’ There is no ‘and’ in ‘Corps Community Center.’ We are not separate.” Everything at the Grand Rapids Kroc concerns ministry, from the pool, to health and wellness class, to fine arts and education.
That is the mindset impressed on all 180 staff members now working at the Grand Rapids Kroc, and it is also apparent to the roughly 9,000 program participants who pass through the main entrance each month.
The Johnsons encourage those 180 staff members, called the “Kroc Krew,” to talk to everyone who comes in. The goal is “to help everyone they come in contact with to take the next step in their relationship with God,” Major Karen says. “Taking that next step, they’re going to be that much more exposed to sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ in their lives and within their families.”
Many soldiers of the young Kroc Corps became uniformed members in The Salvation Army after coming to the center to use the facility. One family came to the Army through the Christmas Toy Distribution program. They were invited to the corps and are now uniformed, faithful soldiers.
Yet another couple brought their children to play on the playground equipment. Major Marc struck up a conversation with them and invited them to church that Sunday; they’ve been coming ever since.
Sally Hendrix was looking for a fitness facility that also offered a seniors program. Two years later, she is 90 pounds lighter and walks to the center every day from her home near Garfield Park. Sally attends Senior Fridays at the center with other seniors who want to stay active and social.
There is no shortage of community activities for the soldiery to buy into: a Monster Mash is held every October, as is a Daddy and Daughter night in February, a Breakfast with Santa in December and a Mother & Son banquet in March.
“There are other fitness places here in Grand Rapids,” says Major Marc, “and there are character– building organizations all worthy of public support. But ours is the only one of its kind. This neighborhood was under-served before, but with this facility, all needs are met.”
The Kroc membership is diverse, reflecting the multicultural population of Grand Rapids. “There is a blend of Hispanic, African American, Anglo and Asian folks who both utilize our facility and attend our corps programs,” Major Marc explains.
In fact, he points out, 42 percent of Grand Rapids is Hispanic. For that reason, a translator translates the sermon each Sunday morning from English to Spanish and provides it to worshippers through headphones.
Before the Kroc Center was built, the neighborhood had an unsavory reputation. Currently, up to 56 different gangs operate in Grand Rapids.
“When we opened the police unnerved us a bit when they told us we have provided a wonderful place for gang members to hang out! I guess they were referring to the amphitheater and sports courts out in the open and hidden from the main road,” Major Marc says. “But we have not had a problem, and I believe that’s because everyone feels welcome here. It is a place of neutrality.”
As they say, art imitates life.
“The mission and vision statement we’ve developed is about sharing the love of Jesus Christ without discrimination. We want to show radical hospitality, which is intentional toward everyone, and to make them feel comfortable mixing here,” Major Karen says.
Everyone coming to the center should know they are welcome, she points out, and that religion will never be forced on anyone, but people’s lives can really change here. “There is no corps without the Kroc; just as there is no Kroc without the corps.”
By Major Frank Duracher