Culture Is Not Optional explores many ways to build community

A magazine, an underground supper club, a renovated school building and a community garden. What they all have in common is the commitment of *Culture Is Not An Option.
While looking for ways to put their faith into their everyday lives Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma and her husband Rob became spiritual entrepreneurs.

The couple works with a group of volunteers on a nonprofit, fair trade store in they started in downtown Three Rivers and under the auspices of a nonprofit they co-direct called *Culture is Not Optional they are also spearheading an effort to re-purpose the building which housed the former Huss Elementary School.

After receiving their undergraduate degrees, the couple, originally from northwest Indiana, began looking at schools in Oregon where Rob could continue his education. But, they were unable to come up with the funds to head West. Their Plan B was to move into a cottage on Pleasant Lake, just outside of Three Rivers, owned by Kirstin’s grandparents where they could to rest and rejuvenate.

"Within a couple of months we met amazing people and were exploring an area where there are lots of spiritual communities," Vader Giessen-Reitsma says. "We felt like this was a place where we could belong."

The couple turned that temporary stop in early 2002 into the place they've now called home for about 12 years. Vander Giessen-Reitsma says it was important for her and her husband to be deeply connected to a place.

"Rob and I founded Culture is Not Optional around 2002," Vander Giessen-Reitsma says. "We had both grown up in Christian communities and along with our friends as we were coming out of college, we were feeling frustrated with the church in general and in finding communities within the church we could connect with."

In fairness to the church, she says there were pockets of people doing great things, but it was not widespread.

The couple chose Culture is Not Optional as the name for their work after discovering the phrase in a book relating to issues and ideas being talked about in group settings. They started an online discussion board where they invited people throughout the world to submit answers to some of life's biggest questions and how to put faith into their everyday lives. An online magazine soon followed which contains stories from ordinary people about how they have made the choices they've made in their lives and how those choices connect them to others.

"If we hold certain values those values bear fruit in our lives," VanderGiessen-Reitsma says. "There’s a disconnect in the Christian church between the ideas we say we believe and the way we live.  There’s a value statement human beings have made to create culture so we would do well to think about what kind of culture we create."

Those followers of the Culture is Not Optional philosophy live it each and every day in a non-judgmental, accepting way.

They searched Three River’s downtown area for property to house a fair trade shop which would also have a seating area where people could enjoy coffee and conversation in an intentional community. World Fare opened in 2003 in downtown Three Rivers.

Three Rivers' Mayor Thomas Lowry, who owns Lowry’s Books in the city’s downtown business district, says World Fare has brought traffic downtown and the products they offer keep shoppers from going to other areas such as Kalamazoo or Grand Rapids in search of the unique.

 In 2006 the couple began sharing a fulltime position at Calvin College.  They lived in Grand Rapids for the first three years and commuted back and forth for two of those years – less than ideal when trying to demonstrate commitment to the area.

"World Fare is another expression of being rooted in a community," Vander Giessen-Reitsma says. "We started the store to do work, but also as a gathering place for people interested in economic and social justice across boundaries. We’re pleased at how this place has convened people."

In 2009 they expanded their commitment to the community to include a building that will someday be used as a combination of community and residential space.

"We want to come at it from the angle that every community and individual here has something to give," Vander Giessen-Reitsma says. "This is an amazing arts community, which includes wonderful faith communities.  There is a lot of raw material with which to work."

Lowry says any community would be blessed to have people with the type of passion and dedication that Vander Giessen-Reitsma and her husband have.

"To be honest, yes, I’m a little bit surprised that they picked Three Rivers," says Lowry. "I hope they succeed with all of their goals."

During his search for properties in the city, Rob noticed that a building that once housed the former Huss Elementary School had gone back on the market. However, someone had made an offer to tear down the school and build houses on the property.

"It was a beautiful, historic space that had so much meaning for the neighborhood," Vander Giessen-Reitsma says. "We talked with our Culture is Not Optional board members and laid out a plan. We drained our bank account for the $1,000 escrow payment and then we had to make a 20 percent down payment."

Within 40 days, an online fundraising campaign raised $25,000.

Since the purchase of the 27,000-square-foot building, the focus has largely been on demolition projects that will retain the historic character of the structure.  A recently completed capital campaign raised $85,000, $50,000 of which was used to pay off the mortgage.

"They’ve taken what would have been an eyesore and an abandoned structure and turned it around," Lowry says. "The group has the best interests of the neighborhood at the forefront of their work."

Not much was done with the building in that first year of ownership because Kirstin and Rob were busy renovating an apartment above World Fare to live in while commuting daily to-and-from Calvin.  Recent graduates at the college asked if the couple needed help with the Huss building and a short time later a deal was worked out with Trinity Episcopal Church to rent the church’s empty rectory where the students began staying.

Five college graduates stayed in the rectory that first summer and every year since then current students and recent graduates have taken up residence there while volunteering their time.  Additional space was also made available in the Trinity's basement.

Because of the couple’s work they have made strong connections with a lot of different churches and faith communities. These communities are part of TRAFC--Three Rivers Area Faith Communities. Although Kirstin and Rob attend Church of the Brethren Mennonite Church, they also have strong ties to other churches.

"We are very much at a point now where it’s time to start building and trying to figure out a way forward," Vander Giessen-Reitsma said. "We have had ideas and dreams for the building."

Because a heating system has not yet been installed, activity at Huss has been limited to summer programming, which includes a volunteer-run community garden in the back of the building. All of the produce is given to local organizations, families, and a farmers market. Some of the produce is given to local organizations which deal with food-related needs and the remainder is sold at a farmers market.

Lowry says the ability of neighborhood residents to harvest the produce and for children to learn how to care for a garden is a big plus.

Some of that produce finds its way onto the menu at an Underground Supper Club Culture is Not Optional hosts to raise money for their Huss project. These dinners take place anywhere from two to five times each year.  A Huss Future Festival happens each year at the school and includes live music, games, food, and a rummage sale.

Vander Giessen-Reitsma says the Underground Supper clubs have been a very good fundraiser for her organization.

She says ongoing donations continue to come in from individuals and grants.

"Food in general is a big thing for us," she says. "There’s something that happens when people sit around a table together and eat fresh, local food. It’s really fun watching the wonder in a child’s face when they’re trying a mint leaf for the first time."

Not surprisingly, much of the dinner conversation revolves around how wonderful the food because they growi it, prepare it, know where it’s sourced and get to eat it.

When the couple is asked why they decided to focus their efforts on Three Rivers, Kirstin says every community has this spark of creativity and imagination and is desirous of a wonderful future for itself.  

"It’s really easy for communities that have been marginalized in some way to adopt a negative assessment of themselves," she says. "We very much feel like we’re not creating anything that wasn’t already here. We’re looking at the goodness and beauty already in Three Rivers and bringing it out."  

Jane C. Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. 

Photos by Susan Andress
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