Inside Track: Andy DeBraber helps others find their voices
Journalistic, religious and advocacy roots led Heartside Ministry director into nonprofits.
About once a day, red and blue flashes stream through Andy DeBraber’s office window overlooking Division Avenue in Heartside.
Most often, it’s because an ambulance or fire truck is picking up someone who’s inebriated, said DeBraber, executive director of nonprofit Heartside Ministry. It’s people like that whom DeBraber and Heartside Ministry help by offering literacy training, GED preparation and testing, and therapeutic art programs that help DeBraber’s “neighbors” open up about “things that are too powerful to talk about.”
“In the chaos of living on the streets, Heartside nurtures a safe community where our neighbors know they are loved, valued, and where they find their voice,” he said.
A former journalist, pastor and community organizer, DeBraber’s career has led him to advocate for those who, as he put it, live life “on the edges.”
“When I found out this position was open, I felt like it was a real coming together of all the experiences I’ve had,” he said. “It just felt like this was the perfect opportunity to put all my gifts to use.”
DeBraber grew up in a religious home in Walker. He attended Kenowa Hills High School, which he left during his junior year to attend Armand Hammer United World College of the American West in New Mexico. He described it as an international school based more on a European education system.
“We had 50 students from the U.S. and 150 from 75 other countries. My roommate was from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and he had fought for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It was a pretty incredible group of people to be with.”
After two years, DeBraber received an International Baccalaureate Diploma — “basically your senior year of high school and freshman year of college.” He went on to Northwestern College, a small, religious-based school in Orange City, Iowa. He was planning on a pre-seminary major, but then realized he wasn’t ready to lead a church.
“It was probably the issue that’s dogged me about Christianity and religion all my life: I’ve just had a lot of questions. Pastors are expected to have the answers. I’m curious. I want to explore things, use my brain and not just be fed dogma,” he said.
He began writing for the school paper, The Beacon, and soon became its sports editor. DeBraber said it was through journalism that he discovered how curiosity about others’ situations could lead to the altruistic life for which he was searching.
“It’s just a natural curiosity (I have) and also, not only listening to people tell their stories but helping them tell their stories and offering them a place to,” he said. “It’s a way to dignify and honor people. Most people aren’t listened to well. … Even the very tenet of loving your neighbor is listening to them.”
After graduating with a B.A in history in 1992, DeBraber worked as a sports editor at The Northwest Iowa Review before leaving to become news editor at the Manchester Press. But something in him felt empty.
In May 1994, he had a profound experience while sitting in church and listening while his wife practiced with the choir before the service.
“As clearly as I’ve ever heard the voice of God, I heard God saying, ‘I want you in the pulpit,’” DeBraber said. “I question … what all played into it. How much of it is a spiritual, religious experience? How much of it is psychology? How much of it is the fact that I was dissatisfied with my job at the time? All I know is, in that moment, I had a very clear calling of what I had to do.”
A few months later, DeBraber returned to Michigan to attend Western Theological Seminary in Holland, where he received his Master’s of Divinity in 1997, while also doing freelance writing for The Grand Rapids Press.
He eventually became co-pastor at Trinity Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, where he worked for four years before resigning. He said a large part of his reason for leaving was because he wanted to “do advocacy work around LGBT issues, and the church didn’t want me doing that.”
DeBraber said he has been supportive of the LGBT community since college and has done soul-searching on the matter of being a Christian who accepts homosexuals as part of God’s family.
“It stemmed from just listening to people. That’s where that journalistic piece comes in. For me it was always just the right thing to do once I was able to sort through the theology, and the theology piece for me came when I asked, ‘What is sin?’ (Sin is) that which hurts or offends God … (and) hurts other people, yourself or the environment. And I see two people loving each other — regardless of their gender — as increasing the love in the world and not increasing the hurt or pain in the world. So for me, it was the right thing to do.”
In 2002, DeBraber joined Grand Rapids-based nonprofit Faith in Motion, organizing faith communities for better public transportation. The primary project he worked on was getting The Rapid millage increased, he said.
“It was important because, well, look at the people standing outside my office now. Most of them either can’t drive or have suspended licenses or can’t afford a car,” he said.
“I feel that everyone should have access to going to a doctor’s appointment, going to a job, going to shop, to visit family and friends, and going to church. And if you don’t own a car or can’t get around in our society, you’re in a bad place, so the better public transportation system we have, the better a society we’ll be.”
Leaving Trinity was such a painful experience, he wasn’t sure he’d ever preach again, but then a former seminary classmate serving as interim pastor at Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ asked if he could fill in for her one Sunday. DeBraber did and said he fell in love with the church, which was made up of two-thirds LGBT members and had as its motto, “Everyone welcome. No exceptions.”
In 2003, he left Faith in Motion to become the pastor at Douglas Congregational and spent about nine years there.
“The more welcoming we can be, the more we’ll be blessed as a community,” he said. “I know people who did incredible work in this community as gay and lesbian people, and their work could have been even more amazing if they had been able to be out about who they are.”
In 2012, the executive director’s position at Heartside Ministry opened up, and DeBraber decided it was time to combine everything he’d learned and try to make a difference in Grand Rapids.
“Before I came — and I’m not saying I’m any kind of savior — but Heartside was on the verge of closing its doors. We ran a $90,000 operating deficit for seven years. You can’t lose $90,000 per year and stay open,” he said.
“This year we’ll end with a balanced budget for the second year in a row. … In the meantime, our staff has grown from six to 13.”
DeBraber’s vision for the neighborhood is that it will continue to include all people and will work to build bridges between nonprofits and businesses in the area, particularly in the matter of housing and diversity. He said he received this vision from another ordained minister who has served as Heartside Ministry’s executive director: Mayor George Heartwell.
“When Mayor Heartwell was here, I came to him (while at Trinity) and asked him about where to invest my energies. … And one of the things he said was that diversity had to be a core value of whatever it is that I’m going to be a part of.”
“They had taken a stand here for LGBT rights and it cost them financially. We’re a nonprofit: We rely on individuals and households, businesses, local foundations and churches. And they took a stand. We’re the only open and affirming agency — so to speak — working down here.”