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I’ve never met Chris Schurr, the Grand Rapids police officer who shot and killed Patrick Lyoya. But I feel like I have.

I read the NYTimes profile that pieced together a few small bits from his biography to create a story about him. And I recognized that story: I’ve worshiped at that church. I’ve been on that mission trip. I’ve participated in that kind of Christian formation. 

Chris Schurr attended a congregation that is part of the same denomination that claims me, the Reformed Church in America. This means that the RCA – its theology, its missions, its values, its practices – are part of the death of Patrick Lyoya. It’s the part that I am most connected to. 

I am a person who believes in the cause of the Black Lives Matter movement. I believe there is racism in policing that has existed from the beginning. I believe that police bias and brutality have robbed communities of color of safety and dignity for generations. I believe that Patrick Lyoya was killed because he was Black. I believe that without the video evidence we would never know it happened. 

And if I’m honest, I long to believe that the officer who killed Patrick Lyoya was simply a bad guy. It would be so much easier for me to believe a story of a person who dropped out of nowhere, evil in his heart, ready to do harm. It would be easier because I wouldn’t be able to relate to that. I wouldn’t read a profile of the “killer cop” and see… me. 

I know very little about what it’s like to be a refugee: to flee from certain death, to witness wanton violence, to endure years of stagnant suffering in a refugee camp, to resettle in a culture that I don’t understand. And I know very little about what it’s like to be a police officer: to patrol a community where guns are ubiquitous, to be underpaid and overworked, to be subjected to terrifying situations that I’m expected to control, to be under constant scrutiny and distrust. 

I don’t see myself in either of those stories. But I know about mission trips to Kenya.

When I was hired as a college chaplain, I was tasked with reimagining the short term mission trips that had become popular for students. For so many white students, the only experience they ever had with a person of color was through a church mission trip. Encounters that were curated, quick, and uplifting. Encounters in which they were cast as the helper, the saver, the fixer, the server. They were the presence of (white) Jesus in a broken (black) world.

We tried to veer away from trips that focused on helping, saving, fixing, serving impoverished people, and instead to offer experiences that opened a student’s curiosity, engaged a community’s complexity, connected an individual’s suffering to the powerful systems that shaped it. The point was to stop perpetuating the idea that charity was the only Christian response to injustice, and instead spark an interest in reforming the systems that make and keep people oppressed. I’ll be honest, the changes to those trips weren’t popular. I suspect the truth is that most Christians actually prefer a simpler story.

But there is danger in our simple story. It’s dangerous to grow our faith around a simple story of blessed and needy, giver and receiver, powerful and powerless. A story like that makes us see the people in a hierarchy, and ourselves at the top: the ones who know and do best.

It’s dangerous to build our ideas of safety around a simple story of victim and perpetrator, good and evil, right and wrong. It forms us to be fearful of one another, to live separated, to create the very walls that Jesus came to break down. 

It’s seductive to build a sense of our own righteousness around a simple story of guilt or innocence. If the “killer cop” (or the “criminal victim,” if you’re seeing this story differently than me) is wholly different than I am, I can absolve myself of the reality that I am connected to this tragedy. I will never admit that I have participated in the plot. And I will never recognize that it will cost me something, it will demand something of me, if things are to change.

And, my God, things must change.

Church: the police officer at the center of Grand Rapids’ grief and outrage is ours. He is one of us. Broken and beloved. Shaped, formed, influenced by the stories we have told. May we face the complexity and the grief that this demands. As we cry out for change in police policy, police contracts, police unions, let us not be satisfied with the simple story that shields us from facing our own messy truth: justice demands change from the church too.

Photo by Jack Finnigan on Unsplash

Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Yes. Me too.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    So painfully true, to the core.
    Thank you for this.

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Kate, maybe I’m naive but I still consider this could be a person who made a series of very bad decisions and not necessarily racist decisions.

    • Kate Kooyman says:

      Hi Grace. Thanks for sharing your thought. I think it’s impossible to know what was motivating this officer, only he can say. What I do know is that for me, it can require a lot of intention and vulnerability and hard work to even recognize that something I’ve done was motivated by racism. I have been conditioned not to know I’m doing it, or why. It’s just the air I breathe. It’s hard for me to imagine that race had nothing to do with an encounter like the one we saw, though. And I know for sure that a history of racism (in policing, housing, colonialism, immigration) set the table for it. But your point is well taken: we don’t know what was in officer Schurr’s heart and mind.

    • Chris says:

      I agree with you, Grace. We do not know all the details in this case, so to jump to racism is wrong. There is fault to be placed on both participants here; actions of both contributed to this horrible outcome. Let’s wait for the case to be reviewed before making conclusions .

    • Steve Robbins says:

      The officer may not be racist, with intent to harm others of a different race, but a strong case can be made that he was influenced by “racialized” mental models learned over time. If a brain is taught, whether intentionally or not, that the “other” is bad then the research suggests that they brain will tend to confirm what it’s taught. In this case, the officer (who might be a nice Christian) will interpret the victim’s actions as more lethal than the actions of a person of which he has neutral or positive mental models. And at the Rev. Kate suggests, the church/RCA may have a part in formulating those negative mental models of a person with African descent. Interesting that i do not see much coming from church leaders in Grand Rapids on this issue. Maybe it’s a mention, but definitely not a sermon or a series. It’s not just the RCA (which I was a part of) but even in my non-denominational church (Ada Bible) our leadership only mentioned it at the beginning of one sermon that I can recall. And in mentioning it “sorrow” first went out for the officer and then afterward it went out to the victim. The order was telling at least from my perspective. When will we allow God to touch our hearts on this issue and address it systemically?

  • Ken Baker says:

    Powerful. True. Convicting. Lord, have mercy!

  • Sharon Davis Payton says:

    Thank you Kate! Very powerful.

  • Elizabeth Brouwer says:

    Thank you for helping us to find words and logic that acknowledge our complicity in racist systems, when it is so tempting to distance ourselves from it all.

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    Thank you for this truth telling—anchored in the complexities of cultural systems which shape us all—and the work of the heart & head which can make us all wiser about them. And our self knowledge. May we learn together more about the Fountain flowing deep & wide, instructing the humanity of all of us.

  • Dawn Muller says:

    Thank you for helping us see our own complicity in this messy, complex, tragic event. Yes, Lord have mercy.

  • Sharon A Etheridge says:

    Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts about this story. I didn’t think about racism when I first saw the video, but I did think about the very poor decisions and the failure to deescalate the potential for violence. Racism may have been a hidden factor.
    Mercy demands justice for the outcome of the situation.

  • Pat Weatherwax says:

    Would he have shot a young white man in that same situation? If no, then it is systemic racism.
    We share in this guilt.

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Thanks for your response to my post. I appreciate your insights.

  • jess says:

    Yes– thank you for this honest and needed response.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    According to the Washington Post, 1,050 people were killed by police last year, half were white, half were people of color. A black man is more than twice as likely to be killed than a white man. A Hispanic man almost twice as likely to be killed than a white man (and 95% of those killed by police were men). It has happened in every single state, over 5,000 killed since 2015. There is a problem of cops killing men of color.
    For the details see the story here;

  • Nick Brock says:

    Kate, thank you for this very vulnerable commentary about your role and the larger role of the local RCA church. I would like for you to share this piece with a wider audience at an in-person event I’m hosting in two weeks. If interested, please leave a message for how I may get in touch with you and I can provide further details. Thanks.

    – Nick Brock, Executive Director of Vote Common Good-West Michigan

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