It's an ethnically diverse area where salt-of-the-earth people live, where the marginalized poor can use a friend.
The West Side is where God has called Waalkes to live and minister to through the urban ministry he helped found in 2005 called Bridge Street House of Prayer (BSHOP). The name of the ministry is based on Isaiah 56:7, because BSHOP is where the hurting and outcast can experience the presence of God.
"There is a beauty and brokenness to the West Side," said Waalkes, 35, director of BSHOP. "It's a robust, industrious, friendly, hardworking, greet-you-on the front-porch culture."
Geographically, BSHOP's West Side boundaries extend from Butterworth Street to the south, Richmond Street to the north, the Grand River to the east and to the west, Valley Avenue.
"Our specific area of influence is a several block radius around Lincoln Park," said Waalkes.
BSHOP ministries include youth discipleship, community development and a coffee shop that serves more than free java.
Much has been in the news recently about the West Side experiencing a revitalization of once vacant storefronts that are seeing new life.
"New life" is a term that takes on a deeper meaning for the BSHOP staff and volunteers who whose mission is to collaboratively build a bridge between the streets and church.
More than a physical location
The term "streets" means more to the BSHOP staff and volunteers than a physical location. Rather, streets refer to the despair that comes from a rudderless life without Jesus, said Waalkes.
To fulfill the mission it has been called to accomplish, BSHOP staff and volunteers do not operate under a 9-5 p.m. mentality. "Community" is key to its calling, meaning staff members live in the neighborhood. And volunteers, comprised mainly of high school and college students, live temporarily in the apartment-home BSHOP owns.
BSHOP doesn't minister in a vacuum. Its annual budget of $348,358 is derived from churches, organizations and individuals that support the ministry and work collaboratively with the ministries BSHOP oversees.
On the surface, Waalkes seems an unlikely candidate to lead an urban ministry. He previously made a living as a civil engineer, a job held until 2009. He recently earned his Masters in Ministry degree from Cornerstone University.
"We're really committed to learn and grow so we're not relying on our expertise but collaboration and learning from others," said Waalkes.
"My wife and I met in this ministry, we did not move here together. I helped start it about 9 1/2 years ago and we have only been married for just over four years. Through prayer, God put it on our hearts to move into intentional Christian community together. We didn't intend to start a ministry, we were just trying to be obedient to what we felt like God was leading us into. Circumstances happened such that a house opened up in the West Side. So, God simply led us through prayer and circumstances."
Such circumstances has honed a keen passion to hear from God and to live among the people it serves, said Waalkes.
How can we join you?
Waalkes said their prayers were direct: God is it You want to accomplish here? And how can we join you?
The answers to those prayers unfolded in splendid ways, said Waalkes.
In time, the kids in the neighborhood started gathering around Waalkes' home to play games.
Then, prayer gatherings that eventually drew an average of 50-60 people were held in Waalkes' home.
"We started falling in love with our neighbors on the West Side," said Waalkes. "Our prayer gatherings were all unrehearsed. We'd worship until midnight, just to seek the presence of God. As we continued to pray, a vision develops for a prayer room and a coffee shop."
Eventually, that led to 40 days of prayers and fasting and a strong sense from God they would eventually use a building that wasn't available for lease at the time. The one side of the building at 1054 Bridge St. NW, housed a real estate office and the other side housed an insurance business.
"We didn't have any church or organization backing us," said Waalkes.
On the surface, it may have seemed like a head scratcher to pray for an unavailable building. Waalkes saw it in a different light.
"About six weeks after our 40 days of prayer, a 'for rent' sign went up for the coffee shop space," said Waalkes.
They first opened the Pavilion Coffee Shop, which gets its name from Psalm 27:5 ("For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion: in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me; he shall set me up upon a rock."). Later on, the space the insurance company operated out of also became available.
Does not sell or ask for coffee donations
The Pavilion does not sell its coffee, nor does it ask people or businesses to donate coffee. That's intentional, said Waalkes, because that is how God instructed them to follow in obedience. To this day, it has never run out of coffee it serves those who walk through its doors.
"We felt like the Lord said this is to be place of safety and refuge for the West Side," said Waalkes. "We felt like the Lord said to not worry about the coffee supply. He'll provide it. He'll provide it and we won't run out."
And the BSHOP's Pavilion hasn't run out.
"I could tell you story after story about someone walking in with a donation of coffee," said Waalkes. "For seven years we've been serving coffee and we've never paid for coffee and we've never solicited for coffee and we never ran out of coffee. We invest in people and relationships and work through their relationships and see dozens of people get jobs, get clothes, help with their resume and for others, just encouragement.
"And we take every opportunity to tell people about Jesus," added Waalkes. "We don't force that conversation. We look for an open door to tell them about Jesus."
Last year, the BSHOP received a $2,500 grant from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation to launch a tutoring program in partnership with Westwood Middle School that's offered at the Pavilion. A summer reading club also is held there to help reduce summer reading loss during students' school hiatus also is offered but is not connected to the GRCF grant.
Then there's the Westtown Collaborative, a consortium of 10 West Side ministries, churches and nonprofits that BSHOP is a part of, that hosts "Movies in the Park" and voter registration drives.
"To live in the Bible, the gospel inherently changes your life," said Waalkes. "Unless you leave everything, you can't be friends with this world and follow Christ. We think young people are called to something greater."
That calling through BSHOP includes its Bridge Street Mission School, an eight-month training program for people ages 18-25 who live in a BSHOP apartment building built to prepare and release young people into a life of mission. It has three phases; which includes giving students an experience in a foreign culture, either in India or Guatemala.
Weekends @ BSHOP is an easy way for high school youth groups to get their feet wet at the BSHOP and put their faith into action through weekend trips at BSHOP that include worship, teaching, and a first hand experience of loving the neighbors on the West Side.
Immersion sees an average of 100 young people from local churches staggered four times through the summer to come join BSHOP for nine days where they are challenged to put their faith into action.
"We value discipleship and community and do teaching, prayer walking and a curriculum," said Waalkes.