“They told me to ask if it was an open fist or a closed fist, and ‘Was it his left hand or his right hand?’” Merly Velasquez-Ortiz ’23 says. “I would have never thought to ask those questions.”
At work, Merly sits behind bulletproof glass, wearing a shirt and a tie over her bulletproof vest. Prior to her internship at the Grand Rapids Police Department, she had never even spoken to a victim of domestic violence. Now, she answers the non-emergency line and greets visitors to the imposing downtown building at the corner of Monroe Center and Division. At all times, the screen in front of her shows all of the Grand Rapids 911 calls in real-time, emergencies, and tragedies in a constant stream of hopelessness.
“I’m seeing everything bad that has happened. So many things,” Merly says. “It can be overwhelming sometimes. I always want to fix things, but sometimes I just can’t.”
TWO YEARS AGO—NOT SURE ABOUT COLLEGE
When Merly graduated from high school in 2019, she had no idea what was next.
“Everyone knew what they wanted to do, and I was not sure at all,” Merly says. “I was confused, and I was on edge about everything, and I was going through this alone. It was just kind of a dark moment.”
But a friend and mentor from her church had attended Word of Life Bible Institute in Pottersville, New York and suggested Merly look into it. So she did, and although she was only there for a few months before COVID-19 sent everyone home, she says those months were spiritually pivotal.
“I wasn’t living my faith, I was kind of just following my parents,” Merly says. “At Word of Life, I learned to have a relationship with God.”
Though she wasn’t sure what was next, Merly decided not to return to WOLBI for the next school year. She’d visited Grace Christian University while she was still in high school—with two friends who were more interested in a day off school than attending a Christian university—and remembered enjoying a worship chapel and talking with professors.
She applied, was accepted, and she was interested in—but still not sure about—criminal justice.
ONE YEAR AGO—NOT SURE ABOUT POLICE
“A year ago, my thoughts about the police were not what they are now,” Merly says. “I am a minority; I am a person of color . . . with everything going on in the media, I was really not sure.”
Merly’s family is originally from Guatemala, and they’re part of Grand Rapids’ growing Hispanic community. She didn’t know what to think about the racial tensions and cultural issues surrounding law enforcement and minorities. But still, criminal justice seemed to be calling.
She joined Grace’s criminal justice program, and when Dr. Dave Greydanus, department chair, told her about the GRPD internship, she still wasn’t sure. But she applied. She went through the background check and rigorous interviews—“they were pretty intimidating”—and with four months of training and a new bulletproof vest, Merly sat behind that bulletproof glass.
While law enforcement has been criticized in the cultural pressure cooker— Merly’s even answered angry callers who have dialed just to say rude things—she sees officers with new eyes.
“They work 12-hour shifts. I know they’re exhausted,” Merly says. “You see them and you have compassion for them; you realize that they’re going through a lot, too.”
I DIDN’T KNOW THIS SMALL COLLEGE IN WYOMING COULD DO SO MUCH FOR ME.
“I need God in everything at my work.”
The GRPD interns handle all kinds of non-emergency needs: answering the non-emergency phone line, filing traffic incident and theft reports, registering sex offenders and impound lot entries, and tending to walk-in requests.
And in a city the size of Grand Rapids, that could mean anything. She never knows what a shift will bring.
One day she learned to ask the right questions of domestic abuse victims and photograph the bruises while taking the violence report.
On Christmas Day, nearly all the calls were about domestic violence.
I NEED GOD
IN EVERYTHING AT MY WORK
Another day, it was a rape victim.
“She was about my age,” Merly says. “And it was very overwhelming . . . seeing her break down. It was really hard—really sad.”
Another day she translated—Merly is bilingual—for a detective when a shooting victim came in.
“I’ve been given a lot of cool opportunities because I speak Spanish,” Merly says. “It’s so cool to be able to help them, because at the end they are grateful, because they got the answers they needed . . . it’s very rewarding.”
For many individuals and families, seeking help from law enforcement is a last resort. They’re not calling because they’re having a good day. They’re calling because they need something tangible—an officer’s helping hand, a report filed, a translator.
“Where I show hope is toward the Hispanic community,” Merly says “. . . We need more people of color in law enforcement.” When they call or come into the station and struggle to communicate, Merly is at the ready.
“Then they see me, and the look on their face is that they’re hopeful and happy that I’m here.”
But they need something intangible, too: hope. And Merly can give it to them. She meets these needs and serves the community because she knows a greater hope.
“My story is living proof of who God is,” Merly says. “ . . . I know this is not all of life. We have something more to look forward to. And one day, there’s not going to be any of this.”
Written by: Emily Gehman. Emily Gehman is a Grace faculty member and managing editor of The Journey.