Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, two small Michigan towns, are divided by the St. Joseph River. A history of racial tension separates the towns as well.
Spurred on by a heralded book, a United Church of Christ congregation is helping to bridge the racial divide.
Mostly white and prosperous, St. Joseph features a pristine Lake Michigan beachfront and a pretty brick- paved main street lined with boutiques and restaurants. Nearly all black and impoverished, Benton Harbor has boarded-up storefronts and an air of defeat.
Residents of the two communities rarely intermingle. But that is slowly starting to change.
Members of Zion Evangelical UCC in St. Joseph cross the bridge regularly to meet with members of the Brotherhood Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal church in Benton Harbor. The churches have enjoyed choir exchanges, pot luck suppers and a pulpit exchange.
"People are starting to recognize each other around town," says the Rev. Kent Meyer, pastor of Zion Evangelical. "People say, ‘Hey, you were at my church.' Conversations are starting to take place that would not have happened before."
Says the Rev. James Atterberry, pastor of Brotherhood Church of God, "It's been great. We're becoming familiar with each other's style of worship and becoming more comfortable with one another. We're getting to know one another."
Book spurs fellowship
The fellowship was partly inspired by a 1998 book that examined the racial division between the towns. Alex Kotlowitz' much-acclaimed The Other Side of the River used the mysterious death of an African-American teen to plumb the level of distrust between whites and blacks. The youth was found drowned in the St. Joseph River in 1991. Blacks believed whites murdered the teen and whites viewed the death as symptomatic of social problems in Benton Harbor.
"I think the book was the burr under the saddle," says Meyer. "People either hated the book or loved it, but it was a spur [to fellowship]."
Says Atterberry, "The book brought pain and discomfort. It takes that to heal wounds."
Meyer is one of the founders and co-president of the local Christian Alliance for Racial Equality (CARE). When the Ku Klux Klan held two rallies in St. Joseph, CARE countered with prayer rallies attended by blacks and whites.
The Klan rallies drew sparse crowds while the prayer services packed in hundreds.
"We showed that the heart of the community was against the Klan," says Meyer.
Once were sister cities
St. Joseph and Benton Harbor once got along better and even promoted themselves as sister cities. But the economic downturn in the 1970s hit Benton Harbor hard. Whites fled across the river. The YMCA, the hospital and many stores relocated as well. Enmity grew. Residents sarcastically referred to the town across the river as "Benton-Harlem" or "St. Johannesburg."
Towns didn't interact
"The only relationship we had with St. Joe was with the jailhouse and courthouse," says Atterberry. "For Christians, that's not Biblical. That's not the word of God. The best place to turn things around is the churches."
"When my wife and I came here five years ago the division between the communities hit us like a ton of bricks," says Meyer, whose church has 290 members. "We knew we needed to get beyond ‘us and them.' It's harder to stereotype people when you know them."
Meyer first talked to Atterberry about a choir exchange the week the book came out. The two knew each other from CARE.
The exchanges have gone so well that even if the two towns may never again be sister cities, the two churches may become sister churches. Future joint projects may include an outdoor service and community service.
"When the churches work together, we may see people go shopping together," says Atterberry. "We might see people visit one another. We might even see people live next door to one another again."