Originally created 08/01/98

Cities turn to faith to lower racial barriers



BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- Five days a week, Judy Lammers crosses from home in mostly white St. Joseph to work in mostly black Benton Harbor. The bridge over the St. Joseph River is an easy drive, but the chasm between communities is harder to navigate.

For that, Mrs. Lammers turned to her church.

Spurred by a book about the communities' racial inequities, the pastor in her predominantly white church organized a choir exchange with a black congregation across the river. After an afternoon of singing, Mrs. Lammers says, racial and economic differences felt a little less glaring.

"You can't help but be concerned about race issues, living here in St. Joe," says Mrs. Lammers, who is white. "As Christians, we want to work toward resolving those things." She calls the choir exchange "a great opportunity to begin to know each other."

Boarded-up buildings line many Benton Harbor streets, which are deserted after dark. State police shore up the city's police force. Less than a mile away, St. Joseph bustles with restaurants, boutiques, offices and a picturesque beachfront. Most of Benton Harbor's 13,000 residents are black; most of St. Joseph's 9,200 residents are white.

Still, both communities, which lie east of Chicago on Lake Michigan's eastern shore, share a strong religious tradition. Mrs. Lammers' pastor, the Rev. Kent Meyer of the Zion Evangelical United Church of Christ, noted more than 160 churches within a five-mile radius. They include the Brotherhood Church of God in Christ in Benton Harbor, where the Zion church choir sometimes practices.

Can faith close the gap?

"There's just so much fear and distrust that's built up over the years," the Rev. Meyer says. "Knowing that the people on the other side of the river share the same belief . . . helps a lot in helping people to let go of some of the fear of each other.

"We are called to be one in Christ, regardless of our race or national origin," he says. "This is something that God is calling us to do."

For many years, the Rev. Meyer's congregation has volunteered at a Benton Harbor soup kitchen. But, he says, this is the first time he has used faith to reach across the river.

In Benton Harbor, the Rev. James Atterberry applauded the choir exchange at his Brotherhood Church of God in Christ. "This would just get us familiar with each other, so we could see we have more in common than different."

The crossover was prompted in part by a book published earlier this year. The Other Side of the River, by Alex Kotlowitz, chronicles an investigation into the 1991 death of a black teen-ager last seen alive in St. Joseph. Some residents dismissed the book as inaccurate and exploitative. Others lauded its frank discussion of racial divisions.

Then, in March, a white police sergeant in St. Joseph was accused of knocking a black from Benton Harbor off his bicycle and filing a false report to conceal it. Though no criminal charges were filed, he was suspended for 20 days and demoted. The officer is appealing.

And in June, the Ku Klux Klan rallied on the steps of the Berrien County Courthouse in St. Joseph. The rally lasted 20 minutes, with police outnumbering spectators. But Klan officials said local residents, whom they refused to identify, financed the demonstration.

"We're the only county of this size in the state that does not have any minority representation," says the Rev. Walter Brown, a black who has lived in Berrien County for 46 years.

"You don't have to read a book to know it. I see it every day, and so do others. For too long, we've been like an ostrich with our head in the sand."

The Rev. Brown, who heads the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Benton Harbor, vowed to act after reading Mr. Kotlowitz's book. So he organized a luncheon of ministers from both sides of the river to talk about race relations. Eighty-five people turned out, including the Rev. Meyer. Joint choir practices were one of many ideas proposed.

The Rev. Richard Taylor would like to see the group help integrate shopping areas. The Rev. Taylor, who leads the First Congregational United Church of Christ of Benton Harbor, says many stores attract only white or black customers.

"I would think all Christian people would want to see these types of things changed," he says. "These are the kinds of things this council could address directly. . . . An integrated group could visit the store."

The ministers acknowledge that prayer cannot address all of Benton Harbor's problems. Many, including the Rev. Brown, believe better jobs and better schools are the key to revival. (For 1997, the annual unemployment rate was nearly 22 percent in Benton Harbor and 1.6 percent in St. Joseph, according to state records.)

But religious dialogue may be a start.

Willodene Buchanan of Benton Harbor sang during the choir exchange. Mrs. Buchanan, who is black, says singing, and prayer, forced her to reach beyond what's familiar and comfortable.

"We're praising the same God, so there shouldn't be any hassle or discomfort about praying together, black or white."