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Partnership or Proselytizing in Benton Harbor: An Adventist Case Study

October 10, 2009

Development work is not simple. Missionary work is not simple either, but in missionary work there is the same, clear objective in most projects. A good bit of the time, barring extensive cultural barriers, war, or oppressive governments, methodologies for missionary work can be similar. Take away language barriers and things get even easier. If it is possible to drive twenty minutes from the comfort of home to undertake missionary work, all the better.

In community development, the two latter elements are helpful as well: language and proximity make development in the United States a task which can be undertaken without mass amounts of money, and even by volunteers from the communities themselves and the surrounding communities. But, as I hinted in the first lines, development has a myriad of aims, and an even more extensive list of means to accomplishing these aims. It is a difficult, often expensive,  often quite unsuccessful venture.

I realize that major protests could be made concerning both of the previous paragraphs. That is good, and I welcome those protests. Instead of arguing in the abstract, however, I would like to discuss an example that is very close to me, and is a familiar reference point for Adventists (or non-Adventists, for that matter) who have been connected in any way to Andrews University: Benton Harbor, Michigan.

When I was young, I remember hearing about brave young people giving up their Sabbath afternoons to drive out to Benton Harbor, the struggling, low-income town roughly fifteen miles from Andrews University. As a child I recall being afraid of criminals from Benton Harbor, thinking about how close they to my Berrien Springs home, how easy it would be for them to get to me. The whispers and louder statements I heard from my family and family friends were that Benton Harbor was poor, Benton Harbor was dangerous, Benton Harbor was drug addicted, Benton Harbor needed help, and – in church – Benton Harbor needed Jesus.

I came back to Berrien Springs in 2005 to find a booming, active group of students driving out to Benton Harbor each Saturday, inspired to make a difference in a community with great needs and a great need for hope. Excitement filled the buses and it infused me as well – one of my favorite things about AU Outreach (previously known as Benton Harbor Street Ministries) was the slogan chanted at the concluding roundup – “Renewing, Empowering, and Changing hearts and minds. Wooo!” Empowering the community. What could be better.

A few notes on Benton Harbor, without going so far as to write a book (that has been done, quite well, by Alex Kotlowitz  in The Other Side of the River). Benton Harbor was 92.4% African American in 2000, (the last time a full census was conducted) and 39% of the population was below the poverty level. Moreover, the poverty experienced in Benton Harbor tends to be generational poverty – families who have been under/unemployed for two or three generations.  This is due to a few causes (which really deserve dissertation treatment, and are more complicated than this): for one, automotive parts plants began cutting jobs in the 1970s, and in the mid 1980s the Whirlpool Corporation, the dominant economic player in Southwest Michigan (whose headquarters have been in Benton Harbor since 1911) closed a major plant, causing Benton Harbor to lose 5,500 jobs. The loss of these jobs, probably combined with the growing African-American community, caused many white Benton Harbor denizens to leave for whiter communities with better economies, especially Benton Harbor’s sister city, St. Joseph (90% white, 4.3% below poverty level). By early 1990s Benton Harbor had lost many of its businesses, most of its wealthy community leaders, and the tax base that paid for infrastructural improvements, education and, importantly, a strong police force. In 1997 Benton Harbor had the distinction of being the most violent city in Michigan. In 2004 residents rioted and burned an old residential part of the city.

Today much of this past rests somewhat quietly in the background (Benton Harbor is often a disturbingly still place).  It is fair to say, I think, at this point that events that make the news are aberrations – day to day, Benton Harbor is more tired than it is dangerous or angry. Nonetheless, it has its scars. In this context, one might say (especially in the context of drugs, prostitution, and violence) that what the people of Benton Harbor need is the love of Jesus.

On one hand, after a couple years working in Benton Harbor in some capacity or another (two stints at Harbor Habitat for Humanity, an internship with the Obama campaign, and a sociology research project) I agree that an emotional appeal for empowerment could be positive for Benton Harbor. But Andrews University’s, and the SDA community Berrien Springs, response to this need for empowerment and change goes beyond empowerment –The “Benton Harbor Street Ministries” web page states that “Benton Harbor is a place desperately in need of the message of Christ’s love.” I would guess that “desperate need” is a reference to the crime, poverty, and drug use (“destructive lifestyle habits,” the web page says) has been evidenced.  This project seems, to me, to be informed by theories that poverty is correlated to unbelief, that economic situations are reflective of moral systems, and that the drug economy can be fixed by an infusion of Christianity*.

The most salient difficulty with this view is one which you will not hear often from pulpits or at Outreach meetings: Benton Harbor is probably one of the most devoutly Christian communities in Southwest Michigan. In the 5 square miles that make up Benton Harbor proper, there are over one-hundred active churches; Benton Township adds even more. I do not know if there is current data on church attendance, but I would wager that it is moderate to high, as – I would guess – is personal religiosity**

In treating social and economic problems as spiritual problems, in a community which is perhaps more spiritual than Berrien Springs, Andrews University has simplified economic disparities and ethnic injustices to a very manageable level. If you want to help fix Benton Harbor, hop on a bus Saturday afternoon, pray with some residents (encourage them to stop smoking marijuana, encourage them to finish high school, etc), play with some children***, and Benton Harbor will move closer to wholeness. From the perspective of community organization, on a grass-roots level, this frankly looks a bit weak. Most community organizations working in Benton Harbor are managed by individuals from Benton Harbor and St. Joseph; most of these leaders are Christian. They work to mitigate economic and educational disparities, to provide advocacy for those who do not have sufficient influence, to publicize the interests of individuals experiencing poverty. They try to understand causes of poverty and study possible solutions. And they do this by working with Benton Harbor residents, most of whom (all that I have met, anyway) are dedicated Christians. To some community organizers in Benton Harbor, Andrews University is an enigma. Students come from all over the world, many to study international development, social work, history, and sociology, and yet the most obvious relationship between Andrews and Benton Harbor is proselytization – to some, this looks like a base attempt to convert poor black Christians to Adventism.

To get to Benton Harbor from Berrien Springs, you have to drive by a turn-off for Niles Rd, which goes to downtown St. Joseph, where many Andrews students spend their Saturday nights, or (in good weather) their Sunday afternoons at the beach. St. Joseph is wealthy and (90%) white, and does not have 100 active churches in 5 square miles. I am making a guess here, but I would wager that if a religiosity study was undertaken in St. Joseph the levels would be significantly lower than Benton Harbor’s. The point, though, is that this data has never been shown me, and I have never heard a stump speech for AU Outreach begin with “St. Joe is already Christian, so we’re going to Benton Harbor.” St. Joseph’s spirituality is secondary, because it is functional and wealthy.

I am criticizing the methodology and aims of AU Outreach. But what am I proposing as an alternative – should Andrews University disengage from Benton Harbor, leave it to those with roots in the community, those with more experience? Absolutely not. Andrews University has made some meaningful, contributions in Benton Harbor over the years. Currently Andrews University sends students into communities throughout Southwest Michigan to volunteer as tutors through the Socrates Project (an excellent, under-publicized program), and gives students volunteer opportunities through Prof. Larry Ulery’s  Service Learning program.

Perhaps the greatest helps that Andrews University can give Benton Harbor are through education and through capacity-building for area non-profits. Andrews University can encourage education, and higher education, in Benton Harbor by giving technical and capacity-building support in the public school system, working with Michigan Works (as Lake Michigan College is currently doing) in continuing and adult education, offering parenting classes, or setting aside scholarships for high-achieving Benton Harbor high school students who want to go to college.  Many of these programs could be undertaken using student-volunteers and university faculty and staff, AU’s greatest resources. These concepts and possibilities have been discussed, I’m told, at AU for decades. The problem has been follow-through and sustainability, two things that AU Outreach has had in spades. Political will for meaningful involvement in Benton Harbor is needed, however, and this must include concerted efforts by university administration, the student government (AUSA), departments, and campus clubs (such as Action).

To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Benton Harbor would like to be Andrews University’s brother, not its brother-in-law. Great strides can be taken in Benton Harbor, and Andrews University can be a part of this effort if there is there is the willpower to create intelligent, sustainable collaborations, and if Andrews University is willing to forgo proselytizing for partnership.

*There is some data to support the idea that religiosity is inversely related to volume of substance use, specifically alcohol and tobacco. But with no evaluation methodology it is difficult whether to say whether Outreach has been successful in this, or whether this has been an intent of the program.

**This is based on demographic data from similar communities

*** Outreach’s programs include five for children: R.O.C.K, Bilingual Kids, Buddies Forever, Kidzone, and Youth Ministry. The description of R.O.C.K. says that  its purpose is “Establishing individual, mentoring relationships to show the children of Benton Harbor a better way to live.” Mentoring is an effective way of creating change and motivating young people to make positive choices (although “a better way to live” is an interesting phrase), and once-weekly meetings could be enough to influence these children positively. Questions remain, however, as to whether this mentorship is of a religious nature, and if so if it is superior in effect to educational mentoring; if there is a perceived lack of positive influences in the children’s lives, and what this perception might be based on; if this effort is more ecumenical or sectarian; and whether these programs show any long-term benefits.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Patricia Kayden permalink
    October 16, 2009 11:50 pm

    It’s good to hear that AU is trying to reach out to the Benton Harbor community. As Jesus said, the poor will be with us always. So, it’s our duty to do our best and not worry that our efforts cannot do more to alleviate the chronic poverty in inner cities.

  2. Cari permalink
    October 29, 2009 3:42 am

    Loved reading this and couldn’t agree with you more!

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