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The River: Bridging the divide (Part 3)

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- Dr. Martin Luther King Junior once said Sunday church services are the most segregated hour in America. But that is not the case here at the First Presbyterian Church of Benton Harbor.

“I don’t care if you’re black white gay or straight I don’t care what you are as long as you can love your fellow man and that’s what we do here,” says 79 year old Benton Harbor resident Allene Smith who attends the church with a racially mixed congregation and a mission statement to bridge the divide between her hometown and St. Joseph right across the river.

Smith tells ABC57, “We all come together white black, blue and brown. We all say we love each other and work towards that goal of having the communities love each other.”

But with at least six African-American Benton Harbor residents being found dead in the murky St. Joseph River over the years –the two communities remain more divided than united—and the mysterious death of Eric McGinnis in 1991, when he was last seen in mostly white St. Joe, still weighs heavy on her heart, saying mournfully “I think about that young man every time I cross the bridge.”

Allene knew Eric’s late mother Ruth McGinnis and says she still doesn’t know exactly how the 16-year-old wound up in the river on that Friday night 27 years ago but she and her pastor are now hoping art can help heal the divide between the two cities.

“When I came to Benton Harbor in the mid-90’s I was blown away by how deep the division and mistrust was between people on either side of the river,” says Rev. Laurie Hartzell, the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church.

And she has first-hand experience taking her own inter-racial family across the river.

“It was strange going into St. Joe with my mixed race children at times,” Hartzell told us, “There weren’t many places, even as an interracial family where I could go with my family and feel like that was ok. This church of course was one of those places.”

Reverend Hartzell is the force behind artsBRIDGE—an effort to build a bridge toward racial tolerance and understanding through music, painting and poetry saying, “There’s something about art and beauty that all of us as human beings can connect to and it kind of brings us to a different place, it brings us together.”

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors was in the city on Saturday telling us, “Communities like Benton Harbor are important because it’s these communities that are the most repressed.”

Cullors appeared with Academy Award-winning actress and longtime advocate Jane Fonda, who compared the city to the segregated old South, adding, “Benton Harbor is like a Jim Crow city and we want to change that.”

The two were part of a packed get out the vote rally and while she lives in California, Cullors knows about the people who wound up dead in the river.

“I’ve heard a lot about the city, specifically about the unsolved murders.”

That’s why she’s urging everyone in Benton Harbor to get involved, take action and exercise their right to vote adding,

“It’s these communities where we see the highest poverty rates, its these communities that have the highest numbers of violence. It’s these communities where governments are often trying to silence and so when these communities rise up it gives us a new opportunity about who’s in charge in this country, it’s the people, it always has been. We’re in this moment where many of us understand voting, not as a ticket to the promised land, but as one of the tactics that will help us change this country.”

And for Allene Smith the integrated sanctuary at First Presbyterian, full of joyful music and art, is a good place to start change and healing vowing, “I don’t want any other youngsters black or white to be killed because of nonsense. I just wish that we could get together at the river instead of the division at the river.”

Click here to read past stories from The River: A Real Time Investigation and listen to the podcasts.

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