Partnership or Proselytizing in Benton Harbor: An Adventist Case Study

I sat in chapel, a senior at Andrews University, watching in horror as a friend of mine performed a skit advertising Campus Ministries’ Outreach in a struggling town 20 minutes from campus. He sat on a couch on Pioneer Memorial Church’s stage pretending to cry and, when a friend asked why he was upset, sobbed, “Because I’m from Benton Harbor!” His friend answered, “Well, Benton Harbor is the second most depressed city in the United States.” They then invited students to come to Benton Harbor Sabbath afternoon and make a difference in the lives of those in need.

Benton Harbor, those connected to Andrews University will recall, is (39%) poor and (92%) black. Both actors on stage were upper-middle class, white, and not from Benton Harbor or the surrounding area. I had worked in Benton Harbor for a Habitat for Humanity affiliate, was currently an Obama campaign intern in Benton Harbor, and felt a bit protective. I didn’t like that students with little understanding of the Benton Harbor’s background had the gall to mock it as a means to entice other students to volunteer. Further, I was annoyed that the volunteering undertaken on Saturday afternoons, going door to door praying with people and witnessing, playing with and providing programming for kids, was largely religious in a town which is probably more religious than any of the wealthier, white towns surrounding it. I felt this was patronizing and possibly racist.

I’ve since graduated, and am again working in Benton Harbor for Harbor Habitat for Humanity. I feel great affection for this eccentric, messy town, and hate to see it degraded and simplified. With this in mind I wrote a fairly long essay critiquing Andrews University’s involvement in Benton Harbor. When I finished the essay, I went back and read what Andrews’ Campus Ministries is currently doing in Benton Harbor and nearly said out-loud, “Well, that’s not actually so bad.” Andrews is undertaking soft community development – development which may not work, and which AU will not be able to take responsibility for if it does happen, but which, especially the mentoring of young people, may have subjective positive effects. Some of the multi-million dollar state development projects can’t even be said to have had those.

Below is the beginning of the article – the rest will be available through a link to my blog, notesfromthefault.blogspot.com. If you choose to read it, read it as a provocation – I do not think that Andrews University harmful to Benton Harbor, just not as good as it should be. And paternalism is a real threat. I still have not heard a meaningful reason why AU should send young people to witness in Benton Harbor and not in the middle class and wealthy communities surrounding it. If you have any thoughts, let me know:

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. (Read More)

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One Response to Partnership or Proselytizing in Benton Harbor: An Adventist Case Study

  1. Jeff B says:

    I appreciated your practical ideas in the linked essay, and I encourage readers to make the jump to finish it.

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