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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Michigan riots challenge ELCA ministries

After a high-speed chase by white police officers ended in an African American's death June 16, riots erupted in Benton Harbor, Mich. Mobs burned and looted homes and businesses. Local officials declared a state of emergency.

Town leaders attributed some of the anger to tensions between the city's predominantly African American community and its mostly white police force. Others pointed to a history of racial tension and economic differences between the town and its predominantly white neighbor, St. Joseph. Benton Harbor has no ELCA congregation; St. Joseph has Saron and Peace.

Gary Cowall, pastor of Saron, says parishioners participate in a street ministry, soup kitchen and Habitat for Humanity projects that benefit poor areas in Benton Harbor. Although the tension is real, "it's moving toward being a blended community," he says.

Fritz Brandenburg, pastor of Peace, says the group of rioters was a small proportion of the Benton Harbor community and that the main tension is economic.

"Part of the solution is persistence," Brandenburg says. "We have to support the positive things. I don't get the sense that our congregation wants to pull out of working on these issues. What brings people together is the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Both congregations participate in the Council for a World Class Community, an organization that Whirlpool, the area's largest employer, sponsors to help church, business and town leaders find ways the two towns can better work together.

Both pastors said the North/West Lower Michigan Synod is also prepared to offer faith-based anti-racism introductory workshops in the fall for the community.


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