Crossing the bridge into a cultural immersion experience

This is part of the series Shore Stories: Life Along the Lakeshore, columns by local and former residents about their lives. 

This past spring, I accepted the invitation to participate in a newly created cultural immersion initiative collaboration, created by Barbara Lee VanHorssen, director of the Momentum Center in Grand Haven, and Ken James, chief diversity officer of Muskegon Community College.

The “Across the Bridge” initiative included one group of community leaders from the Grand Haven area and another from Muskegon/Muskegon Heights. Each group committed to spending three days and two nights immersed in Muskegon/Muskegon Heights or Grand Haven area communities.   

The initiative focused on a cultural immersion opportunity for community leaders from Grand Haven and Muskegon, who would be immersed in our neighboring community.

A three-day journey

The journey for the group from the Grand Haven area began in Muskegon on a warm Friday morning in September and concluded late Sunday afternoon. 
Rebecca Hopp
Our small group of community leaders from Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Ferrysburg had committed to learning, experiencing, and exploring racial and cultural differences and challenges in the Muskegon area. 

Although Grand Haven and Muskegon are separated by only 14 miles and a drawbridge, both communities have unique qualities, as well as cultural and racial challenges. 

Each morning, we reviewed our daily agenda and were presented with a reflection question or quote for us to focus on throughout the day. Each evening, the group debriefed. We shared personal reflections and thoughts we experienced during the day. Personal past experiences, childhood memories, and current life experiences about race, ethics, and cultural division also contributed to our discussions. 

Full itinerary each day

Our cultural immersion included local businesses, nonprofit organizations, worship service, and several community venues, and we had the opportunity to cheer for Muskegon’s Big Red football team as they celebrated their homecoming win.
We cheer for Muskegon’s Big Red football team as the high school celebrated their homecoming win.
Our first day included touring the Frauenthal Center and local eateries. Muskegon County Prosecutor DJ Hilson and public safety officers from Muskegon County and the cities of Muskegon and Muskegon Heights participated in a roundtable discussion regarding initiatives the departments had created to enhance community dialogue and work toward addressing racial inequities. During the roundtable discussion, an officer shared about meeting with community members on a weekly basis at The Us Café. 

Our Saturday itinerary was full, including a tour of the James Jackson Museum of 
African American History in the heart of Muskegon Heights. The museum showcases local African American leaders from the past and present, along with exhibits and artifacts from the civil rights movement, human slavery, and other items depicting unsettling times in U.S. history, as well as the success story of President Barack Obama. 

On Sunday, we had the pleasure of attending a worship service. Sunday evening concluded our three days immersed in the Muskegon community. We debriefed about our experiences and the plan to continue this initiative into the future to provide more community involvement. 

‘Life-challenging experience’

During our time together, we shared our thoughts, hopes, and goal to continue the momentum created in this cultural immersion. This was truly a memorable, life-challenging experience.  

I was blessed to grow up in a family who opened our home and our hearts to foster children from West Michigan. I grew up in a community in the 1960s with a population that was not very diverse. However, our foster children represented many ethnic groups. All were in need of a loving, caring family, which my parents and siblings provided for them. 

I remember situations where community members would shun my family because our foster children had skin colors or hairstyles that were different than the majority of the residents. My parents taught me by demonstrating love, understanding, and respect for all people of all abilities, which are standards I still value today. 

The fall experience reminded me of the quote by the late peace activist Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.” 

Rebecca Hopp is the former Mayor of the city of Ferrysburg.