BELDING — Through religious faith, two men who by all accounts should never be friends are defying the odds.
Benton Harbor natives Jameel McGee and Andrew Collins visited Belding High School on Saturday evening to tell the story of how they overcome their substantial differences to establish a friendship.
Collins is a former police officer who planted evidence that led to the wrongful incarceration of McGee in 2009.
The Belding Ministerial Association collaborated to bring Collins and McGee to Belding. The evening’s event started with a musical performance from Matt Moore and Josh Thompson. Following the music was a talk from former Belding football coach Irv Sigler, who talked about the unity in Belding during his time as coach.
Belding Bible Church Pastor Pete McGowan said one of the reasons for holding the event was to “get a swell of positive energy going towards Easter.”
“One of the things we see … is people talking, people not coming together, people not getting along in this town and that’s sad to say,” he said. “We’re a town of just under 6,000 and we haven’t had a lot of positive momentum.”
Sigler gave a brief history of his coaching career and regaled the crowd with details about the support his players received from the town and the unity he felt from citizens. He expressed his hope the city might be able to come together once again.
“I’m not sure why anybody from Belding would badmouth Belding, but, obviously they haven’t been to a bad place yet,” he said. “… so maybe they complain. Complaints sometimes are effective but praise is a heck of a force in our lives. If … people do good things for you, tell them. When you see kids do good things, tell them.”
McGee and Collins then told their story. Collins talked about how he wanted to bolster his arrest records, while McGee recalled how he was going to the store to buy milk for his young son. That’s when their paths crossed.
McGee was convicted on drug charges and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Four years into McGee’s sentence, Collins was found out and arrested for drug possession, falsifying records and other charges. He did 18 months in prison.
When McGee and Collins met after they were both released from prison it was back in their hometown of Benton Harbor. They saw each other across a park when McGee was out with his son. Collins spoke to McGee, trying to convey his remorse and apologies, but McGee stayed silent.
McGee said it took all he had not to hit Collins in that moment until he heard the phrase, “let it go,” come into his head.
“God was talking to me as well in that very moment as well,” he said. “I said some real mean things to him and I walked away. Each step I walked away, I felt lighter; I felt better.”
Time passed and McGee and Collins went on with their lives. They crossed paths again when they began working in the same place.
The men began talking about their faith in God and the paths they both walked to bring them where they are today.
“The longer I was away from police work, the more I realized I wasn’t just sorry for being caught. I was sorry for what I did,” Collins said.
Once they began to see each other regularly, McGee was finally able to hear and accept an apology from Collins. The two men have been friends since and have traveled together to spread their message of forgiveness.
“There may be some people you owe that apology to,” Collins said, addressing the audience. “That person is still on your mind. It’s time to say you’re sorry. It doesn’t matter what they’re going to say back to you. I didn’t get the response I wanted out of this man in Broadway Park when I said I was sorry. I wanted him to say, ‘I forgive you.’ That wasn’t my part. My part was just to (apologize).”
McGee and Collins encouraged the audience to go forth and apologize to those they are holding grudges against.