Indiana Interfaith Vigil Against Hate

Indiana is my home.  I grew up north of Indianapolis, in the suburbs of Hamilton County.  This is what my part of Indiana looks like — abundant greenery, small country hills, midwestern sunsets, cornfields.

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Hamilton County is one of the reddest counties in a red state.  It’s filled with upper-middle class suburbs, booming megachurches, top-tier public school districts, and well-funded infrastructure and government.  It’s an amazing place to raise a family.  I learned love and community and hard work there.

I was fairly oblivious, however, to just how wide the disparity was between my little slice of suburban heaven and the rest of the state, like the Indianapolis public schools 10 miles away.  Until I started seriously studying government and politics in high school and later college, I had no comprehension of how the civil rights movement intersected with the history of central Indiana.  Thanks to those good public schools and exceptional teachers, however, my eyes started to be opened — by field trips, civil rights coursework, government competitions, and a term paper I wrote on the KKK.

In the 1920s, Hamilton County, Indiana was a hotbed of the KKK.  A famous 1930s-era Thomas Hart Benton mural of Indiana history, still displayed at Indiana University, includes a segment on KKK history.  One corner of a panel depicts a hooded KKK member beside a burning cross; it’s continuing artistic/educational/classroom display has sparked controversy for generations.

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Photo Credit: Indiana University

In 1925, Noblesville, Indiana — the seat of Hamilton County — drew national attention.  Noblesville arrested, held, tried, and ultimately convicted of murder the notorious Grand Dragon of the Indiana KKK, D.C. Stephenson.  The trial is credited with breaking the KKK’s strength in Indiana.  The trial happened in this historic courthouse, which still dominates the Noblesville town square.

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But racism did not die with the 1925 weakening of the KKK.  In 1930 in Marion, Indiana, two young black boys were lynched — once again bringing national attention to the state.  A photographer captured the jubilation of the Sunday crowd as the boys hung from a tree.  No one was ever arrested for the murders of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.  The disturbing sequence of events inspired the poem, and later the 1939 Bille Holliday song, Strange Fruit.

Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith, and 23 other victims of lynching in Indiana are honored in the Equal Justice Initiative’s new National Memorial to Peace and Justice, dedicated to all victims of racial terror lynching between 1880-1960.

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As a kid, I wanted to believe that all of this horrific history was buried in the past, that my idyllic bedroom suburb in Indiana reflected a new era of peace and love and tolerance as we all worked in our diversity to build a robust community.  But even as a child I understood the truth was not so comfortable — I remember reading Indianapolis Star headlines whenever the KKK decided to hold a rally in town.

To this day, the Southern Poverty Law Center documents 30 different white supremacist and neo-nazi groups operating in Indiana.

Last weekend, some people affiliated with or inspired by those groups (exact identities still unknown) took shameful action.  In the wee hours of Saturday morning they spray painted Nazi symbols onto a Jewish Synogogue in Carmel, Hamilton County, Indiana.

Congregation Shaarey Tefilla is mere miles away, and on the same cross-street, as my parent’s home.  There are still-living members and close relatives of this Jewish congregation who survived Auschwitz.

Another mile down the road, on the same street, within eyesight of the Synagogue, is the  Indianapolis Mormon Temple.

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Photo Credit: LDS.org

Whoever spray-painted the Nazi symbols attacked our neighbors.  They desecrated sacred ground.  They acted on hate and intended to instill fear.

Thankfully, the outpouring of community support was enormous.  On Monday, more than a thousand interfaith and community members gathered at the Synagogue, overflowing into the halls.   More than twenty leaders offered remarks.  The Huffington Post livestreamed the entire event.

My mother is on the board of a central Indiana interfaith organization, and  was asked to be the LDS Church’s representative of solidarity and support.   These were her prepared remarks:

Shalom to our Jewish friends and everyone else.

I am Ruth Ellen Homer, and I represent my church on the board of the Center for
Interfaith Cooperation….The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands united with our Jewish neighbors in Carmel.  We believe every synagogue should be undisturbed as a safe and peaceful place of worship.

Our founding leader, Joseph Smith, taught that “we claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, and what they may.”

Religious freedom encompasses safety in worship.  In pursuit of this fundamental need, we extend our support and understanding to the Jewish community, as so many of them have done for us over the years. Whenever we can offer meaningful help, we are honored to do so. Thank you.

The Indianapolis Star then captured a photo of my mom hugging Rabbi Benjamin Sendrow, next to the Mayor of Carmel, Indiana.

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“Those who love God hate evil,” Rabbi Benjamin Sendrow addressed the crowd. “There is no better way than to fight evil with arms linked as a community.”

I believe that.  I believe in my home.  I believe our interfaith love is genuine, that it is strong enough to drive out all hate.  I am proud that flags and signs and billboards have sprung up proclaiming Hamilton County’s love for our Jewish neighbors this week.

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But I would be naive if I did not recognize that history endures and repeats itself.  That hate is real, that it is a malignant cancer, and that right now it is inflicting real suffering on my friends.  Around the country over the last two years, there has been a increasing number of hate crimes like this one.  But Nazi graffiti on a Synagogue in Carmel, Indiana strikes particularly close to home, because it is my home.  A home that I hoped had put the history of the 1920s and 1930s behind us.  I have never been so sad to have been so wrong.

I pray for my hometown.  And I resolve to keep working to realize my dream of a state, a nation, and a world that roots out hate and replaces it with the peaceable love of Christ.

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Note: I made a deliberate decision throughout this post to only link to, and not embed, each of the disturbing photos referenced.  I do not wish to retraumatize my friends, but I do wish to educate those who need to see the horror.

Comments

  1. Kristin Brown says:

    You must be so proud of your mother….we all are.

  2. Great summary. Wonderful gesture by your mother.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Three cheers for your mum! And thanks for the educational background.

  4. Thanks for sharing this.