The group formed in early 1999, after swastikas had been spray-painted on a Jewish family’s Anderson Township home. “Some churches came together to say hate is not a value for our churches and to encourage people to speak up,” says Louise Lawarre, the current and founding executive director of Greater Anderson Promotes Peace. When, throughout that summer and fall, hate literature was being dropped in Anderson Township driveways, GAPP doubled down, evolving into a civic organization in order to attract members of other or no faith.
“In the beginning we were just focusing on helping people to understand the importance of diversity, of respect, of trying to get to know who your neighbors are,” says Lawarre. “To [encourage them to] speak out against the hate that was showing up in their driveway—that silence was not an option.”
For our November 2017 issue, we look at immigration in the city: Who we were, who we are, and who we’re becoming.
That need, apparent to anyone who has listened to even a flicker of recent news, has not abated in the slightest. “My friends of color tell me that it’s not that things have gotten so much worse,” says Lawarre. “It’s that there’s more visibility now. And white people are slowly beginning to realize that what they’ve been telling us all along is true.” She laments that “the presence of hate in our culture right now somehow seems to have a sense that it’s acceptable,” but cites poverty, substandard schools, and more, noting “those realities have been there for years.” And in her eyes, “That’s GAPP’s job right now, to help people understand that.” So they’ve done significant programming in recent years speaking directly to racism in addition to their other longstanding work, such as teaming up with the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education to bring Holocaust survivors as speakers to Anderson Township schools.
But, Lawarre says, there’s another piece: “We need to speak out about what’s wrong, but we need to build the bonds of friendship.” That philosophy led GAPP to start a Peace Meals program, an idea adopted from Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church. For four Saturdays in October 2011, a group of Turkish Muslim women, largely living in Mason, gathered with women from Anderson Township for evenings of cooking, eating, and conversing.
Sevcan Sasmaz, one of the Turkish women involved from the start of Peace Meals, recalls preparing and sharing stuffed grape leaves and red lentil soup, baklava, and rice pudding. “We were very happy to see the interest for Turkish cuisine,” she says. “Even though we live away from Turkey we try to cook mostly Turkish cuisine.” But more than the food, Sasmaz speaks of the community that formed. “They were also very effective interfaith gatherings,” she says. “When we spend time together we understand how similar we are, [the] similar or same concerns we have. And we became friends. We have been seeing each other for six years now.”
Lawarre speaks of those relationships: how the women have attended each other’s baby showers; how they’ve had a Thanksgiving potluck, upon request, to share the American tradition; how the Turkish women shared the henna night wedding tradition with GAPP members. Lawarre and Sasmaz met for lunch in mid-September to talk about reinstating Peace Meals.
There’s much work to be done, and no quick solution to eliminating hate or prejudice. But evident in what has happened in these rooms, it’s not a hopeless task. “We should show how people [of] different ethnicity, culture, and faith can come together and live together,” says Sasmaz. “Sharing food is a powerful way to start building the bridge of peace.”