Greater Anderson Promotes Peace: Fills the Gaps Between People
It started with dinner, lead to a starring role in a Henna Night wedding ceremony, and ended with a visit to Texas to see a new friend, a Turkish Muslim woman who had spent a few years in Anderson Township before moving to San Antonio. How did a lifelong, white, Cincinnati local build such a unique and lasting friendship with someone so different? Because of a chain-reaction of relationship-building inspired by a surge of hate mail besetting Anderson back in 1998-99.
Louise Lawarre co-founded Greater Anderson Promotes Peace (G.A.P.P.) in 1999 as a commitment to making Anderson a welcoming, respectful and diverse place despite the actions of a few haters. Along with some friends and leaders of her church (especially Henry Zorn of the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection), she put together a community event to take a stand against hate in their community. Someone had put in mail boxes hate literature which featured swastikas and attacks against African Americans and Jews. The resulting event was simple—just respectful conversations about the values citizens wanted in their community, and a commitment to take a personal stand against anyone who expressed bigotry and hatred.
Intended as a one-time response, Louise was surprised that others wanted to make the effort a community movement to ensure that Anderson was a welcoming community to all. A small group of people then started a non-profit to raise money for a “peace pole” to symbolize their commitment to building a welcoming, peaceful and inclusive community. To this day Anderson residents gather around the peace pole when they need to take a stand against hate. Every year since 1999, G.A.P.P. has hosted at least four Quaker-style prayer vigils where anyone from the community can come and be with others meditating and intending peace in the world. In addition to G.A.P.P.’s formal gatherings, the Peace Pole attracts small, impromptu gatherings many times a year, especially after a crisis; over 100 people prayed for peace after the recent Charleston shooting.
The Thomas Berry quote “Nothing is itself without everything else” has been a guiding principle for Louise and G.A.P.P. – the notion that we only know ourselves in the context of others, that our uniqueness only shines in the presence of something different. G.A.P.P. wanted to provide Anderson residents with experiences that proved we are all one united family, and what better way to get to know distant “relatives” than to break bread with “the others” in your community.
So four years ago, G.A.P.P. partnered with the local Turkish Muslim community to offer classes in Turkish cooking. Muslim women generally don’t work outside the home, but these were all college educated women who were looking to connect with other residents outside of their cultural sphere. The Muslim women brought the ingredients and shared recipes, but everyone worked together to prepare the food. Over the weeks, the women became good friends—and the friendships have lasted.
Louise remarked that “We all share the essentials—family, friendship, strong communities, the importance of faith, whatever that may be. Ninety eight percent of life is shared between cultures, but you would never know it just by looking at a traditionally dressed Turkish Muslim.” But even after building friendships through communal food ritual, people were still (pleasantly) surprised when one of the Muslim women asked the friend she had made through the cooking classes—a young, white Christian woman from Anderson—to participate in Henna Night the day before her traditional Muslim wedding. Henna Night is not about Henna hand drawing that has become popular among Millennials—it is a sacred ritual where women from both sides of the family celebrate by dancing and walking with the veiled bride. The young American guest had studied in Turkey, so she had quickly connected with the bride. But this cross-cultural honor took the relationship to another level, telling all of the women from the cooking group that “we really could ‘girlfriends’ despite such different backgrounds.”
Ripples of friendship still emanate among these women. One Muslim woman moved to Columbus, looked up Louise’s daughter who she had met through the group, and they both count the other as a close friend. The woman who attended Henna Night regularly visits the bride in San Antonio. And grocery-store hugs abound year round.
Louise is still the executive director of G.A.P.P., making decisions about their work with a small leadership team whose aim is to “honor diversity, encourage understanding, and promote inclusion” regardless of whether they take on global issues, advocate for local policy change, or simply stand-up for the values they want Anderson to embody.
As racism recently reared its ugly head in the form of police violence, G.A.P.P. saw an opportunity to take another stand while building cross-cultural understanding and friendships. Through a connection with Lydia Morgan (Juneteenth organizer), G.A.P.P. co-hosted “Rethinking Racism”, a three-dialog series based on the PBS documentary “Slavery by Another Name”. But this is no protest movement; G.A.P.P.’s role is to encourage respectful dialog while addressing racism’s resurgence. For their part, G.A.P.P. members have begun to “awaken awareness of our whiteness and the privilege that often brings”. What does it mean to be white in a racist society? What are my obligations to the whole, and to the minorities who are part of that whole. How can we ensure that all members of the community “feel that the whole is good and right and acting in my interests?” Simply, Louise feels that we are all responsible for everyone’s experience of the whole.
The shift for Louise—who grew up in small town Springboro, Ohio, and whose only experiences with non-whites came from domestic employees (despite the love between them, her black nanny didn’t feel comfortable attending Louise’s wedding)—came in the mid-1990s when her church minister began to dismantle racism by helping his congregation understand white privilege within their church. Churches play a big part in G.A.P.P.’s work as well, from the founding help of the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection to just about all of the members of G.A.P.P.’s leadership team to the event-invitation process. But this is no religious movement—it’s bigger than any faith or church. Louise sees this as a human movement, a collective community effort—churches just happen to have a values alignment that inspires action—but they are careful to ensure that this remains a secular effort that welcomes all faiths.
A key strategy for G.A.P.P. is to engage with other organizations. Louise joined “Rethinking Racism” as its board secretary and then treasurer and has been a program coordinator for MLK Day festivities. But regardless of the context, G.A.P.P.’s basic strategy is to connect people who don’t know each other and get them to reflect on their individual lives within a larger community context. One-hundred and fifty people attended the first “Rethinking Racism” dialog session, but 18 small groups drove the dialog and relationship building. Nothing “got done”, but many got to know someone very different from themselves; several follow-up meetings are scheduled. To many this seems like a slow way to role the anti-racism boulder up a steep hill, but Louise knows that intimacy is the only way to make change, and intimacy is like good food—best made slowly, together.