Indiana Latinos, police pray together

Relationships built despite mutual fear, distrust

Oct 26, 2015 by , and

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ELKHART, Ind. — Gilberto Pérez Jr. didn’t like seeing a routine litany of run-ins between law enforcement officers and his Latino community in northern Indiana, so he did something about it.

Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers, left, speaks with members of Templo Sinai congregation in Goshen, Ind. — Gilberto Pérez Jr./MC USA

Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers, left, speaks with members of Templo Sinai congregation in Goshen, Ind. — Gilberto Pérez Jr./MC USA

Speaking at a Sept. 17 Learning to Undo Racism event for staff of the Mennonite Church USA Elkhart office, he said intentional communication and interaction between the groups has made an improvement.

Pérez is president and CEO of Bienvenido (Welcome) Community Solutions and senior director of Intercultural Development and Educational Partnerships at Goshen College.

Pérez opened a local newspaper and read aloud the names in the police reports — mostly Spanish surnames in a much higher percentage than the area’s 33 percent Latino population.

“The majority of these offenses are driving without an operator’s license. How does the arresting officer know?” Pérez asked.

Responses from Mennonite staff indicated the belief that racial profiling was taking place.

Then, Pérez asked, “So, what do you do?”

Pérez’s response was to begin talking with Wade Branson, Goshen’s police chief. Pérez wanted to see the humanity of those who serve his community. He asked God’s Spirit to guide him in these conversations. After 18 months of building this relationship, Pérez invited the police chief to lunch to ask about what he was seeing in the newspapers.

Branson asked: “How can I learn what Latinos are experiencing? What can we do to fix this?”

Branson agreed to be present at a meeting that included two Latino pastors (Assemblies of God and Mennonite), an Anglo Mennonite pastor and a Catholic priest. This diverse group talked and listened to each other.

The clergy requested that law enforcement officers come to their congregations to explain policing protocols in Goshen. Pérez submitted a proposal to the city’s Community Relations Commission for support in convening the meetings. Some meetings had more than 150 participants, including the county sheriff and Goshen’s mayor.

Latinos at the meetings talked about how they felt targeted, and law enforcement officers shared their policing process.

After a year of talking together, the language of many Latino participants had shifted slightly to indicate they now saw themselves having more ownership in the community.

“Latinos were now asking questions about services the city offers and talking about how they experience life in their neighborhoods,” Pérez said.

A Latino man confessed he had failed to pray enough for police officers. Before the meeting ended, the law enforcement officers were invited to the center of the circle, and participants prayed for them with outstretched hands.

“It was just a little transformation; I don’t want to make it sound more impressive than it was,” Pérez said. “But the [law enforcement] practice has changed, and there is an openness to sit and talk. It all starts with relationship.”

Pérez, Branson and Goshen’s mayor, Allan Kauffman, took their message of relationship-building and reconciliation to the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns on Sept. 30, where they offered their story of creating space for community conversations.


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