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Black Christians, white Jews find promised land together

A Catholic worshipper holds a cross made out of bread during a Good Friday procession inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed to be the burial site of Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem, Friday, April 6, 2012.

Bernat Armangue/AP

After the summons to worship, the Lord's Prayer and the first hymn of the morning, the pastor of the South Calvary Missionary Baptist Church here asked the visitors to stand. Among the several hundred African-Americans in the pews on that Sunday last month, about a dozen elderly guests rose to introduce themselves as former neighbours, all of them Jewish.

"I lived at 1145 South Capitol, right behind the church," said one woman.

"My name is Lee Mallah," added another, "and I lived at 1015 Church St."

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"My mother and father ran Terry's Market," said a third.

With each address, each detail, murmurs of recognition and sighs of "Amen" floated up from the worshippers. Then the pastor, the Rev. John W. Woodall Jr., called on a white-haired man with wire-rim glasses, a retired judge named William Levy.

"All my homes, unfortunately, are under that interstate," Mr. Levy said, nodding in the direction of I-70, two blocks north of the church. And now his listeners emitted a communal groan.

In the service lay a story of black Christians and white Jews who once shared a kind of promised land, a peacefully integrated section of Indianapolis called Southside. Its decades of harmony were a rebuke to the Southern-style racial divisions that characterized Indiana for much of the 20th century, from the Ku Klux Klan's heyday in the interwar years to George Wallace's popularity with the state's voters in the 1960s.

Upward mobility, I-70 and the construction of a football stadium hollowed out the neighbourhood starting in the late 1960s. But in the last four years, an anthropology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, Susan B. Hyatt, has set about finding former Southsiders and restoring those ties through social events and reciprocal worship services at South Calvary and the Etz Chaim Sephardic synagogue.

At no time will her efforts be more meaningful than during this weekend's convergence of Christianity's holiest days, Good Friday and Easter, and the beginning of the Jewish Passover. Passover's exodus narrative is arguably the central text both for Judaism and black Christianity.

"All I know is this neighbourhood was full of nice people," Mr. Levy, 82, told the congregation at South Calvary last month. "Something exceptional about this place and that time. Two totally different peoples, different colour, different backgrounds, different language, coexisting beautifully. What I saw was acceptance of all of those differences, coupled with friendship. A perfect match."

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At the kosher lunch after the church service, Jacqueline Bellamy, 62, added her assent. "Most times, people of two colours, two religions don't come together," she said. "To see how it's blossomed to this is like, 'Wow!'"

The story of Southside begins with two epic exoduses. One brought thousands of Sephardic Jews – those expelled from Spain during the Inquisition – to safe harbours in the Ottoman Empire. Early in the 20th century, their progeny arrived in Indianapolis, where many worked as tailors in a factory owned by German Jews and others were peddlers or opened shops.

The other exodus involved black Africans brought to America as slaves. In the years after the First World War, several thousand of their descendants made their way to Indianapolis, finding in Southside both access to industrial jobs and rare examples of integrated public schools. The black Christians and the Sephardic Jews, fellow outsiders, shared a kind of microclimate of tolerance. When one of the local movie theatres attempted to enforce segregated seating, the white Jewish children would sneak their black Christian friends down from the Jim Crow balcony.

All of that history might have been lost to postwar prosperity and the construction boom's wrecking ball had not Prof. Hyatt attended an annual reunion of Southside's black residents in August, 2008, and heard for the first time about their former Sephardic neighbours. By pure coincidence the next year, she ran into Lee Mallah, one of those former neighbours, selling Sephardic pastries at a local greenmarket. With students from her anthropology classes and $14,000 from Indiana-Purdue and other donors, Prof. Hyatt set about locating former Southsiders. She and her students have by now taken about 40 oral histories and digitally scanned about 400 period photographs.

What was impossible to foresee was the depth of the individual connections that have been re-established. Becky Profeta and Cleo Moore, for instance, discovered that their families had lived at different times in the same house at 1106 South Illinois St. Henrietta Mervis, 92, met the long-ago customers of her parents' grocery store. She was not even the oldest participant at the service. That honour went to John M. Calloway, 96, who let it be known that he still is a ballroom dancer.

During a bus tour of the old neighbourhood – what is left of it, that is – Beatrice Miller said something that she probably meant in jest. But under the circumstances, it sounded profound. "On the Southside," she said, "every key opened the same doors."

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