(RNS) — On a recent dreary Saturday morning in Louisville, Ky., hundreds of people from across the community arrived carrying paint supplies, ready to start a long day’s work.
They were Hindus and Christians, Jews and Muslims, working side by side.
The vandalism occurred a few days earlier.
An intruder broke into the building and spent hours defiling the facility, spray painting messages like “Foreign B****es Whore F*** You C**!” on walls, windows and doors. The vandal also sprayed religious messages — “Jesus Is All Mighty is everything” with a Christian cross — in the former church that had been converted to a Hindu house of worship.
At some point in the spree of destruction, the vandal stabbed a knife into a chair. The eyes of one murti (visual representation of the divine) on a poster were also blacked out with paint.
The incident traumatized the temple’s devotees and the broader community — a desecration of sacred images is especially painful for a community whose religious practices see deities as embodiments of the divine. Despite this trauma, the community was relieved that the damage was fixable and that no one was physically harmed.
Thanks to the diligent efforts of Louisville police and tips from members of the public, a suspect had already been arrested by the time I arrived on the ground in Louisville on Friday to meet with the community.
This attack might seem like an isolated incident perpetrated by a bad apple. But it is actually part of a national trend.
According to official FBI statistics published on hate crimes, those classified as “Anti-Hindu” are rising. In fact, they’ve tripled since 2015. While the number of anti-Hindu hate crimes seems trivial in comparison to numbers against other communities across the United States, it’s hardly a matter to overlook.
Hate crimes targeting Hindus, mainly immigrants or their first generation descendants from India, Nepal, and Bhutan, are often racially motivated or a case of mistaken identity (sometimes animus directed at Muslims or Arabs) — and both reasons for hate crimes are abhorrent.
But this case is not one of those.
The vandalism was targeted at Hindus and their religion. The vandal wrote that out in plain black letters for his victims to see: They worship the wrong god, and he doesn’t like that they were using a former Christian church to do it.
His hatred was etched in spray paint over the eyes of Lord Swaminarayan, the main deity of this sect. This act was the most painful for members of this congregation, a direct affront to their right to worship and practice freely in this community.
The concerned citizens of Louisville weren’t having any of this in their city. In a matter of two days, Indian and Hindu Kentuckians worked with leaders across faith and cultural backgrounds to show a united front. They worked to repair the damage done by vandals. And they denounced the hate behind the attacks.
In the hall of the temple, filled to standing room only, a Christian pastor apologized on behalf of his faith and pledged to educate this young man about the love Jesus Christ showed his neighbors. He called the gathering “bahu sundar,” or very beautiful, a Hindi phrase he learned while traveling throughout India.
Police Chief Steve Conrad pledged his full support to the Hindu community of Louisville. Democrats Nima Kulkarni (a state representative) and John Yarmuth (a U.S. congressman) and Andy Beshear (Kentucky’s attorney general) stood alongside Republican Governor Matt Bevin, who made a surprise visit to the temple.
Governor Bevin asked Kentucky to use this “as an opportunity to learn more about Hinduism.” We hope the state legislature, attorney general, and governor will now act to strengthen its existing hate crimes statutes to reflect federal laws.
The service culminated with the government leaders performing the traditional waving of lamps in front of the deities.
Louisville is certainly full of love.
As a first-time visitor to Kentucky, experiencing the love of Louisville and the genuine interest of community members to learn more about their Hindu neighbors was a silver lining to the dark cloud of hate the vandal cast over the temple.
Still, I am left with this question: How was it possible for this young man to imbibe such hate?
Was it his religious teachers or a television depicting some caricature of Hinduism? Was it a series of bad facts about ancient India that plague our textbooks, or just an environment of intolerance he may have been immersed in?
We don’t know for sure, yet.
As the process proceeds against the young man accused of this crime, Hindu Americans must be prepared to proactively respond to show this young man love and grace, not retaliation. Temple spokesman Rajesh Patel set the tone when he quoted from his sect’s seminal scripture demanding forgiveness for the attacker and praying for his well-being.
Simultaneously, the prosecution of this case cannot be weak. A hate crime conviction for this case can send a message to the commonwealth’s citizens that bigotry has no home in the Bluegrass State.
Much work remains to be done to replace xenophobia with celebration, and the Hindu American Foundation pledges to be there with Hindus in Kentucky every step of the way.
I often tell Hindu community leaders to remember that Ras malai (an Indian treat pronounced rus ma – lie) is just as American as apple pie.
So is their worship.
“Your temple is just as American as any church down the road.”
Jay Kansara is director of government relations for the Hindu American Foundation. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.