In Indianapolis, a Black Pastor and a White Sheriff’s Deputy Build Alliances Between Churches and Communities

D.J. Nuetzmann (left), a Sheriff's Deputy from Martinsville, and Jerome Johnson, an assistant pastor at First Baptist Church North, Indianapolis, have formed a friendship over their love of God, and fishing, Indianapolis, Thursday, February 23, 2017.  (Photo: Robert Scheer/IndyStar)
D.J. Nuetzmann (left), a Sheriff’s Deputy from Martinsville, and Jerome Johnson, an assistant pastor at First Baptist Church North, Indianapolis, have formed a friendship over their love of God, and fishing, Indianapolis, Thursday, February 23, 2017. (Photo: Robert Scheer/IndyStar)

When Jerome Johnson and his friend Chick Wilson ventured into a white, upper middle-class neighborhood in Johnson County to go fishing, Wilson was anxious. They were two black men in suburbia, rolling slowly through winding streets, looking for an address they’d never visited. To Wilson, it seemed a recipe for trouble. When they received a wary glance from a white woman walking her dog, Wilson’s anxiety grew.  “It definitely won’t be long now,” he said.

Sure enough, in a matter of minutes, after the two men had found their destination and parked their truck, after they had walked behind a house and took their spots on the banks of a pond, they saw a white Johnson County sheriff’s deputy approaching. In his head, Johnson could hear Wilson’s voice: “It won’t be long now.”

It was spring 2016. Still burning in the collective consciousness of black Americans were deadly confrontations between police officers and unarmed black subjects, producing ongoing protests nationwide. For black leaders such as Johnson, a minister in an inner-city neighborhood, such things were never far from his mind. Would this be another tense encounter?

The deputy ambled over to Johnson’s spot and spoke.

“What you catching,” he asked.

“Bluegill and bass,” Johnson replied.

“I love to fish, too,” the deputy said.

Johnson relaxed a bit. The deputy seemed calm and pleasant. There’d been some auto break-ins in the neighborhood, he explained, and as he was patrolling he saw the truck in the driveway with its door open. No one was home, and he went around back, where he found the fishermen.

Johnson laughed. He said that was his truck. In his rush to get a hook in the water, he must have left the door open.

The two men continued talking. Each liked something about the other’s warmth. Both, their wives would say later, are the type who has never meet a stranger. When Johnson mentioned he and Wilson were always looking for places to fish, the deputy suggested they give him a call — he had a couple of ponds on his land in Trafalgar.

They didn’t realize it, the black fisherman and the white deputy, but they’d just begun one of the unlikeliest friendships of their lives.

The deputy, D.J. Nuetzmann, grew up in Martinsville, a town with a tragic reputation for racism, a place many blacks still consider a “sundown town” where it’s best not to be caught after dark. Nuetzmann grew up not realizing the reach of the town’s reputation. When he played sports at Martinsville High School, he had occasionally heard hometown fans spew epithets at visiting black players, but he thought that was just the old folks, people from a bygone era.

“My mom raised me to treat everybody the same,” Nuetzmann said.

Johnson grew up in South Bend under the roof of parents who still remembered the troubles they left in Mississippi. His elders maintained a healthy distrust of white people, but Johnson attended a diverse high school, had friends of all colors. He’d come to believe children aren’t born with prejudice; they have to be taught it by adults.

This was how they met. This was how it started.

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SOURCE: Robert King, robert.king@indystar.com 
The Indianapolis Star