The Common Good
September/October 2011

Peace Be Upon Them

by Bob Smietana | September/October 2011

A Tennessee church welcomes its Muslim neighbors.

 

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Rev. Steve Stone was just trying to be a good neighbor.

Two years ago, the pastor of Heartsong Church in Cordova, Tennessee, on the outskirts of Memphis, learned that a local mosque had bought property right across the street from the church. So he decided some Southern hospitality was in order.

A few days later, a sign appeared in front of the church. "Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood," it read.

That small act of kindness was the start of an unlikely friendship between the two congregations, one that made headlines around the world. Members of the mosque and church have shared meals together, worked at a homeless shelter, and become friends over the past two years. When Stone learned that his Muslim friends needed a place to pray for Ramadan because their building wasn't ready, he opened up the doors of the church and let them hold Ramadan prayers there.

Critics said that Stone was a heretic for allowing people of another faith to pray in his church building. He says he’s just doing what Jesus taught him to do. "Jesus told us to love our neighbors," Stone told Sojourners. "These people are actually neighbors."

The friendship between Heartsong and the Memphis Islamic Center comes at a time when Muslim-Christian relations have been testy. In communities from New York to California, from Wisconsin to Tennessee, proposed mosques have run into angry, organized opposition.

When the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 200 miles east of Cordova, put a sign on their property announcing a new building, a vandal spray-painted the words "not welcome" on it. Neighbors filed suit against the mosque -- arguing that Islam is not a religion and that the mosque was a terrorist training compound in disguise. When construction started at the site, a vandal set fire to a backhoe and other equipment there.

In New York City, opponents of a mosque in Manhattan took to the street, proclaiming that the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" would be a symbol of victory for terrorists. Earlier this year, Tennessee state politicians introduced a bill that claimed that practicing Islam was a sign of treason. The bill was later amended to remove all references to religion.

In Cordova, things have been peaceful.

There have been no marches against the mosque or other public opposition. Aside from some angry emails, the two congregations have gotten mostly positive feedback about their relationship. They've been featured on local and national news. A film crew from Bahrain came to town to film a story on the congregations. Recently, a local diversity organization awarded them their "Humanitarian of the Year" award.

The attention has taken Heartsong Church members -- known as "partners" -- by surprise. "I am blown away by how big of a deal it is," said Darren Eade, who has been part of the congregation for three years. Eade’s background is pretty typical for the congregation. He's 32 and was an atheist until converting to Christianity three years ago. Many other church members grew up going to church but had become disenchanted with traditional religion before joining Heartsong.

On the Sunday before Memorial Day this year, Eade and a group of other congregants gathered in an upstairs room for an interview. The group members, most of whom were in shorts and flip-flops or sneakers, came from all walks of life: In the room were a marketing executive, an executive from Memphis-based FedEx, a blues musician, and a fitness instructor. All were drawn to Heartsong for its "come as you are" approach to religion.

Lee Raines, a blues musician, said he felt welcome in the church from day one. "Everyone accepts you," he said. "They don't hold any judgments against you." Beth Ewing, a director at FedEx, recounted how members of the church and mosque became friends.

It started with the sign. Mosque leaders had hoped their new building would fly under the radar and not get the kind of attention that mosques in other parts of the country have gotten. They wanted to mind their own business and worship in peace and quiet. But once they saw the sign, leaders from the mosque called Stone and asked if they could meet. That first meeting led to others. Leaders of the mosque invited church members to several programs, and gradually friendships developed between the two congregations.

During a meeting in the summer of 2010, mosque leaders posed a question. Construction was going slowly at the Islamic Center, and they were concerned that the building would not be ready in time for Ramadan; would the church allow them to hold prayers in their building?

"We were hoping to use a classroom or one of the rooms for the children's program," said Dr. Bashar Shala, a cardiologist at the Memphis Heart Clinic and a member of the Islamic Center’s board of trustees. Instead, church leaders offered the use of the main auditorium at the church -- a multipurpose room that looks like a cross between a barn and big-box store. On Sundays, church members set up stacking chairs for the 600 or so people who worship there. The rest of the week the room is used for other activities, including an exercise class.

Like many contemporary churches, which feature rock bands and large video screens during services, Heartsong doesn’t have a traditional view of the church's building. The Heartsong congregation started meeting 13 years ago in the gym of a local Catholic high school -- and has retained that new church-plant identity, even though they’ve had their own space for about eight years.

On a recent Sunday, music in the church ranged from the contemporary Christian song "How Great is Our God" to "Get Together," the 1960s anthem by the Youngbloods: "Come on people now, smile on your brother / everybody get together, try to love one another right now."

"This building is not who we are," said Beth Ewing. "The building is not the church. The church is the people sitting in the room. When we are there for worship -- it is holy ground."

When church is over, the worship space becomes just another multi-purpose room. So church leaders were glad to offer it to the Islamic Center for their evening Ramadan prayers. The offer took members of the mosque by surprise. Some felt uncomfortable using the worship space. "They feared we would be overstepping our welcome," said Shala. During Ramadan, members of the church served as greeters for the evening services so that their Muslim neighbors would feel welcome.

Ewing said that opening the building up for Ramadan was the Christian thing to do. "For them to use our building is a natural extension of being good neighbors," she said. "They needed a place because their place wasn’t done. They asked for a day or two and it ended up being the whole of Ramadan."

Not everyone at Heartsong agreed with the decision.

Lee Raines was dead set against it. The musician admits that he had a negative opinion of Muslims at first. He thought of Islam as a "religion of hate" that had no place in the church. He wanted nothing to do with Muslims or their prayers. "I thought, 'this is just wrong,'" he said.

He brought his concerns to Stone and other church leaders. What changed his mind was reading the story of the Good Samaritan in the gospel of Matthew. "Love your neighbor," he said. "That's it."

Raines changed his mind, but about 20 church members didn't. They left once the Ramadan prayers started. Among them were several close friends of Beth Ewing and her husband, Duane. Duane said he was disappointed to see his friends leave the church -- and sad for them as well. "They've missed so much," he said.

Having close ties to the mosque has allowed church members to make friends with Muslims and to deal with their fear of Islam. They know more about the faith of their Muslim friends, who are doctors and lawyers and other professionals trying to provide for their families and make Memphis their home. Heartsong members such as Duane Ewing no longer associate Islam in general with terrorism. "I don't fear my Muslim neighbors," he said. "I don't fear my Jewish neighbors. I don't fear my Christian neighbors. I fear the crazy radicals."

Nick Guerra, a youth leader at Heartsong, said that he'd learned there had been two bidders for the property across the street from the church, but "there was an overwhelming feeling that we'd rather have a mosque." Guerra said that his faith in Jesus made it possible for him to befriend his neighbors. "We serve a God who is greater than any fear I could have," he said.

Some critics of Heartsong say the church is blending Islam and Christianity. That's not the case, said Stone. During the Sunday service on Memorial Day weekend, Stone talked about the church's friendship with the Islamic Center. The two groups are making plans for a new park that would sit on both congregations' property. Heartsong will donate three to four acres to the project, as will the Islamic Center. "They are very clear that they are Muslims," said Stone, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with the church name emblazoned on it. "We are very clear that we are Christians. But we are trying to do something together for the good of the community."

That's a point Stone made after the service: The church’s friendship with the mosque is part of following Jesus. "Everything we've done we’ve done as a witness for Jesus," he said. "God will take care of the rest."

In some ways, Stone's job is easier than it might be for other pastors. At his congregation, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, he acts as the CEO of the congregation. Church members trust him to do the right thing. "We did not take a congregational vote," he said.

For years, he's been preaching to the congregation about reaching out to their neighbors. They've built the congregation by intentionally reaching out to people who don't go to church.

Heartsong's friendship with the Islamic Center has gotten mixed reviews from Stone's pastor friends. Some have told him he's making a mistake. Others say he's doing the right thing -- but say that their churches would never go along with it. That doesn’t sit well with Stone.

"We are in the 'do the right thing' business," he said. "If you can't do the right thing, you are in the wrong church."

Bob Smietana, religion writer for The Tennessean and a correspondent for Religion News Service, is co-author of Good Intentions: Nine Hot-Button Issues Viewed through the Eyes of Faith.

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