A Tennessee Church Welcomes its Muslim Neighbors

By Bob Smietana 08-19-2011

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.

+ Continue reading "Peace Be Upon Them: A Tennessee Church Welcomes its Muslim Neighbors" in the September/October issue of Sojourners Magazine

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 Eye

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