Master Drawing

My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.—The Dalai Lama

 

They were making a joyful noise that no one outside their building really noticed — that is until a local group of Muslims bought a piece of property across the road from their church. When the members of Heartsong church learned that the Memphis Islamic Center (MIC) was building a mosque next door, they did what the basis of their own faith guided them to do — they demonstrated kindness. The modest deed of putting up a sign on their own property welcoming the Islamic Community — a quiet gesture of charity — opened a dialogue that resulted in an unlikely friendship. That simple act of kindness began a process of unity, and forged an alliance that remains intact today. It also brought these Christians and Muslims international attention.

The Quran was being burned by Terry Jones, pastor of the Christian Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida on the 2010 anniversary of 9/11. That, and many other fear based hate and ignorance stimulated crimes and threats against Muslims, were taking place all over the country during the time surrounding the anniversary of the tragedy. But in a part of the country that is often known for its racial and religious bigotry, Heartsong, a Methodist affiliated church, nestled in a wooded area in Cordova, Tennessee, a Memphis suburb, opened its doors and welcomed their new Muslim neighbors.

Welcome sign 7 inches

Readily admitting that his initial reaction to his new neighbors was a bit of “unease,” Dr. Steve Stone, minister of Heartsong, soon arrived at a game changing thought process. “I’m supposed to make my decisions based on love and kindness, not fear.”

Ramadan is a month long Islamic holiday during which the faithful fast during the day and spend hours in prayer at their mosques. The Islamic Center would not be completed in time for Ramadan services in 2010, but inspired by the welcoming attitude demonstrated by the Heartsong minister, the co-founder of the Memphis Islamic Center, Dr. Bashar Shala, asked if they could use part of the Heartsong facility for Ramadan prayers. Not only did the congregation agree to the use of their building, but they actually opened up their main worship area for the services, and many Heartsong members made it a point to be on hand to welcome the Islamic worshipers each day. Shan Khan, a member of MIC, attended Islamic services at Heartsong when construction of the mosque wasn’t complete. “It’s a clear demonstration of what it means to be an American,” Khan said. “It’s where people of different cultures and different beliefs come together for a common goal. It was a wonderfully amazing phenomenon. It was true embodiment of Southern hospitality …”

A full spirit of cooperation, however, was not engaged in by all. Out of the congregation of approximately 500 at Heartsong, roughly 20 members left the church in opposition. Some in the community called Heartsong members “heathens.” One regional blog posted: “Another Memphis Area Church Throws Jesus Under The Bus.” Dr. Stone realized that there would be some antagonism, not only from his members, but also from those outside of his church, but he was floored at the response he encountered. He actually anticipated about a 50/50 approval/disapproval rate from the community, but was astonished at the overwhelming positive reaction, not only locally, but internationally. There was a 90 per cent positive reply from around the world — Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, Wiccans, agnostics, you name it! One Muslim from Pakistan waited out the hours-long time change to place a call after viewing a CNN broadcast about the events transpiring between the two groups. The Pakistani was astonished that such a gesture of kindness had been made by these American Christians. He told Dr. Stone that one of his fellow Muslims had left his presence after also watching the newscast, only to return hours later to disclose that he had been cleaning a near-by Christian church, and that he intended to continue to do so in the future. Countless stories such as that one persist even these years later.

No kind action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. Amelia Earhart

The annual Thanksgiving dinner held at Heartsong the week before the actual holiday, provided another opportunity for kindness and understanding. When the invitation to share in that celebration was issued to the members of the Memphis Islamic Center, they immediately accepted — on the condition that they could provide the food! Although it was a brave new world for the adults, the children, many of whom had been attending school together, enlightened their elders to the fact that both groups had more similarities than differences. The children bridged the path to acceptance that became the foundation for a lasting relationship.

Dinner cropped 7 inches

As the remarkable union has matured, the two groups of worshipers have realized that some tribute to the association should be created. To that end, each congregation has designated four acres on either side of the middle-ground road for the construction of a park that will honor the alliance. Emphasis on bridging many cultures will be the primary theme, and the growth of friendships will be metaphorically achieved through beautiful, peaceful landscaping. Because the children have played such an integral role in the strength of the relationship between the two faiths, much focus will be placed on topnotch playground equipment. With a signature steel tree erected on each side, the two properties will be joined together with a “bridge,” to form Friendship Park.

The overwhelming local, national, and international response to the relationship caused the formation of The Memphis Friendship Foundation, whose board members are from both congregations, as well as other interested citizens. The first mission of the Foundation is to insure the construction of the world-class park, and in that effort, they have attracted a number of impressive supporters. Top donors for the project are: Play Core, Trust Marketing and Communications, and JPA, a landscape architecture and design firm. John Jackson III, owner of JPA, said, “Plans will include an element of technology that connects the park to people of different cultures. The purpose of this is to take recreation and play, learn about someone else, and build a friendship that transcends distance. It’s all-inclusive.”

Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love. Lao Tzu

The Foundation is determined to make the park an outstanding facility that will be a Memphis landmark, not unlike Graceland or the National Civil Rights Museum. Funding for the project is hopeful, with interest coming from all around the globe. The Foundation was formed so that those who would be apprehensive donating to a religious group would be comfortable donating to an organization. The board, however, would like to begin the undertaking with backing from local sources first, so that the community will have involvement and share in the pride of the development.

Walker Lee, son of The Memphis Friendship Foundation board member Jeff Lee, produced a first-rate video to describe the proposed park and how it became a joint project. In a note to me, Walker Lee said, “The Christians at Heartsong and the Muslims at MIC have decided to come together to set an example of tolerance and to prove to the world that Christians and Muslims can get along and even thrive together. Among many other attractions, the park will feature a bridge connecting the two properties, this bridge serving as a symbol of unity and acceptance.” Although there was surprising positive feedback to the coalition, young Lee was “disheartened at the intolerance” shown by some. His pride in his church and the stance that they took inspired him to produce the video. Please take the time to view the video here:

In a comment about the publicity Heartsong and the Memphis Islamic Center have garnered, Dr. Stone said, “there have been other mosque/church relationships in the Memphis area, but this one just happened to hit the airwaves.” He went on to say that “this journey has changed all of our lives.” When asked by a reporter if any Muslims had become Christians or any Christians had become Muslims, Dr. Shala replied, “No, we’ve just become better at what we were already.”

Friendship

(Dr. Bashar Shala and Dr. Steve Stone)

All photos courtesy Farooq Qureshi

Memphis Friendship Foundation website: http://memphisfriendshipfoundation.org/

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8 thoughts on “GOOD BRIDGES MAKE GOOD NEIGHBORS by Deborah Fagan Carpenter

  1. Shelly Jackson

    Great article on a great topic – I was lucky to grow up next door to a wonderfully friendly Muslim family! We learned to ride bikes together, played together, ate together AND we all got the chicken pox together at a sleepover when we were young lol 😉 We still keep in touch as grown adults – what a blessing! But so many people misunderstand the peaceful Muslim culture and allow the media to peg terrorism on Muslims instead of the outlying insane radicals who call themselves “muslim”.

    I am so proud of Heartsong and other churches who reach out to our Muslim neighbors and allow friendships and partnerships to grow. I can’t wait for Friendship Park!! Thanks so much for writing this awesome article!!

  2. Kathy Martin

    Deborah,

    What an awesome, inspiring piece. Thank you for making my soul lighter with the reading of your piece and knowing that such a wonderful alliance is being made in my own city.

  3. Susan Newell Mouser

    Good job, Deborah. You are also a good reporter! Who knew?

    1. Lol!!! Thanks Susan!

  4. Tom Lawrence

    A random act of kindness in a world of fear and distrust. Well done Deborah!

  5. Really good article, Deborah. Thanks for taking the positive Christian/Muslim message another step forward.

  6. jimmy crosthwait

    Tolerance and empathy are very valuable qualities… made even more valuable these days by their scarcity. Great story, Deborah. I really like your mix of quotations from the Dalai Lama, Lao-tzu, and Amelia Earhart.

    1. Thanks Mona and Jimmy. It gives me great hope that such tolerance and kindness exists!

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