A Change of Heart

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“Our community wanted a spacious place to pray and play, to:  host weddings, throw parties, gather on holidays, relax on weekends, house a day care center and have activities for the elderly.

We had put a bid on a parcel of land, but were turned down when the owner learned about our community. We found the second parcel a few months later. It was the perfect plot of land in Cordova, on the eastern edge of Memphis – 30 rolling acres with an idyllic pond. But it was on a road nicknamed ‘church road’ because of the number of Christian houses of worship that line it.

We were nervous. Very nervous. We thought we’d have to work hard to show that we are a peaceful community, that we’re just normal people.”

 

This was in 2010. The speaker was Dr. Bashar Shala , a 49-year-old cardiologist and chairman of the board of trustees for the Memphis Islamic Center.

 

Dr. Shala said, “Memphis is the buckle of the Bible Belt. And here we were, Muslims, coming in to establish a community worship center right in the middle of ‘church road’.”

 

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Meanwhile, directly across ‘church road’ from that perfect plot of land, was Heartsong Church, a United Methodist congregation. One morning, Pastor Steve Stone was reading the newspaper and saw a headline at the bottom of the front page: Muslims buy land for hub in Cordova.

 

The paragraphs underneath said that the Memphis Islamic Center was planning to build a mosque and “a sprawling community center” in Cordova.

 

Pastor Steve thought, That’s interesting. I didn’t realize there were that many Muslims in Memphis.

 

He read on: the Islamic center had purchased 30 acres. “Hmm.” Then he saw where: directly across ‘church road’.

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Pastor Steve closed his eyes. His stomach turned queasy.

 

What should I do? he wondered.

 

Pastor Steve went to Heartsong and sat in his office to think.

 

Lord, he prayed, what are we supposed to do?

 

Pastor Steve recalled the biblical parable Jesus told about the Good Samaritan: There was a traveler, beaten and left for dead, who lay by the side of the road, ignored by passersby. The one person who finally stopped to help was a Samaritan. At that time, the Samaritans were a despised religious group who only believed in some of the Jewish rules.

 

As Pastor Steve ruminated on this love-thy-neighbor tale that challenged preconceived notions, he hit himself on the forehead.    

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We’ve got to find a way to love these people, he thought.

 

The next day, he called up a local company that manufactures custom-made signs and placed an order for a six-foot-wide, bright-red vinyl sign. When it arrived two days later, he affixed it on a patch of grass on his side of ‘church road’, in full view of every passing vehicle.

 

A few days later, Dr. Shala drove over to see that perfect plot of land. That’s when he first saw the sign on Heartsong’s lawn.

 

Dr. Shala said, “The nervousness, much of it was taken care of by that sign.”

 

Dr. Shala went inside to introduce himself.

 

Pastor Steve said, "We would be happy to have your community use our facilities if you have a function or if you need parking,"

 

So initially, the church building was used solely as a meeting space for the Muslims, not as a place of worship.

 

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As you might suspect, some members of Pastor Steve’s congregation were not happy with their new neighbors.

Photo of Mark from Heartsong Among the initial skeptics was Mark Sharpe, a painting contractor who had been a member of the church for 10 years.

Mark said, “I was very uncomfortable. I didn’t like it at all.” Mark and his wife thought about leaving Heartsong.

Before they did, however, Mark decided to talk to Pastor Steve.

Mark asked, “What are we doing? What is going on here?”

Pastor Steve said, “I’ve met members of the Islamic center, they are peaceful, educated people. It’s my Christian faith – not a deep study of Islam – that was at the root of my decision to welcome our new neighbors. I want you to read the first four books of the New Testament, the gospels. If there’s anything we’re doing that doesn’t line up with those books, then you come back and let me know.”

So Mark read.

Later he said, “I figured out it was a sickness in me. In a sense, I was the problem. I was the problem, not them.”

Mark and his wife told Pastor Steve, “We’ll be staying at Heartsong.” But others in the church were not persuaded. Although Pastor Steve individually counseled everyone who was upset, about 20 members of his 800 member congregation, including some in key leadership positions, wound up leaving the church.

Pastor Steve said, “We hated to see them go, but at the same time, we realized that if that’s what they really believe, if that’s how they really felt, then they weren’t meant to be part of Heartsong.”

The following year, Dr. Shala and other leaders of the Islamic center found themselves racing the calendar. Their first building, the mosque, was under construction. But they weren’t sure it would be completed by the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast during daylight hours and mosques hold special nighttime prayers.

A worried Dr. Shala approached Pastor Steve.

Dr. Shala asked, “We were wondering if we could use a small room in your building for our prayers. Just for a few nights until our mosque is done. We’ll be glad to pay you.”

Pastor Steve asked, “How many people do you want to bring over?”     “Maybe 100. Maybe 200. I’m not sure.”

“The only room big enough to hold that many is our main sanctuary. You can use it. But there’s just one thing. You can’t pay us. We’re not going to accept any money. We’re neighbors.”

The two men embraced, and both began to cry.

As he was leaving, Dr. Shala said, “I will be praying that our mosque will be completed in time. We don’t want to cause Heartsong any trouble.”

Pastor Steve replied, “Okay, you pray that way, I’m going to pray a competing prayer. I’m gonna pray that you have to come in, at least for a few days. I think that would be great for our people and it would be great for your people.”

In the end, Pastor Steve’s prayer was answered, and then some: Members

 of the Islamic Center spent the entire month of Ramadan at Heartsong.

 

Heartsong members came to their church every night at 7 p.m. to greet

their Muslim neighbors. Pastor Steve said. “We wanted them to feel at

home.”

 

 On the last night of Ramadan, the Muslim scholar, who was leading the prayers, called Pastor Steve to the front of the sanctuary and then addressed the Muslim congregation.

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 “I know you have heard bad things about Christian people, just like Christian people have heard bad things about Muslim people. But these are what real Christians are like (gesturing toward Pastor Steve), and they’ve gotten to see what real Muslims are like.”

 

That Ramadan cemented an enduring friendship. Since then, the two congregations have fed the homeless together and have held interfaith discussions. Near the anniversary of the September 11th , they’ve held joint blood drives. Two months later, they’ve celebrated Thanksgiving together.

 

Mark said, “I never thought that I’d meet any Muslims.     I LOVE it.       It’s like my world has grown larger. 

 

Dr. Shala and Pastor Steve occasionally speak at Memphis-area schools and community centers. When they do, they’re always asked,

 

“Has anyone from Heartsong has converted to Islam, or anyone from the Memphis Islamic Center has become a Christian?”

 

They always answer, “No, no one has converted. But we’ve all become stronger in our own faith.”

 

 

 

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Now Dr. Shala and Pastor Steve want to make ‘church road’ into a destination to celebrate religious respect and camaraderie. Together both congregations have developed plans to construct a large park on BOTH sides of the road, connected by a bridge across ‘church road’.

 

I view that bridge as another sign, not as explicit as that big red vinyl sign which had welcomed Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood.

 

I view that bridge as a sign which will demonstrate “Good Neighbors Live Here.”

 

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Copyright 2017 by Kathryn Eike Dudding. All Rights Reserved.


Kate Dudding (518) 383-4620
8 Sandalwood Drive kate@katedudding.com
Clifton Park, NY 12065-2700 USA
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