It all started when the Memphis Islamic Center purchased land across the street from Heartsong Church.
It took Pastor Steve Stone of Heartsong Church by surprise. “When I saw that, my stomach kind of tightened up. … I felt that ignorance and that fear,” he said.
He wasn’t sure how to respond. But more than that, he wasn’t sure how his congregation would respond. Would they welcome their new neighbors with open arms? Or would their arrival only lead to backlash?
Like Stone, Dr. Bashar Shala of the Memphis Islamic Center was unsure of what to expect.
The goal of the Islamic center was to create a place for people to “pray and play” and have a sense of community, but he knew they’d likely face resistance from the other churches in the area. The site would be surrounded by more than five Christian churches on what’s been referred to as “Church Road,” so the newcomers were sure to be noticed — especially at a time when mosque construction projects across the country were facing opposition.
“It is a difficult time for Muslims in America,” he said. “We did not expect to be welcomed.”
Some members of Heartsong Church were clearly uncomfortable.
“Me and my wife both were thinking about leaving church because I just did not accept what was going on,” said Mark Sharpe, a member of the church.
Sharpe looked to Stone and asked him what he should do. The reply? Just read the gospels. Which Sharpe did. And they helped him reach a pretty emotional realization about the situation.
“I figured out I was the problem,” Sharpe said. “What was going on with the world today, I was the problem.”
Things started to take a turn during the holy month of Ramadan.
Shala wanted to kick it off with the grand opening of the new complex. But with delays in the construction, he knew they weren’t going to make it in time. So he reached out to Stone, asking if they could pray in Heartsong Church while they waited. He figured his congregation would only pray there for a few nights.
They ended up staying at Heartsong Church the entire month of Ramadan.
The experience brought both communities closer together unlike anything else.
“Ramadan brought us much closer. People started knowing each other on a personal level,” Shala said.
Interacting with a group of people they probably wouldn’t have otherwise and getting to know them as individuals helped some members of the church confront biases and prejudices. Sharpe explained, “It’s kind of like my world got bigger.”
Now the two groups work and socialize together frequently.
They support those in need by doing coat and food drives together.
In honor of 9/11 every year, they have done a blood drive and shared their facilities.
They’ve even combined their Thanksgiving dinners into one giant celebration.
And in spring, they throw an amazing picnic to gather the entire community.
Their inspirational friendship serves as an important reminder for all of us.
Even though about 1% of Americans (3.2 million people) are Muslim, they’re still a very polarizing topic in the United States. But at the end of the day, who we pray to (or pray with) shouldn’t get in the way of loving and accepting each other.
Simply put, we’re all just people, ready to welcome new friends into the neighborhood.