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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2011 Archives > September-October 2011 > When cross and crescent meet: Opening doors to Muslim neighbors

Women from the Memphis Islamic Center gather for prayers at Heartsong United Methodist Church in Cordova, Tenn. The church opened its space to the Muslims as they were completing their center across the street.
Women from the Memphis Islamic Center gather for prayers at Heartsong United Methodist Church in Cordova, Tenn. The church opened its space to the Muslims as they were completing their center across the street.
©/THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL

When cross and crescent meet ...

Opening doors to Muslim neighbors

By Cecile S. Holmes

When Irshad Learning Center, a Muslim congregation in Illinois, asked to use Woodridge United Methodist Church facilities for fellowship and worship, it didn't take long for the church to say yes.

"They came knocking on our door saying they were looking for space," says the Rev. Dave Buerstetta, a pastor at the church. Woodridge is a Chicago suburb in DuPage County. Zoning officials had denied the Muslims' request to use property they had purchased for a worship center and school, and the congregation had been kicked out of another place.

Soon after Woodridge's trustees approved Irshad's request to use the church, the group of international and American-born Muslims began meeting there Thursdays and some holidays. That was nearly two years ago, and Irshad still uses Woodridge's kitchen, fellowship hall and classrooms.

Men from the Memphis Islamic Center gather for prayers at Heartsong United Methodist Church.
Men from the Memphis Islamic Center gather for prayers at Heartsong United Methodist Church.
Steve Stone/Heartsong UMC

Ten years after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the interfaith friendship between Woodridge and Irshad offers hope in the unpredictable seas of Christian-Muslim relations.

A vital United Methodist congregation is involved in interreligious and ecumenical work, says the Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., general secretary of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, the denomination's ecumenical agency.

Before 9/11, Sidorak said, interreligious bonds existed in some towns and most metropolitan areas. "After 9/11, there was new energy and new inspiration and even a sense of a glaring need for those kind of relationships," he said. Some United Methodist churches today are in the vanguard of interfaith work.

Interfaith services in United Methodist settings at Thanksgiving and other holidays have become more common in the past 10 years. Gatherings for dialogue or fellowship have sometimes sparked joint mission activities. In recent years, Woodridge and several other congregations have gone a step further – providing space for Muslims to use for worship.

That concerns Jason Hood, an online writer for Christianity Today magazine.

A just decision

"Working for the civil rights of our neighbors is one important role Christians should play in society." Hood said. "Christians should support the rights of Muslims to construct worship centers and mosques. The current trend of opposition to mosque construction is nothing short of tragic, and Christians need to lead the way in securing the rights of others to worship as they wish in our nation and rejecting hateful, fearful opposition."

But, Hood said he worries that providing worship space can be misleading and blur lines between Christianity and other religions.

Congregants from Heartsong United Methodist Church and the Memphis Islamic Center gather for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner.
Congregants from Heartsong United Methodist Church and the Memphis Islamic Center gather for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner.
Michelle Worth/Heartsong UMC

Woodridge officials were moved that "our county had denied (Irshad) a building permit," Buerstetta said. "Within a mile of where they wanted to locate, two Christian churches have been allowed to build or do major renovation. We feel like we're doing the right thing in taking a stand for justice."

In the meantime, Irshad Learning Center has sued the county over denial of the permit. Formal fact-finding in the case was to begin in U.S. District Court in Chicago on Aug. 17.

Wally Callaway, a Woodridge member since 1967, welcomes Irshad, saying, "Faith communities share an understanding of how people should be living in this world."

In March, the two congregations shared sacred stories from Christianity and Islam.

Irshad trustee Mojtaba Noursalehi found it a productive "exchange of religious ideas and beliefs. We're generally very happy and very pleased with how they received us with open arms."

But, he adds, "This particular relationship is very small in terms of the entire need for interfaith understanding."

Too often, the public misunderstands Islam because of the actions of a few misguided Muslims, Noursalehi said. "We cannot even call them Muslim. ... The word Islam means peace."

Gathering in the kitchen

For 160-member Walker Community United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, rubbing elbows with Anjuman-e-Fakhri, an Indian Muslim group, is routine. The Muslims used the church's kitchen several years ago to break their fast each evening during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. In 2010, the group used that space 65 nights for Ramadan, other Muslim holidays and regular events, said the Rev. Walter Lockhart IV.

Some neighbors early on voiced "very Muslim-phobic criticism," he said, but those soon died out.

When Walker – which offers free meals to the community several times a month – launched a capital campaign to renovate the kitchen, the Muslims helped. "The best interaction is when we just bump into each other, and it's usually in the kitchen," Lockhart said.

'God loves them, too.'

When Muslims first began regularly meeting in his church, Mark Sharpe opposed the courtesy extended to the Memphis Islamic Center by Heartsong United Methodist Church.

"They were Muslim and Islamic and I grouped all of them together as extremists," Sharpe said. "I prayed, ‘If this is a problem with me, take it from me. I don't want it.' It's wrong to hate and to have those feelings."

Reading the gospels, he found "nothing in there that said I was doing the right thing by harboring these feelings."

At the time, Heartsong, located in Cordova, Tenn., a Memphis suburb, was studying The Lord's Prayer. Reflecting on what he needed to do to become more Christ-like, Sharpe had a rapid change of heart.

"It was really quick. Those words, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.' I had no problems with anything else as we were studying The Lord's Prayer. But when we got to that line, that was hard because I knew that was speaking to me."

"I just knew that I was on the right path and the right journey and I had to let all of my negative feelings go," he said. "I got verbally beat up by friends and family, after that, for what we were doing at the church, for accepting the Muslims as people and neighbors. But we have to do that because basically, God loves them too."

Heartsong's relationship with the Memphis Islamic Center began soon after the group bought 38 acres across the street from the church, planning to build a 4,000-square-foot multipurpose center that eventually will include a mosque, a retirement center and ballfields, says Heartsong pastor, the Rev. Steve Stone.

"When they moved in about 18 months ago, we had put up a sign kind of welcoming them to the community," Stone said. Realizing the building would not be complete, the center asked to use church facilities for prayers during Ramadan 2010.

Heartsong United Methodist Church posted this sign soon after learning Muslims would be building a community center across the street.
Heartsong United Methodist Church posted this sign soon after learning Muslims would be building a community center across the street.
Michelle Worth/Heartsong UMC

"We were deeply honored that they asked us," Stone said. "The story of the good Samaritan immediately came into my mind."

Heartsong's hospitality drew national attention to the Christian and the Islamic congregations. In the months since, the 550-member church and the 500-member Islamic Center have fed the homeless together, co-sponsored a winter coat drive for children and celebrated a joint pre-Thanksgiving meal.

Danish Siddiqui, an Islamic Center board member, praises the partnership, noting community response has been very positive.

"We've become sort of a beacon in the community with other mosques in the area following suit and rekindling (relationships with) their neighboring religious organizations."

Stone responded to those who criticize – even condemn – Heartsong serving with Muslims in his July blog post: "We are clear that we are Jesus followers and they are Muslims. They are equally clear about that. There is no blending of faith going on. What is going on is two faiths working together for the common good of the community. ... It is simply two neighbors doing something kind and generous and loving for the community."

"After we got all this attention, we decided to sit down and think about how we could take this idea of being neighbors to the next level," Siddiqui said. "It's been a great experience so far. Everyone looks forward to the future and becoming closer and working more together."

The two congregations are now forming a joint foundation to construct a community park on their neighboring land. And, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, they will share a blood drive called "Sharing Life," which is sponsored by the American Red Cross.

Cecile Holmes is a veteran religion journalist, associate professor at the University of South Carolina's School of Journalism and Mass Communications and author of Four Women, Three Faiths.

Additional resources:

Woodridge (Ill.) United Methodist

Rev. Dave Buerstetta 

General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns 

Jason Hood, an online writer for Christianity Today 

Sacred stories from Christianity

Walker Community United Methodist Church/

Heartsong United Methodist Church

Muslims in Evangelical Churches

Worship resources for 9/11

Our Muslim Neighbors

Predjudice against Muslims and Arabs in the USA

Video Resrouces:

"Right Relationship with Neighbor"




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