As the morning sun illuminated his kitchen, Steve Stone poured himself a cup of coffee and picked up the local newspaper. Reading it gave him a chance to cool off after riding his bike, and the articles usually provided him with a thought or two to incorporate into the sermon he would deliver later that Sunday morning at Heartsong Church, the United Methodist congregation he had started 19 years ago in Cordova, Tennessee, a suburb of Memphis.
Stone’s eyes settled on 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 his community.
That’s interesting, he thought. I didn’t realize there were that many Muslims in Memphis.
He flipped a few pages to keep reading, and learned that the Islamic center had purchased 30 acres. Then he saw where: near the intersection of Humphrey and Houston Levee roads.
Stone closed his eyes. His stomach turned queasy.
The mosque would be directly across the street from his church.
What should I do? he wondered.
Stone went to Heartsong and sat in his office to think.
Lord, he prayed, what are we supposed to do?
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 banner. When it arrived two days later, he affixed it on a patch of grass on his side of Humphrey Road, in full view of every passing vehicle.
Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood.
Sitting in his office, Stone had recalled the biblical parable Jesus told about the Good Samaritan: A traveler, beaten and left for dead, lay by the side of the road, ignored by passersby. The one person who finally stopped to help was a Samaritan, a member of a despised religious group. As Stone ruminated on this love-thy-neighbor tale that challenged preconceived notions, he hit himself on the forehead.
We’ve got to find a way to love these people, he thought.
Leaders of the booming Muslim community in Memphis wanted a spacious place where they could gather not just to worship – there were other mosques in the region for that – but to host weddings and throw parties, to gather on holidays and relax on weekends, to house a day care center for children and activities for the elderly. “A place to pray and play,” said Bashar Shala, the 49-year-old cardiologist who is the chairman of the board of trustees for the Islamic center.
They had put a bid on a parcel a few months earlier, but were turned down when the owner learned the prospective purchaser was an Islamic organization. Shala recalls hearing the bad news from his real estate agent, who’d been told, “Well, this is not for sale anymore.”
He and other board members weren’t surprised. They had been following with increasing alarm the opposition to mosque construction projects in other cities in Tennessee, near Ground Zero, and elsewhere in the country. “We were nervous,” he remembers. “Very nervous.”
It pained him to feel that way. A native of Aleppo, Syria – an ancient city on the Mediterranean that has been eviscerated by civil war – he wished more of his fellow Americans would see beyond the stereotypes of Muslim Americans. The Memphis Islamic Center counts among its members doctors and lawyers, business owners and students. And those are just the women.
The sermons at the main weekly prayers on Friday afternoons often focus on messages of tolerance and interfaith harmony. At one of them earlier this year, Shala told the story of what happened when the Prophet Muhammad stood up, as a sign of respect, for a passing funeral procession.
“It’s a Jew,” one man told Muhammad, imploring him to sit back down.
“Was he not a human?” Muhammad responded.
Clad in a gold-fringed black robe and standing at a wooden pulpit, Shala employed the Islamic parable to drive home his message about peaceful coexistence. “In today’s world, when Islam is being misinterpreted by Muslims, we have to go back to the basics – to what God admonishes us in the Koran to do: To be good to those around you – that’s what Allah wants us to do.”
But as he and his board searched for land, he figured most Memphis residents didn’t expect those sorts of messages to echo inside the walls of the mosque they wanted to build. When they finally found what seemed like the perfect plot in Cordova – 30 rolling acres with an idyllic pond – he was far from relieved. The land abutted Houston Levee Road, which many in the town have dubbed “church road” because of the number of Christian houses of worship that line it.
“Memphis is the buckle of the Bible Belt,” he said. “And here we were, the Muslims, coming in to establish a community worship center right in the middle of church street.”
Soon after they acquired the property and the story hit the newspaper, Shala drove over to see his purchase. That’s when he spied the banner on Heartsong’s side lawn.
“The nervousness, much of it was taken care of,” he said. “We thought we’d have to work hard to show that we’re peaceful Muslims, that we’re not terrorists, that we’re just normal people.”
The fear that dissipated among the Muslims building the Islamic center traveled across the street, to some members of Stone’s congregation at Heartsong, a music-themed congregation he’d founded as a place for people who don’t like going to church. The interior is modern and welcoming, with inspirational wall art and a large water fountain. He often describes his flock as a “grateful, recovering, Jesus-following tribe of knot heads, hotheads, potheads, sots and assorted nuts.”
“If you don’t fit in those categories, you’re in denial,” says Stone, a cheerful man with graying hair who wears a cross-shaped earring and rainbow-framed sunglasses. “And we’ll take you, too.”
Among the initial skeptics was Mark Sharpe, a painting contractor who had been a member of the church for 10 years.
“I was very uncomfortable,” he said. “I didn’t like it at all.” Sharpe and his wife, Karen, thought about leaving Heartsong.
Before he did, however, he decided to talk to Stone.
“What are we doing?” he asked. “What is going on here?”
Stone acknowledged that he had known little about Islam before erecting the banner. He knew that one man he worked out with at his local gym was a Muslim, but they never talked about religion. “I was totally ignorant,” Stone recalled. “When I would watch the news, I saw turmoil and strife” in Muslim countries, “and I didn’t know anything else.”
Stone told Sharpe about the members of the Islamic center he had met, and explained that his Christian faith – not a deep study of Islam - was at the root of his decision to welcome their new neighbors. Stone urged Sharpe to read the first four books of the New Testament. “If there’s anything we’re doing that doesn’t line up with the Gospels, then you come back and let me know.”
So Sharpe read.
“I figured out it was a sickness in me,” he said, tearing up as he recounted his antipathy toward Muslims. “In a sense, I was the problem. What was going on with the world today, I was the problem.”
He and his wife told Stone they would be staying at Heartsong. But others in the pastor’s flock were not persuaded. Although he individually counseled everyone who was upset, about 20 members of his 800-strong congregation, including some in key leadership positions, wound up leaving the church.
“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,” he said. “We were okay with them finding another place that was more like their hearts and minds.”
The following year, Shala and other leaders of the Islamic center found themselves racing the calendar. Their first building, which would house 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 Shala approached Stone.
“We were wondering if we could use a small room in your building for our prayers,” Shala asked. “Just for a few nights until our building is done. We’ll be glad to pay you.”
Stone asked Shala how many people he wanted to bring over. Maybe 100. Maybe 200. He wasn’t sure.
The only room big enough to hold them all was the main sanctuary hall, where a large cross, encircled by a heart, adorns the wall. Stone told Shala they could use it.
“But there’s just one thing,” he added. “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, Shala told Stone that he would be praying that his building would be completed in time. He said he didn’t want to cause Heartsong any trouble.
“Okay, you pray that way,” Stone said. “I’m going to pray a competing prayer. I’m gonna pray that you have to come in, at least for a few days, because I think that would be great for our people and it would be great for your people.”
In the end, Stone’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. “We wanted it to feel like home for them,” Stone said.
On the last night of Ramadan, Yasir Qadhi, a Muslim scholar who was leading the prayer service, called Stone to the front of the room and then addressed the congregation. “I know you have heard bad things about Christian people, just like Christian people have heard bad things about Muslim people,” Qadhi said. “But these are what real Christians are like, 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 undertaken other joint community service projects. They hold interfaith discussions.
Every year around the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, they hold a joint blood drive. Two months later, they celebrate Thanksgiving together at Heartsong. And each spring, the Islamic center hosts a lively picnic featuring barbecue brisket sandwiches, bounce houses for children, and tables where the neighbors can catch up on each other’s lives and share a laugh.
The events have brought together people who live on the same block or have children in the same class at school but have never talked about religion. Conversations sometimes begin with, “I didn’t know you were a Muslim” and “I didn’t know you worship at Heartsong.”
Stone and Shala occasionally speak at Memphis-area schools and community centers. When they do, they’re always asked if anyone from Heartsong has converted to Islam, or anyone from the Memphis Islamic Center has become a Christian. “No,” says Shala. “But we’ve all become stronger in our own faith.”
The friendship has led journalists from Muslim countries to visit and share the sort of story about Muslims in America that rarely gets told. That publicity, in turn, has led to letters and emails from around the world, and even a late-night phone call to Stone from a man named Kanj in Pakistan, who was sitting with a group of friends when they heard a radio report about what had occurred in Memphis during Ramadan.
“Doctor Stone, we know you’re not God, but when you were talking, we felt it was God talking to us,” the man said. “After we heard what you did, one of the men with me said, ‘How can we hate these people? How can we kill these people? They love us.’”
Another man, Kanj told Stone, got up and left as soon as he had heard the broadcast. He returned 45 minutes later and announced that he had cleaned the small church in their village, where the Christian minority is frequently persecuted. “For the rest of our lives,” Kanj promised, “we’re going to take care of that church.”
Inspired by the response their relationship has elicited, Stone and Shala want to make Humphrey Road into a destination to celebrate religious tolerance and camaraderie. Members of both congregations have developed plans to construct a large park on the two sides of the road, connected by a bridge that celebrates friendship. Their ambition is to create a videoconferencing center where people from around the world can interact with visitors to the park. Stone envisions serious discussions about subjects such as reducing religious hatred, but also lighthearted events: He’d like people from across the globe to participate in Heartsong’s exercise dance classes.
Stone smiles as he ponders all that has resulted from his simple act of placing a welcome sign in front of his church.
“I just expected to be nice to some new people who were moving in, and we’d be cordial neighbors,” he said. “Now my life is so very changed by these friendships and relationships. I’ve been to weddings and parties that I didn’t even know existed. I’ve been part of events with people that I never knew.”
“It’s an amazing friendship,” he said, “that I can’t imagine having missed out on.”