By David Waters
Glenn Beck and Franklin Graham, take note. Members of a Methodist congregation in the heart of Tea Party country are showing their fellow Christians how to respond faithfully to Muslim neighbors who want to exercise their God- and Constitution-given rights to worship freely in America.
Rev. Steve Stone and members of Heartsong United Methodist Church in suburban Memphis recently found out that a large mosque and Islamic center was going up next next door. They were a bit anxious about it, but Stone and members of Heartsong followed their faith instead of giving into their fear.
They erected a 6-foot sign that read: ‘Welcome to the Neighborhood.’ Then they invited their new neighbors to use their facilities for evening prayers during Ramadan. “What would Jesus do if He were us?” Stone explained to Lindsay Melvin of The Commercial Appeal. “He would welcome the neighbor.”
That might suprise those of you who think Franklin Graham’s brand of loathe-but-work-with-your-neighbor evangelicalism represents many if not most Christians south of the Mason-Dixon line. But it’s really Rick Warren’s brand of love-and-work-with-your-neighbor evangelicalism that dominates most churches across the South.
“I always thought Christians were misunderstood until I started hearing about Muslims,” Warren, pastor of a Southern Baptist megachurch in California, told the Muslim Public Affairs Council late last year. “Al-Qaeda no more represents Islam than the Klu Klux Klan represents Christianity.”
That most Klan members considered themselves to be righteous Christians is well known. What is lesser known is that the Klan, particularly in the South, not only terrorized African-Americans and Jews but also white Catholics, Pentecostals and Mormons.
Islamophobia is just the latest version of that sort of faith-based fear and ignorance. You hear it in anti-Muslim statements by people who are otherwise probably good, decent and pleasant folks.
After a suspicious fire late last month at the construction site of a controversial new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn., local resident and churchgoer Kimberly Kelly was quoted as saying her Muslim neighbors deserved such treatment. “I think it was a piece of their own medicine,” she said. “They bombed our country.”
Of course, neither Ms. Kelly’s Muslim neighbors in Middle Tennessee nor Muslims worldwide bombed our country. The political extremists who did bomb our country nine years ago thought the same way Ms. Kelly did — that they were giving us a piece or our own medicine.
That sort of faith-based anxiety will be overcome, slowly but surely, by the sort of faith-based decency, common sense and hospitality exhibited by Stone and his congregation.
“The First Amendment guarantees people the right to worship where they live,” Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said after the recent fire in Murfreesboro. “I am calling for all people of faith and good will to stand up for the rights of our Muslim fellow citizens.”
No doubt it’s the American way, but it’s also the Christian way, isn’t it?