By Alex Kronemer
Though the September 11th Qur’an burning was called off, the anti-Muslim protests at the Park 51 Community Center in Lower Manhattan went on as planned. I could see the police barricade that still cordoned off the whole street as I approached the Center the next day. I was coming to attend a community dialogue and evening screening of a documentary film my company, Unity Productions Foundation (www.upf.tv), produced a few years ago. The event was intended to be the unofficial launch of the community-based, interfaith work that Park 51 hopes will be the main feature of the eventual Center.
Trying to get out of a light drizzle, I ducked under an awning where three Catholic seminarians stood. They were there to also attend and were waiting for clearance from the police to pass through the barricades. I introduced myself and we talked briefly about recent events and, with a nod to the heavy police presence there, to the growing threats against American Muslims. A trashcan near us was overflowing with some of the pamphlets and placards from yesterday’s angry protests. I wondered what America really stood for nine years after 9/11.
A man crossed the street and walked up to us, his eyes were fixed on the seminarians’ collars. Didn’t they know what Muslims did to us, he angrily demanded? One of the seminarians answered that the actions of a tiny fringe of a religion shouldn’t be held against the whole group. The man cut him off and began to harangue them for basically betraying their religion by attending this event. The vitriol only stopped when we were finally cleared and let through the barricades.
My first impression upon entering Park 51 was that it had the mustiness of a long abandoned building, which is what it is. Though it has been carpeted and cleaned up a little so that it can be used, as it as for some months, for local Muslims to pray, it is currently quite dilapidated. Inside there were about 100 people, mostly not Muslim, intermingling as they waited for the event to start. Platters of desserts and boxes of coffee were set across a low bench along a dingy wall in the back. A table for registration and a few folding chairs were all the furniture in the open space.
The documentary they were screening was about a mosque that was built in a New Jersey town near NYC in about 2005. It also had been vehemently opposed. But an interfaith coalition of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and others joined the local Muslim community there and managed to confront the resistance and the fear surrounding it. Not only was the project ultimately realized, but also the relationships that were formed among the different religious congregations who worked on it led to the creation of a permanent interfaith council that continues to meet on issues of mutual concern. The film was therefore aptly named:Talking Through Walls: How the Struggle to Build a Mosque United a Community.
After the screening the attendees broke into small groups and discussed the issues raised in it. Twice during the evening, prayer time came and the dozen or so Muslims who came to perform their evening prayers politely went down to the carpeted basement below and performed them there while the interfaith event continued above.
Not everyone in attendance agreed that the Park 51 Community Center should be built. But as one woman, who identified herself as one of those with misgivings said to me, she thought that the social contract required her to come to this place, and join in a civil discussion face-to-face with some of the people who supported it. Only that way did she hope to bring others to a different consensus about it, or perhaps come to a new understanding and find acceptance and peace within herself.
As I looked around at all the people talking, all of them struggling for understanding and hoping to be understood, it was the scene of a Muslim woman in headscarf pouring milk into a styrofoam cup of coffee of one of the seminarians that made me see what America really was about: people in community, talking to one another, working with civility and respect to realize the pluralistic ideals of this country. “E Pluribus Unum” says our national motto, “Out of Many, One.” I realized that the demonstration of this spirit that evening inside Park 51 was never going to generate the headlines that the divisive protests outside it the day before did. But if someone really wanted to know what America was about after all, it really deserved to.
Alex Kronemer is the co-executive producer of the documentary, “Talking Through Walls: How the Struggle to Build a Mosque United a Community.” The inaugural Park51 film and dialogue was hosted by 20,000 Dialogues, a nationwide dialogue project that seeks to produce a measurable change in the attitudes, knowledge, and understanding Americans have towards Muslims. To learn more visit www.groundzerodialogue.org