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Faith Matters: Church, Mosque Plan to Build Park Together

30 July 2012 General 5 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

by David Waters (The Commercial Appeal)

The park they are planning to build together is just a concept now. An artist’s rendering of a wish list. Hope on paper.

But both Cordova congregations have started before with less.

Heartsong Church began in the late 1990s as 20 folks worshipping in another Methodist church’s chapel. Now its 800 members fill a 27-acre campus in Cordova.

Memphis Islamic Center began with some area Muslims meeting to pray in a nearby Baptist church. Now, it’s a mosque and community center on 31 acres, serving the spiritual needs of hundreds of area Muslims.

“It’s not the big things that change America, it’s the simple things,” said Dr. Bashar Shala, a local physician and MIC’s chairman.

Neither Shala nor Rev. Steve Stone, Heartsong’s pastor, expect something as simple as a park to change the world.

“We do hope it will make the world a little safer and a little more joyful,” said Stone, who has joined with Shala and others from Heartsong and MIC to form the Memphis Friendship Foundation.

The foundation’s first project is a park they hope will become a monument to friendship between a church and a mosque.

This friendship began just before Ramadan two years ago.

Stone and Heartsong welcomed Shala and MIC to their Cordova neighborhood with a big sign and an invitation to use the church’s facilities while the mosque was under construction.

The Muslims across the street were hoping to gather for a few evening prayers in Heartsong’s little theater. Instead, Stone and his fellow church members ushered their Islamic neighbors into the 4,000-square-foot sanctuary.

Every evening during Ramadan, nearly 200 area Muslims observed their holiest month of the year under a giant cross.

To thank their neighbors, folks from MIC cooked and served breakfast for Heartsong’s members on Sunday mornings.

“It’s a simple thing we have done, but God has used it in a big way,” Stone said. “We were just being nice to each other.”

In a world in which Christians and Muslims often find themselves engaged in violent conflict, armed and otherwise, Christians and Muslims being nice to each other can be big news.

In the weeks and months following a story about the relationship in The Commercial Appeal, Stone and Shala fielded calls and hosted visits from media in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, not to mention from all over America.

The story of adjacent property owners who became neighbors and then friends contrasted sharply with other stories of the time.

A Florida preacher who was threatening to burn copies of the Quran. Churchgoers in Middle Tennessee who were trying to block construction of a mosque. Growing outrage over a proposal to build a mosque near ground zero in New York City.

“Frankly, we were shocked that such simple, friendly gestures would become world news,” Shala said. “I guess people were hungry for something like this.”

Stone and Shala still get calls, letters and e-mails about their neighborliness. A Turkish TV crew came by a few weeks ago to film part of a report on “Islam in the land of Uncle Sam.”

The church-mosque friendship is having an impact locally as well. City parks’ officials have met with foundation leaders to make sure they have what they need to proceed.

“This park will be a physical example of the One Memphis that Mayor Wharton always talks about,” said Nika Jackson, manager of the Office of Community Affairs for the city’s Division of Parks and Neighborhoods.

“It will be a symbol of the growing diversity of Memphis, which should be celebrated.”

The foundation estimates that Friendship Park would cost about $5 million and take a year or two to build. So far, the foundation has raised about $100,000. Their next step is to develop more detailed plans and time lines they hope will interest corporate and nonprofit sponsors.

“At first, we were thinking about some swing sets and a couple of grills, something both congregations could use together,” Shala said.

“Then we started to dream big.”

The dream has Friendship Park sitting on 9 acres that span land adjacent to Heartsong and MIC. About half of the property is on the northern, church side of Humphrey Road, the other half on the southern, mosque side of Humphrey.

The two sides would be linked by a tunnel under Humphrey Road and an archway over it.

There will be plenty of room for recreational activities, including a ropes course, obstacle course, rock-climbing wall, putting greens, children’s pools and play areas, a walking path and exercise stations.

There will be spaces for quiet meditation — a labyrinth, a water garden and a waterfall.

There also will places for the entire community to gather — a pavilion, amphitheater, bandstand, kiosk, an international market area, and a “Friendship Center” for community exhibits, forums, etc.

“Most prejudice is a result of fear and ignorance of the other,” Shala said. “You can give all the lectures and sermons in the world about that, but if we don’t have personal interaction and don’t get to know each other, we’ll never break down those barriers.”

The church and the mosque continue to work together. They hosted community picnics, blood drives and efforts to clothe and feed the homeless.

Sunday evening, Stone, Shala and others will participate in the sixth annual Ramadan Interfaith Dinner, hosted by Memphis Interfaith.

Someday, they hope to host the dinner at the park they are building together.

“We may not change the world,” Stone said, “but our faiths call us to provide some hope.”

Hope in a park.

Original post: Faith Matters: Church, mosque plan to build park together


  1. Some churches lend their sanctuaries, others do not. Some churches have rules of non participation in interfaith activities.

    Baptist church in my old neighborhood would lend their sanctuary to public meetings – raucous political arguments there, sort of unseemly, not allowed in many churches.

    No church I know of allows speakers to urge the destruction of fellow human beings, which has been done in a lot of mosques.

  2. Anon; Most people are just people. We live along side them and just try to get along. The closer you make those ties the less chance for serious misunderstandings. My brother in law John, helps to plant and grow Christian churches. When he moved back into the Nashville area from South Carolina he needed a place to stay. He ended up staying with a very nice Muslim family for about 3 weeks until he could get into his house. Believe it or not he had met the family thought some of his Christian church contacts. Whom, I noticed, did not offer him a room:) I write on these forums all the time so, I think, my views are known. Islam is plagued by members who are basically horrible people. We also have them in our Christian religion Westburo Baptist comes directly to mind. I personally think the relationship between these two congregations is great, and I hope they continue to communicate and get along. As to the mosques that teach hate and killing well I am sure they will reap what the sow, it’s just to bad that so many of us have to get caught up in the reaping.

  3. Anon,

    There are churches as well as mosques who have mentality worse than killing humans indeed. But Luckily, I have received enough love from church fathers; I have a church about 30 minutes walking distance from my house. When my father would kick me out of house (which he always did but now he does not have the courage), I would often find sanctuary at the church premises; the old father would take me in, feed me and then admonish my dad that if he ever tortured me, father would take him to jail. However, the noble soul is dead now. I can’t control my tears whenever I think of him. This man was an southern Irish fellow.

    I don’t know who will love me so much again.

  4. Leave it to anon to make sure this article becomes some excuse to criticize Muslims…

    I for one think the effort to bridge faiths is wonderful. Instead of one trying to prove it’s superiority, they both realize that they are there to serve the same purpose: introduce God into people’s lives, and help them to live righteous lives of self actualization and kindness to others. If all religious organizations could realize that this is their mutual goal, executed in slightly differing ways, then we would have far less conflict. God bless both of these local religious leaders.

  5. siyajk’ak,

    “If all religious organizations could realize that this is their mutual goal” you do sound like a baha’i. don’t go broadcasting that in saudi arabi, any gulf states, iran or pakistan.

    “self actualization”. and a student of maslow’s hierarchy? you do see the problem. it appears most muslims are still on the bottom of the pyramid. base humans, as a friend of mine would often say about a mutual friend. all he did was breath, eat, drink, sleep, shit and fuck.

    so when muslims claim to know ‘the truth’ are they not claiming superiority over all other religions?

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