Faith Matters: Church, Mosque Plan to Build Park Together
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