Muslim, Christian leaders share story of interfaith friendship

Their mission: to diminish fear across religions, cultures

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At the back of a banquet hall in New Hope Presbyterian Church beneath an illuminated stained-glass window, Dr. Bashar A. Shala brought his hands together in prayer, looked to the ceiling, spoke quietly and then knelt, bringing his head fully to the floor.

Shala recited in Arabic a verse from the Quran and then translated to a room of bowed heads. Pastor Steven Stone followed him with a Christian prayer, asking God to bless those gathered.

Shala, president of the Memphis Islamic Center in Tennesseee, and Stone, senior pastor of the Christian Heartstrong Church, also of Memphis, led the Castle Rock churchgoers in prayer during a lunchtime gathering following New Hope’s usual Oct. 14 service, then took questions from congregation members.

Both men have been awarded the Freedom of Worship Award from the Roosevelt Institute, the nonprofit partner of America’s first presidential library, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, and have been featured in national media outlets. Their mission, they said, is to encourage people throughout the U.S. to see past cultural and religious differences, to foster more curiosity between groups and diminish fear within people hesitant to build such relationships.

It’s a lesson they’ve preached for years through their own story of friendship.

Becoming, and loving, thy neighbor

Stone, Shala and their respective organizations built a national platform starting roughly nine years ago, as their relationship was first forming.

It began when Stone read a local media report about a group of Muslims who had purchased land to build an Islamic center across the street from his church, which he founded and has pastored for nearly 20 years.

Stone’s first reaction was rooted in fear and ignorance, he said. He didn’t know a single Muslim. He didn’t know if he should be concerned about another religious group so close by. So, he prayed.

Shala was among a committee and board searching for land to build a home for the Muslim community in Memphis — a place where they could worship and socialize.

“It was a post-9/11 world,” Shala said. “There were some struggles.”

The purchase of the land near Heartstrong garnered attention. That included the article Stone read, which described the center as a compound, Shala said, a word that carries a negative connotation and cast a poor light on their project.

But prayer helped calm his fear, Stone said, and in his studies he landed on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. The core message: Love thy neighbor.

“These people are literally our neighbors,” Stone said.

So Stone displayed a banner in front of Heartstrong welcoming the Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood.

“That still gives me chills,” Shala said.

A growing partnership

Their relationship grew from there. The Islamic center’s construction wasn’t completed by that year’s month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Heartstrong opened its doors so the center’s members would have a place to pray.

The first night, Shala remembered, about 30 people gathered at the church, greeted by a group of Christians at the door. The next night, 50 came. The third, more than 100, and after that “the place was just jampacked.”

“An amazing bond began to form,” Stone said.

The two groups maintain a close relationship to this day. They hold an annual Thanksgiving celebration together and an annual blood drive near the anniversary of 9/11.

They’ve since founded the Memphis Friendship Foundation with dreams of building a $12 million park as a “monument to friendship,” according to the foundation’s website.

New Hope member Tracey Silver attended the Sunday service and stayed late for the question-and-answer session.

“I thought it was a wonderful idea,” she said. “I knew this was the sort of church that would welcome the presentation.”

Stone and Shala said they hope their story, although not unique, grows a willingness to build interfaith friendships throughout the U.S.

“I wish,” Shala said, “more people knew more Muslims — just to get to know a person.”

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