(Photo: Google Maps Screenshot)
A Tennessee church has experienced both a financial and attendance boost that began when construction started for a mosque next door.
Dan Watts, the interim pastor at Grace Baptist Church, told The Daily News Journal that since 2011 the numbers for worship and Sunday school attendance have tripled and total giving has doubled, coinciding with the start of construction for the controversial Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, which opened in 2012.
Watts, 42, who previously pastored in Mississippi before joining Grace Baptist three years ago, said that his church has found ways to reach out to the city's Muslim and Christian Arab populations.
Several years ago, he found two Muslims praying on church grounds and invited them to a service at Grace Baptist.
"I said we are going to welcome them," Watts recalled, speaking at the A Call 2 Action weekly lunch. "I preached on marriage."
After the service, one of the men told Watts that his sermon had practical value and it could "help our marriage." His friend gave a donation to the church, leading Watts to joke that his Muslim guests had been more generous than others in his congregation.
Watts credited his friendship with the Egyptian-born Raouf Ghattas, who was raised as a Christian in his home country, as a leading reason why he had decided to initially reach out to the Muslims next door. After immigrating the United States, the a former engineer decided to attend seminary and subsequently had a 23-year career as a missionary to 30 Muslim countries.
At Watts' request, Ghattas leads the Arabic Evangelical Church that meets at Grace Baptist's site and welcomes Arab Christians or curious Muslims, providing a space where "every Arab person can come and be comfortable."
While the Islamic Center of Murfressboro has been in existence since the 1980s, it experienced severe pushback from the community when it attempted to expand several years ago, including vandalism to its property, a bomb threat, arson to construction equipment and a lawsuit trying to obstruct construction in which the plaintiffs attempted to argue that Islam was not a religion.
In 2012, in response to the new Islamic center, Grace Baptist erected 13 large crosses onto its property in order to "make a statement to the Muslims about how we felt about our religion, our Christianity." (It has since added 10 more.)
"We wanted them to see the crosses and know how we felt about things," Mack Richards, who built the crosses told the Tennessean.
That same year, owners of the land where the mosque was supposed to be build posted large "No Trespassing" sign several places on the property. In response, Grace Baptist posted on their church sign "Trespassers Are Welcome," reported Baptist Press News.
Murfreesboro, an 100,000 person suburb of Tennessee, has a population of roughly 25,000 Muslims, many of whom are Somalian or Kurdish refugees, who fled violence and persecution from the war in Iraq or Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War.