Tenn. Pastor Who Welcomed Mosque Encourages Christians to Love Muslims

The Tennessee pastor who welcomed an Islamic center to his block a year ago is now urging Christians everywhere to let go of fear and ignorance this Sept. 11 and love their Muslim neighbors.

On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Christians and Muslims will come together to hold a community blood drive in Cordova, Tenn.

Steve Stone, pastor of Heartsong Church in Cordova, said he was hesitant when he first learned in 2010 that the Memphis Islamic Center (MIC) would be moving across the street from the church. But after praying about it, Stone felt led to purchase and post a red lawn sign proclaiming, "Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the Neighborhood."

The sign was not big but it created a large opportunity for Heartsong to minister to the community, the state and even the nation.

Stone said four days after he put up the sign, MIC leaders met with him and introduced themselves.

"We would invite them to use our building if they had a function or if they needed parking ... we let them use our parking," Stone said of the organizations’ first encounters.

During these times, the church building was used solely as a meeting space, not as a place of worship.

"Then last year ... in July or maybe early August, they asked us if they might use our building one night or two while theirs was being completed," Stone said.

A night or two turned into the entire month of Ramadan, which fell in September that year.

"They were here every night [and] we (Heartsong members) were here to greet them every night," Stone said. "We were here when they got here – they would get here about 7:30, 8 o'clock – and we would stay with them until they left, which would be 11, 11:30 at night. We would be in the hallways just welcoming them and trying to help them not feel kind of alone and strange in a building they're not familiar with."

Stone said that the monthlong experience allowed Heartsong members to give what he called "a soft witness" to their Muslim neighbors. When visiting Muslims praised Heartsong for its kindness, Stone said he and others told them that they were simply following the teachings of Jesus.

In fact, when Stone prayed for a response to the coming mosque, he said the Lord brought to mind the story of the Good Samaritan.

"Jesus picked out the most despised person that crowd could possibly imagine doing anything good and held [him] up as the good neighbor and then he told them to go be good neighbors like that," he explained. "So what Jesus was really teaching was not who our neighbor is, but how to be recognized as a [good] neighbor."

At first it was not easy for Stone or his congregation to love their Muslim neighbors.

Following the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., American attitudes toward Muslims changed. The terrorist acts on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were perpetrated by radical Islamic terrorists. Now, a recent survey from Public Religion Research Institute shows that Americans struggle with accepting American Muslims.

A majority (54 percent) of Americans agreed that Muslims are an important part of the U.S. religious community, the report found. Yet 46 percent of Americans said they are uncomfortable with a mosque being built near their home. Forty-seven percent of Americans said Islamic and American values are incompatible.

Additionally, less than half of the white evangelicals surveyed (44 percent) reported having a favorable view of American Muslims.

Many members of Heartsong were also uncomfortable with a church sign welcoming a mosque. Stone too said he felt a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach when he first learned of the mosque.

"The feeling was anxiety and it was based on fear and ignorance and the fear of the unknown," he said. "I just didn't know these people, and I only had on my mind what I had seen on TV and heard and read in the newspapers."

Knowing Christ and putting faces and names to the Muslims across the street helped him and others move past those stereotypes, Stone said.

The church lost 20 members over the sign. Despite all his preaching and teaching, Stone said those 20 just could not be swayed into being so close with members of another faith.

However, the payoff for the other 700 members of his church has been immense.

On the final night of Ramadan, Memphis Islamic Center Chairman Bashar Shala presented Stone with flowers and thanked him saying, "Thank you for showing the spirit of God's love.” He promised a continued relationship in the future.

Heartsong members, who now call MIC members their brothers and sisters, also felt blessed by the experience.

"You see people for people and not what they may believe," Heartsong member Tiffany Munoz told MSNBC.

Images of Heartsong members high-fiving Muslim children and welcoming Muslim men and women into their chapel made their way to the millions of Americans at a time when some Christian leaders are making headlines for burning Qurans, the Muslim holy book, in Florida or vocally opposing the Park51 mosque and Islamic center near New York City's Ground Zero.

Heartsong’s experience differs drastically from the current tensions circulating the Tennessee town of Murfreesboro, where community members vehemently oppose the construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.

Stone hopes that U.S. Christians who learn of his church will get the message that love is the best way to reach out to Muslims.

"We believe that the best witness … is loving somebody, and if we love somebody in a powerful way, that earns us the right in their eyes to make ... a strong verbal witness,” he said.

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