When one crazy minister in Florida threatened to burn Korans at his church a few weeks ago, he drew international attention. When a minister in Cordova, Tenn., put up a sign welcoming a mosque to his neighborhood, it was hardly noticed beyond the state lines. And did you know that Muslims have been living peacefully in South Carolina for some 300 years? These are some of the ironies in the current wave of Islamophobia that the Rev. Danny Reed addressed in a recent sermon at the Unitarian Church in Charleston. He was kind enough to let me post it here. I hope you find it as inspiring as I did.

“Holy Ground”
Unitarian Church in Charleston
October 20, 2010
Rev. Danny R. Reed

The recent fervor over the possibility on an Islamic Center being constructed two blocks from “Ground Zero” in New York City invites a deeper consideration of many religious themes. Religious sensitivity, symbolism and tolerance come to mind as particularly timely.

In July 2008, the leadership of the Memphis Islamic Center purchased a 31 acre tract in the heart of Shelby County, adjacent to Heartsong Church, a 550 member Christian congregation. On March 27 of this year, ground was broken on the first phase of the multi-million dollar Islamic project, which will eventually include a mosque, day care center, indoor gym, medical clinic, retirement home, sports fields, and youth center. When Heartsong’s pastor Steve Stone first learned of the Islamic complex, he knew a response would be required.
(Cordova Christians put out welcome mat for new mosque
Lindsay Melvin, The Tennessean.com, August 28, 2010)

Islamic roots in the Palmetto State date to the time of slavery. Some of the most desirable slaves were Muslim, some of whom managed to maintain the practice of their faith even after being enslaved. Observations of men facing east to pray five times were noted by contemporaries. Lowcountry planters were known to substitute rations of beef for pork for Muslim slaves. North African Muslims first appear in South Carolina records, two-hundred fifty-seven years ago on March 3, 1753. Abel Conder and Mahamut, from the Barbary Coast of Morroco, speaking in Arabic, petitioned the South Carolina royal authorities for their freedom. Seventeen years earlier, in 1736, the two men lost a battle with the Portuguese and were captured. An officer, Captain Henry Daubrib, intervened and asked if they would accompany him for five years in Carolina. When they arrived in South Carolina they were transferred instead to Daniel LaRoche, who enslaved them for fifteen years until 1753.
(93 Muslim Slaves, Abducted Moors, African Jews, Misnamed Turks
James Hagy, Carologue, a publication of the SC Historical Society)

In 2000, over five thousand Muslims lived in the state. It is reported that many conversions occur within the corrections system and that one in twenty inmates practices Islam.

Earlier this month, on Saturday the eleventh, representatives from 15 area congregations and religious organizations, including our own gathered at James Island County Park, at the invitation of Unity Church. That afternoon, over two hundred men, women and children of varied faiths gathered in harmony and peace, breaking bread, praying and singing together. Imam Mohamed Melhem of Charleston’s Central Mosque took in the crowd and said the message he wanted to convey was that Muslims stand on principles of love and compassion, and believe in the religions of Judaism and Christianity. Acknowledging the inordinate media attention the infamous Florida pastor received when he threatened to burn copies of the Qu’ran, Imam Melhem said, “If you have ninety-nine people talking about peace but there is one guy screaming and hollering, that’s who is going to get the attention.”

Our humble gathering attracted some local attention, but of course, the national eye has been focused on the proposed Park Place Mosque in New York City. Approximately 100 Mosques serve the 800,000 Muslims in New York City, but it is this controversial Mosque, the “9/11” Mosque that has so commanded national attention.

Two important clarifications: when built, this mosque would actually be two full city blocks away from “Ground Zero,” site of the 2001 terrorist attack where the World Trade Center once stood. The building is a former Burlington Coat Factory retail store and when the new structures rise at the World Trade Center site, they will easily dwarf the Islamic Center. And the mosque isn’t really a mosque at all, it is designed to be Islamic community and cultural center, including worship space for Muslims, but featuring also athletic facilities, auditorium, classrooms, display space and a restaurant.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has written on Islam and its role in contemporary Western society, and founded two non-profit organizations aimed at enhancing the discourse on Islam in society. He promptly condemned the 9/11 assault as un-Islamic but also called on the U.S. government to reduce the threat of terrorism by altering its Middle Eastern foreign policy. Imam Feisal’s background includes questionable real estate practices yet he has been rightly praised for his attempts to build bridges between the West and the Muslim world. In fact, following the September 11 attacks, he was sought out to make speeches and lead training as an ambassador for the FBI and the US State Department.

Polls vary, but it is reported that most Americans are opposed to the Islamic Center. Some argue that the Center’s proximity to “Ground Zero” is an insult to the innocent lives lost in the 9/11 assault and that the Center would stand as trophy for those who would wish destruction upon our nation. Others argue from a position of discretion and seem to feel the location is just too close to be appropriate. Both views beg the question of discernment and distance. What circumference from the Towers is appropriate? How is this determined and who deserves to decide? If two blocks are offensive, then how about four, six, eight?

I am reminded of a similar conflict regarding Gettysburg, the civil war battleground in Pennsylvania so memorably described by Lincoln, as “as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” Various fast food franchises and strip malls border the battlefield where 60,000 Union and Confederate troops fought and nearly 8,000 died. Preservationists continue to challenge developers who have submitted plans for various campsites, gift shops, and other commercial ventures that encroach on the 6,000 protected acres of the National Military Park. A current plan to build a casino on the Gettysburg footprint has been declared a “national disgrace,” by The American Legion’s National Commander. Although the proposal would place the casino a half mile from the park, preservationists insist the site would still abut a substantial scene of the fighting where Union Cavalry advanced toward the South Cavalry. It is also believed that there are a number of soldiers buried in this area in unmarked graves.

What are the reasonable boundaries of a preserved battlefield? Of an enormous bomb site? What divides hallowed ground from sacred ground? I teach my children that our churchyard is sacred, as I truly believe it is, but I also teach them that is dedicated to life and not death. I tell them solemnity is not required, that laughter and play are allowed and even encouraged. Yet I admonish them not to walk over a grave, as this would be disrespectful. Contradictory advice or pragmatic reverence?

In the third chapter of Exodus, the second book of the Hebrew Scriptures, we read the story of “Moses and the Burning Bush:”

1 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

4 When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” 5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 Now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 Now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

Moses, certainly central in the Hebrew Bible, is the most important prophet in Judaism, but is also considered so by Christianity, Islam, the Bahá’ís Rastafarian, and many other faiths. In the “Burning Bush” story Moses tries to evade God’s assignment by cataloging his deficiency, but God is not swayed, and you know the rest of the story. But the point is that this story of Holy Ground is intimate, cinematic perhaps—the burning bush and all, but it happens between two characters only, God and Noah.

The likes of Newt Gingrich and Michael Bloomberg, both of whom have publicly weighed in the Islamic Center controversy in New York City, con and pro, respectively, are nowhere to be seen here. Only a reluctant shepherd with a bad stutter, and a compassionate, if not timely, God who is prepared to rescue his children. The holy quality imbued here, it seems to me, is designed to capture our attention in humility and heed a call of justice more than it is meant to memorialize a place or supernatural event forever in time. And there does appear to be an actual dialogue taking place between the two characters.

The qualities of dialogue and humility are sorely lacking in most any national debate today. The level of discourse, or the pathetic lack thereof, is as bad as I believe it’s been in my lifetime. Juvenile insults are tossed back and forth, channel to channel; ignorant threats are given credence outlet to outlet; and the “snarky” tone of today’s American politics is echoed from website to website. In the cacophony, I wonder if anyone really hears anybody or anything.

I will admit up front that I usually consider myself set apart from the fray—really desiring depth, and relationship, and truth. The problem, of course, is with those other people—less discerning, less evolved, less socialized. It’s them. That’s what I tell myself anyway, and maybe you sing that song too.

But yesterday, when I thought I had this sermon buttoned up, I was confronted by the blind animal within, whose rage I thought I had tamed. I was driving down Highway 17, in Mt. Pleasant, taking my daughter to a sleep-over birthday party. I had just pulled out of my neighborhood and into the steady afternoon traffic. I was in the left lane of a two lane stretch and had four or five car lengths in front of me. Having just pulled out, I was not yet up to the posted speed when I became aware of a small silver convertible coming up pretty fast behind me in the right lane. I reached the speed limit and was traveling comfortably, when the open ragtop arrives beside me and snaps in front—no signal, no wave, no nothing, just zip there he is. I braked and fortunately the car behind me, and the car behind them, all had space to slow down. I leaned into the horn hard. Knowing that I could not pass, he responded by slowing to an annoyingly low speed for a mile or so and then zoomed off ahead. And you know what else he did—the one-finger salute.

Honestly, I usually don’t care about this kind of thing. I am not prone to road rage. I know it is never personal. I suffer fools gladly and get out of their way. If you’re hellbent on taking that kind of risk, you’re sure not taking me with you. But yesterday, for reasons I still don’t know, when I finally could, I moved over into the right lane, sped up till we beside each other, lowered my window and shouted loudly, “What are you trying so hard to prove!” As the encounter happened to play out, we were still on two lanes, his was quite close but mine had opened and I was able to drive on past. From the rear view, I saw him try repeatedly to get ahead, but he was stuck and I gladly lost him. For a few seconds of adrenaline buzz, it felt like a kind of conquest, a little victory.

But then I saw my daughter’s wide eyes, suddenly reflecting confusion and a bit of fear. “I’ve never seen you like that before Daddy” she said. In those lizard-brain moments, however disciplined, educated, reasonable, I may otherwise consider myself, I had no concern for that driver whatsoever. I defined him only as a threat. I framed his existence as an offensive action demanding a defensive reaction from me. “I’ve never seen you like that before Daddy” my frightened seven-year-old said—frightened at me. I deserved her quiet indictment. The way I heard her, she might just as well have said, “what are YOU trying so hard to prove Daddy?”
And that’s what we do. We react that way about stupid everyday infractions and we react that way when someone else’s views challenge our own. Maybe it was the horrible simplicity of seeing two airplanes shatter two buildings and countless lives in real time that makes it so easy to immediately surmise “Muslim = Terrorist.” “Mosque = Threat.” “Imam = Operative.” And while we’re at it, perhaps the most absurd and insidious, “Black President = Secret Muslim.”

It is so efficient, the assumption requires no thought at all, because we already know we’ve got it right. Right? And that’s when the whole system is so vulnerable and we ourselves so frail—when we feel so deeply that our hard-fought, and maybe even hard-wired views, are so undeniably right. Don’t you dare question my understanding of the world order, because I’ve got my whole sense of right and wrong invested here. It’s the white hats against the black hats, or more accurately, the turbans. And without even realizing it, all over the world, we kill one another in the vain and futile attempt to prove just how right we are. And all the while our children are watching.

So Steve Stone, Pastor over at Heartsong Church in Cordova Tennessee, he sees the Muslims moving in next door, taking up religious residence, right there beside his own Christian house of God. And he knows he has to do something. He puts up a 6-foot sign, right out front, facing the Muslim property. It reads, “Welcome to the Neighborhood.” And the church opened their doors and their hearts to the Muslims. In Memphis Tennessee—named after the capital of Ancient Eqypt, a Southern town in the United States, a Confederate town, if you will, the same town where Dr. King’s blood was shed, in Memphis Christians and Muslims are co-existing in harmony and peace. They are learning something together about Holy Ground. I hope the Big Apple is paying attention. I hope we all are. AMEN.