Breaking New Ground in Sharon, MA

Pluralism Project research archives: 

“When the Muslims Came to Milton”
Researcher Julia Lieblich

“A Wreath, A Prayer, A Shovel of Dirt”
Researcher: Chris Coble

“The Islamic Center of New England”
Researcher: Tim Relyea

On April 2, 1993, Muslims, Christians, and Jews gathered under a huge tent set up on the grounds of a former horse farm in Sharon, Massachusetts. The ceremonies this rainy, chilly day were informal, but unforgettable. History was in the making as representatives of the three faiths stood on a metal folding chair, one after another, to address the crowd. Each spoke from the heart about the importance of this ground-breaking for a new Islamic center. All agreed that ground-breaking was not only the beginning of construction, but the beginning of a new relationship.

The story of this Islamic center illustrates some of the difficulties faced and the cooperation needed in order to establish a new religious community in a new town. The experience of the Muslims in Sharon presents one model of how a religious community negotiated and worked openly with their new neighbors and were welcomed in a place where there had never been a mosque before.

There had been Muslims in Quincy, Massachusetts since the 1930s and a mosque since the early 1960s. But with the growing Muslim population, the Islamic Center of New England (ICNE) had outgrown the mosque in Quincy by the early 1990s. Over five hundred people were regular members and over a thousand families were on the mailing list. Clearly, the Islamic center needed more space, especially more classroom and educational space for the growing number of Muslim children.

After an extended search, Muslim leaders identified a seven-acre property for sale in Milton, Massachusetts, owned by the Roman Catholic religious order, the Augustinians of the Assumption. It appeared to be ideal and in the spring of 1991, the Islamic Center announced its plans to open a facility there. However, local residents, concerned about the plan, began a series of maneuvers to obstruct the sale. For example, zoning laws were suddenly changed and parking restrictions were imposed on the area surrounding the property. After many meetings, after working through the legal obstacles, and after signing a purchase agreement, the Islamic Center’s loan application was denied by a local bank. The purchase of the property collapsed in the fall of 1991, when at the last moment, a group of four Milton residents presented the Assumptionists a cash offer that matched the Muslim offer. The Muslim community filed a civil rights lawsuit, convinced that they were the victims of discrimination. But by early 1992, they decided against pursuing it: they would focus their energies on the future.

Within a few days, a couple from Sharon who had heard about the Milton incident contacted the leaders of the Muslim community and offered to sell them their fifty-four acre horse farm, if the community promised not to subdivide the property. At first the Muslims were skeptical about the offer. Sharon had a population estimated to be sixty to seventy percent Jewish, and the property was surrounded by beautiful homes. How would the Jewish community react to the Muslims? Would they be welcome in Sharon? Would the Milton incident repeat itself? The property was beautiful and the offer too good to ignore. The Muslim leadership expressed strong interest, but knew they would need to test their acceptance in the Sharon community before committing to the sale.

Both the Muslim leaders and the owners of the farm devised a plan for testing this. The couple took the video “Islam in America” [Monitor television] around the neighborhood, showed it to the neighbors, and told them about the potential sale. The reaction of the neighbors was generally positive. At the same time, the leaders of the Muslim community decided to approach the Sharon Clergy Association. Having been burned by community hostility in Milton, Dr. Mian Ashraf, a surgeon and the president of the Islamic Center, decided to “go to the heart of it” and meet first and foremost with local clergy. At that meeting, the ministers, priests, and rabbis of Sharon pledged their full support and promised to do everything in their  power to welcome the Muslim community in Sharon. With the support of neighbors and the clergy association, the Muslims agreed to buy the property.

After the sale contract was signed, a full publicity campaign was launched. Muslim leaders attended religious services in Sharon and explained the basic tenets of Islam. For example, Imam Talal Eid of the Quincy mosque shared a service with Rabbi Barry Starr at Temple Israel. Neighbors were invited to study the plans for the center. Local clergy wrote letters of support to the local newspaper and attended every city council meeting. As rumors and suspicions about the Muslims swirled around the community, the Muslim’s openness served to disarm them. The local clergy group worked to keep any anti-Muslim group from gaining momentum. In the end, most of Sharon’s residents were welcoming, and even excited and curious, about the arrival of the Muslims.

The struggle of the Muslim community to find a home and a welcome made the groundbreaking an emotional and moving event. One reporter described the atmosphere as “positively giddy.” It was attended by representatives of Protestant, Roman Catholic, Christian Orthodox, and Jewish faith traditions, as well as politicians, diplomats, university professors, Muslim community members, and Sharon residents. Those who stood on the metal chair and spoke that day were full of confidence about the future. “We’ve come together to begin a great experiment,” proclaimed Dr. Ashraf, the president of the Muslim community. “We are truly breaking ground today,” echoed Rabbi Barry Starr. “Welcome to Sharon: the New Jerusalem,” declared Imam Talal Eid.

Why were the Muslims accepted in Sharon and not in Milton? There is no simple or easy answer. But much of the acceptance and welcome that the Muslims found in Sharon was a result of the bridges of friendship and understanding that were built between the Muslim community and local residents and clergy before the ground-breaking took place. Reverend Gary Mueller, pastor of Evangelical Baptist Church and past president of the Sharon Clergy Association, best summed it up: “The Muslims did things the right way when they came to town.” The direct approach of Dr. Ashraf and his collagues to the clergy association won allies before there were any critics.

For many, the acceptance of the Muslim community in Sharon is a sign of hope. And hope is contagious. The local clergy association has visions of Muslims, Jews, and Christians travelling to the Middle East and showing the world how different faith traditions can live peacefully together. Rabbi Starr  remarked, “Sharon is the place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims can live together in harmony—and that’s what we in America have to export to other countries.” Dr. Ashraf echoed Rabbi Starr’s sense of hope: “Our vision is to reach out and make this a place where people of all faiths can come together and learn about each other.”

A young Muslim woman, a teenager representing the Muslim youth group, stood up in the tent and said the words American Muslims have said thousands of times in explaining their religious tradition to their new neighbors, “Islam means peace. I hope there will be a day here in New England, which has always been the birthplace of new ideas and great movements, when religious beliefs will not be held against anyone, but will be a tribute to that person’s moral strength.”

The crowd left the tent and made its way down the hillside to the place where three brand new shovels, painted gold, were stuck in the wet ground. Bright blue hard hats were passed out to those Muslims, Christians, and Jews, men and women, who turned a spadeful of earth for the new home of the Islamic Center of New England. The first to turn a shovel of earth was Bishop Methodius of the Greek Orthodox church, then Rabbi Barry Starr from Sharon, then the representative of Cardinal Law of the Roman Catholic Church. The consul general of Pakistan and a representative of the religious leaders for peace in the Middle East each had a turn. Members of the several old Lebanese families, who had formed the first Islamic community in New England more than fifty years ago, took their turn as well. They all broke ground for a new era in the religious life of Sharon, and of New England.