Methodists and Muslims Together

Building Side by Side in Fremont, California

On April 18, 1993, Muslims from the Islamic Society of the East Bay and Christians from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church broke new ground in Fremont, California. Six hundred people, including the mayor of Fremont, mingled in an atmosphere of celebration. Taking turns at the shovel, they broke ground for a new church and a new mosque, to be built side by side on a common 4.2 acre plot of land. They named the new street that enters their property “Peace Terrace.”

That April day they also dedicated the signs that would front the street on their property for months to come: “Future Home of St. Paul United Methodist Church” and “Future Home of Islamic Center and Masjid.” The message was strong and clear. Eventually, the minaret and the church steeple, side by side, would convey the message in brick and stone: Muslim and Christian next-door neighbors.

Both the Methodists and Muslims had been looking for land before they met one another, and this parcel of land between Interstate 880 and a residential neighborhood stood vacant. As Lynn Shinn, chair of the Building Committee at St. Paul’s recalls, “Someone in the planning department suggested that they change the zoning for this parcel and put in a convenience store. The neighbors were notified and they got together and protested. They said this was institutional open space and they wanted the city to build a park. But the city had no money for a park. So the planning department said to the neighborhood, ‘We’ll give you a year. See if you can figure out how we can make this a park.’”

“I was watching this in the newspaper, so I called the Homeowners Association and the Parks and Recreation Department. What if the city were to sell part of it to a church and then use the proceeds to build a park?” Eventually, it happened: in 1987, the city had an auction to sell two parcels of 2.1 acres to non-profit corporations. At the auction, the Methodists and the Muslims bought the two parcels of land and suddenly were neighbors even before they’d met. “We met at the time of the bidding,” said Nihal Kahn of the Islamic Society of the East Bay. “All the people decided it was a great idea. We want to set an example for the world.”

Syed Mahmood of the Islamic Society said, “Some people were a bit uptight. The reason, I would probably say, is they did not know much about us. A lot of times we live in the community and don’t even know who lives next door. So we made an effort to reach out…to let them know who we are.” In this part of the East Bay, the Muslim community is composed predominantly of immigrants from India and Pakistan, with a smaller number of Muslims of Arab, Southeast Asian, and Afghani origin. The Islamic Society of the East Bay was established only in 1985.  The group grew rapidly with new immigration, and had rented a place for  prayers. For daily prayers the space was adequate, but it was too small for Friday prayers or holy days. Now, the community numbers as many as 3,000 families.

St. Paul’s United Methodist Church has its own diversity, with as many Filipinos as there are Caucasians and a significant number of Hispanic and African American members as well. St. Paul’s had also grown from a core of committed people to a vibrant church community. Its minister at the time of the ground-breaking was a woman, the Reverend Ardith Allread, who said, “Long before I was here, this congregation has been open to interfaith dialogue. We have become more aware of our common heritage with Muslims and of the need for a witness: that people of different faiths and cultures can not only work together, but live together.”

From the beginning, the two communities became one in relation to city hall. “Every time we have to go to the city, we go together. We are working as a group. Now we are part of a team,” said Syed Mahmood. The Muslims may have been surprised to have the building team of the Methodists headed by a woman, but Lynn Shinn, a business supervisor, was the boss on the Methodist side. She said, “We agreed early on that united we stand, divided we fall.  In front of the guys at city hall, we’re going to be locked elbow to elbow.”

Their first issue was parking. By sharing parking, each could build a bigger facility. Getting to know one another began not by discussing their faith as such, but by planning the landscaping, the outdoor lighting, and the common parking that the communities would share. The agreement between them, with its complex set of easements, was signed on May 31, 1991. In a 1995 interview, Lynn Shinn recalled the signing: “The City of Fremont has married us, for better or for worse, till death do us part. Actually, not even death would do it. The agreement requires that anyone who might buy the property in the future has to agree to this set of easements!”

The Methodists and the Muslims have different days of worship. Friday noon prayers are the largest for the Muslim community, with classes on the weekends. Sundays, of course, are the main days of worship for the Methodists. For the weekend school of the Muslims and the Sunday school of the Methodists, the communities may even share facilities. “If we ever have the end of Ramadan and Christmas on the same day, we’ll have to have valet parking!” said Lynn Shinn. “And we’ll say, ‘What a great day!’”

Syed Mahmood explained, “It’s a good experience for all of us, the Christian and the Muslim community, to prove that yes, we can live together, we can respect each other, and we can take care of each other’s needs. We have no choice now. We have to live together in order to have a good and happy environment.”

Both Methodists and Muslims see the City of Fremont as forward-looking in its vision. Lynn Shinn said, “Until virtually yesterday, the City was in the habit of referring to ”churches“ in its official statements. If you want to build a church, you have to do this and that. Since we’ve come along, the city says a ”religious facility“ has to do this and that. There are many of us in Fremont now. Churches and synagogues, of course. But now there’s a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, and a Sikh gurdwara.” As Mahmood put it, “The City of Fremont has been very supportive, very cooperative. They actually thanked us for choosing Fremont to build an Islamic center. They see Peace Terrace as being a landmark for Fremont.”

Finally, the neighborhood got its park as well. It is called the David Jones Community Park, just across the way from Peace Terrace.