Cooperation at the Grassroots

Cooperation at the GrassrootsCongregations of different backgrounds live side-by-side in cities across the United States. Many take their proximity as an invitation to share resources and to learn about each other’s traditions. They may use the same buildings for worship, plan regular social meetings, and engage in activism motivated by their respective beliefs. 

While violence is much more likely to make the newspapers, many stories of local cooperation and bridge-building between people of different religious traditions are not so well known. These people are not necessarily members of an interfaith organization, nor of any defined social movement; they are simply neighbors who have created new bonds of interfaith relations at the local level, and have joined together to create new community initiatives.

In May of 1991 in New York City, the roof of an active upper West Side synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, caved in, rendering its Jewish congregation homeless. The neighboring St. Paul and St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church invited the congregation to share its space. The Jewish community began to worship in the huge sanctuary on Friday nights, while the Christians worshipped on Sunday mornings. Both congregations worshipped under the banner they hung in the sanctuary together, bearing the words of Psalm 133: “How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony.” Over time, the communities shared more than space; they began to share a common journey, and a common commitment to the problems of the city and of the world. Today, B’nai Jeshurun has grown in size, regrouped, and opened a second location on their own—but congregants continue to meet in the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew. B’nai Jeshurun and the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew have also opened together a homeless shelter, at which both Jewish and Christian volunteers provide fresh meals for any neighbors experiencing homelessness.

In 1993, on a rainy spring day in New England, a ground-breaking in Sharon, Massachusetts brought together Jews, Christians, and Muslims from around Greater Boston. On a hillside overlooking the fields of a former horse pasture, rabbis and priests, imams and Muslim community leaders each turned a shovel of earth for the new Islamic Center of New England. The Islamic Center had suffered several setbacks in the previous two years, including an arson attack and an unsuccessful struggle in a nearby town to purchase land for the new center. At last, Sharon, Massachusetts—a suburban community with a population more than half Jewish—extended a hand of welcome to the Muslims. The transformation of a 54-acre former farm into a vibrant center of Islamic education, community life, and prayer is a story of grassroots cooperation.

Across the country in Fremont, California, two weeks after the groundbreaking in Sharon, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church and the Islamic Society of the East Bay broke ground together for a new church and a new mosque, to be built side by side. The two communities met on the day they bought adjacent lots of property being auctioned by the city. As each community laid plans for building, they found each could build a larger facility if they cooperated in common parking, landscaping, and lighting. They came to know each other in working out their complex set of easements and agreements with the city. “The city of Fremont married us,” remarked one of the Christian leaders. The communities named their common access road “Peace Terrace.” As one of the Muslim leaders said, “We want to set an example for the world.” Now, both buildings are completed and St. Paul’s United Methodist Church and the Islamic Society of the East Bay continue to work together. An example of the two communities’ commitment to ongoing collaboration is their co-hosting of an interfaith health fair in 2012 that provided free eye, dental, and blood pressure examinations for the low- or under-insured residents of Fremont.

These are but three striking examples of new patterns of religious cooperation that have born fruit from the very soil of America’s new religious landscape. There are many others, some of which have grown into interfaith organizations and ongoing initiatives. In Western Massachusetts, the Weston-Wayland Interfaith Action Group (WWIAG) formed as a response to anti-Semitic graffiti at the local high school in 1989, and today includes grassroots community improvement projects, potluck dinners, and interfaith memorial services. In Kansas City, theatre brings together different cultural communities through the one-act play, “The Hindu and the Cowboy.” In Omaha, Nebraska, Project Interfaith’s RavelUnravel showcases local stories of neighbors encountering one another and their differences, reflecting on what it means to be a resident of Omaha. After the tragedies of September 11, Syracuse, New York became home to Women Transcending Boundaries, a community-based women’s group dedicated to inter-religious programming, including an “Acts of Kindness” weekend featuring volunteer projects around the city. These stories and more profiled in America’s Interfaith Infrastructure, a pilot study of interfaith initiatives published by the Pluralism Project in 2012.

Additional Content

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 Muslims' 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.