Heartsong UMC hosts interfaith Thanksgiving meal
Bashar Shala, left, chairman of the Memphis Islamic Center Board of Trustees, and Pastor Steve Stone of Heartsong United Methodist Church in Cordova, TN welcome Christians and Muslims for a Thanksgiving meal.
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As Christians and Muslims came together at Heartsong United Methodist Church in Cordova, TN for an interfaith Thanksgiving meal on Nov. 23, it seemed “only appropriate” that a Jew say the blessing.
That’s how Heartsong Pastor Steve Stone introduced Aviva Frye to say grace for more than 350 diners in Heartsong’s Celebration Center.
As executive director of the World Prayer Foundation (WPF), an interfaith organization that works to unite people to pray together for resolution of world problems, Frye thanked Stone for the invitation and told how overwhelmed she was by the event.
Her voice cracking, Frye, who was raised in Israel, said to the Christians and Muslims in attendance, “This is what we (WPF) work for every day… This is an amazingly wonderful event. Thank you for all you are doing.”
Stone invited Frye and her husband, Terry Frye, a United Methodist and President of Bristol, VA-based WPF, to attend the Thanksgiving event. Stone met the couple when they contacted him following inordinate worldwide media coverage of Heartsong earlier this year.
Heartsong found itself in local, national and world news for the hospitality it demonstrated to its across-the-street neighbor, the Memphis Islamic Center (MIC), before, during and after a wave of anti-Muslim incidents around the U.S.
Cordova’s MIC, established by Memphis area Muslims, exists to meet the spiritual, social and civic needs of Muslims in and around Shelby County.
In August, Heartsong opened its doors to Muslims at MIC for them to have a place to observe Ramadan. MIC's first building was under construction at the time and not ready for prayer and social activities associated with the Islamic holy month.
The relationship between the two congregations started before Ramadan and dates back to 2009 right after MIC purchased its 30-acre campus in Cordova. Heartsong put up a sign that welcomed the Muslims to its neighborhood, something Stone called “a simple act of love.”
Since Ramadan, MIC has completed the first building on its campus where Memphis area Muslims may now worship.
Addressing the capacity crowd before she blessed the Thanksgiving meal, Frye said, “Not one of us can do it ourselves. If each one of us does our part, we build bridges to peace… We’re all God’s children and all accountable for our actions.”
Mixed tables of Christian and Muslim men, women and children cheered Aviva’s words.
Bashar Shala, Chairman of MIC’s Board of Trustees, spoke briefly, calling the occasion his “best Thanksgiving” ever.
“We can change this world one act of kindness at a time,” he said.
Gesturing to the crowd, Stone added, “God has put (our) two people together to show the world how to be nice to one another.”
On hand to document the Thanksgiving event and interview key participants was a video production crew from Bahrain Radio and Television Corporation. Bahrain is a small, Westernized Muslim country in the Persian Gulf.
The crew’s presence in Cordova was coordinated by Antony Alan Botto, Senior Producer and Director with the U.S. Department of State, also in attendance.
Botto contacted Stone after learning about and being intrigued by the unique relationship of Heartsong and MIC. He believes the story is one that needs to be shared around the world.
About Stone, Botto said, “He represents somebody who is really, really doing what Jesus wants us to do.”
Heartsong in Cordova was one of several stops around the country by the video crew for its one-hour documentary about religious and cultural tolerance.
Ali Husain, the group’s presenter and producer, said the documentary’s working title is “We Can Live Together in Peace.” It will have English subtitles.
Husain said his crew was seeking “the truth” about how Muslims live in the U.S. Media at home, he explained, give the impression that all Americans do not like Arabs and Muslims and that Americans believe all Muslims are terrorists.
So far on his trip, his first to the U.S., Husain said he had encountered very different sentiments.
“I found everyone welcoming with open arms. We have not been afraid,” he said.
Mimi White of the Heartsong congregation called the Muslim-Christian Thanksgiving meal “super cool.” She was in attendance with her husband, Robert Demotsis.
Candy Cannon, also with Heartsong, had a job to “meet and greet” guests as they arrived. She and her husband, Cooper, were “just here to pitch in with whatever needs to be done,” she said.
Heartsong’s Karen Hoffman and MIC’s Anmol Khan met for the first time as they came in the church’s doors. They sat and ate together during the Thanksgiving meal and were still talking as tables and chairs were being put away.
In addition to eating together, Muslims and Christians worked side by side throughout the evening to set up, serve and clean up.
Jathaniel Cavitt, Director of Student Ministries at Heartsong, and his family (wife Jennifer and daughters Macy and Charley) shared a table with four people they did not know from the MIC: Saleem and Shehnaz Samana, Munir Motiwala and Aftab Shaikh.
The focus of the evening, as described by Stone, was not to discuss religion and politics, but to talk and get to know one another as human beings.
Among other things, Cavitt’s table talked about why they all like living in Shelby County. They discussed favorite movies, games and food, as well as cherished Thanksgiving memories.
Motiwala told his table about one of his first Thanksgivings in the U.S. – after moving from Pakistan some 40 years ago. Dining at a restaurant in Gainesville, TX, he said he was “shocked” when an anonymous stranger paid his bill.
He said he will never forget that unsolicited, charitable act.
Saleem Samana said he and his wife were “ready to go” when they first heard about the interfaith Thanksgiving meal at Heartsong.
“If you mingle together and try to know each other, fear of the unknown gets out of the picture,” he said.
Cavitt credited Heartsong’s involvement with MIC for helping him grow in his personal faith walk and “totally flipping” his perceptions of Muslims. He worked in law enforcement for nine years before taking up youth ministry.
“It has helped me synthesize what I really believe,” he said.
“Perception is reality,” added Cavitt. “When perceptions are changed, reality is changed.”
During the Thanksgiving event, Cavitt appreciated the opportunity to meet and talk with Shan Khan, Director of Memphis Muslim Youth. The two compared notes on working for and with youth.
Khan explained that his group is “all about community service and giving back to the community,” as well as “building future leaders through civic engagement.”
Muslim youth volunteer in many capacities throughout the area, he said.
“Part of our religion is to give back to our community,” said Khan. “We wish for our brother what we wish for ourselves.”
Commenting on the Thanksgiving dinner attended by Memphis area Muslims and Christians, Khan said, “This is great. We don’t have enough of these types of events. We need more. There is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation out there.”
By Lane Gardner Camp
Memphis Conference, United Methodist Church
Western Tennessee and West Kentucky