Cambridge, MA. I must be candid I am not a stellar example of being a good neighbor. While I try reasonably successfully to be a good neighbor at Harvard — attentive to my colleagues and students, intuiting who I might help, listening, finding friends — I am not much of a neighbor on my small side street in Cambridge. I’ve lived in our Jesuit house for three years, but do not know my neighbors on either side or across the street. I come and go anonymously. Then again, it is Cambridge, we are mostly academics, and many are transients, in one house or another just for a year at a time. There are no block parties where I live. But in fact, I am not an intensely involved friendly neighbor.
So, living in a glass house, I am loathe to throw stones. Yet I have been struck by two “not in my backyard” stories recently, both in New York. One is the debate about building an Islamic Center near Ground Zero in Manhattan, the latest edge of the debate was related in the New York Times on July 31; the other is lesser known, but perhaps more intense, a debate about St. Margaret Mary Parish on Staten Island selling, or not, its old convent to an Islamic group for a mosque. In both cases, there have been complex reactions from the community, and much of it, though not all, has been negative. The latter case has been resolved, it seems, with the decision that in fact the convent will not be sold to the Muslims interested in having a center of prayer. The Ground Zero case, complex and sensitive on several levels, seems to have attracted a national following, though primarily among people who seem to know little about Islam.
It is hard to know what to say about these instances. I am not “there,” neither in lower Manhattan, nor on Staten Island (though I grew up less than a mile away from St. Margaret Mary’s). I am sure politics is involved, economics, and even parking issues. I am not in a position to decide concretely. So, again, I can speak only tentatively.
In principle though, it seems entirely appropriate that American Muslims should pray, in America, as Muslims, and that they have the same right as any other American group to pray together. Those of us who are not Muslims should help them to find the spaces they need, and honor their desire to gather for prayer. So it is disappointing that the community on Staten Island was as a majority so very much against the desire to renovate the convent as a mosque, and it seems to me to be misplaced anger and suspicion to claim that Muslims should not have a house of prayer in lower Manhattan. Does not the very fact of the tragic history of Ground Zero suggest that there should be more prayer, more interreligious worship, right there?
Of course, it is no small thing to have a mosque next to a church or in the heart of the busy financial center of lower Manhattan. Yet neighbors have duties. Neighbors have both the opportunity and obligation to be attentive to one another, to listen to one another, to talk, teach, and learn. I’ve already admitted I am not in practice a good neighbor on my Cambridge block, but if there was a mosque down the street from where I live, it would give me a wonderful opportunity, and challenge, to be a neighbor to Muslims who wish to pray on my street.
Really: no one is too busy on Staten Island, or in lower Manhattan, or in Cambridge, to welcome the stranger, to make space for religious neighbors who are marginalized, to stop and listen and help their neighbors. No one should be so self-assured or self-sufficient in their faith and culture, that they have no time to be good religious neighbors. There is no Catholic on Staten Island who would not do well to profit from having a community of Muslims next door; there is certainly no one on Wall Street who is so busy or so important that they should not listen to and learn from Muslims here in America, in New York.
The reverse is true, of course: there is no Muslim, in my view, who would not benefit from living near neighbors who are Christian, Catholic, who would not do well to learn from how Christians pray. Yes, it would be good to have churches where Christians can worship freely in Saudi Arabia, and it would be wonderful to make sure that Catholics can pray freely everywhere in the Mideast. Yes, Muslims should, in God’s eyes, do everything they can to help Christians and Jews and Hindus to worship in peace, even where those Christians and Jews and Hindus are in the minority. This too is the will of God.
But at the moment, the stories in our newspapers are about us, here and now: can we Americans, most of whom are of a Christian background - Christians who remember that Jesus said, "Turn the other cheek," not "Turn the other cheek provided they do it too" - find it in our hearts to help Muslims on their spiritual journeys, because they are our sisters and brothers, here, now? We can certainly do better than thwarting plans for an Islamic Center or a mosque. The real danger is the wall we thereby put up, not the roof others were trying to construct over their own heads. Real faith, which runs much deeper than cultural heritage or the politics of the moment, is not weakened by the prospect of someone praying differently in my neighborhood.
Once the mosques are built, then the challenge becomes the building of a neighborhood, making neighbors of strangers, making bonds of understanding, respect and spiritual intimacy that will endure even when the bricks and mortar fall into ruins.
Note: Thanks for the comments that have been coming in, even if some of them move well away from my limited point. But I am glad that readers contribute, and particularly appreciate the recent entry by David Cruz-Uribe. For 500 years Christian missionaries built churches in Asia and Africa, with the explicit intention of working from such places of worship to convert the entire surrounding people; so we should not be surprised should a Muslim group wish to share its faith in a similarly vigorous but still peaceful fashion. Were we to set ourselves against each and every religious group announcing its intention to convert America, then the prospect of a Hindu America, mentioned in my previous blog, would be all the closer to matching who we have actually become.