Hundreds of people packed the Newton County courthouse in Covington, Ga., on August 22 to protest the placement of a mosque in their neighborhood. Sadly, it was not the first time that fierce anger and opposition to Muslims was expressed in the metro Atlanta area.
Two years ago, the Kennesaw City Council voted (without cause) to reject a permit for the creation of a small, storefront mosque in their community.
Two months ago, homeowners in Cobb County fought against the placement of a Muslim cemetery.
It is not only happening in our community, but across our country.
Many of the loudest protesters are people of faith and members of my faith community—Christians. We are people called and commissioned to love God and love others, but still struggling with an age-old question: Who is my neighbor?
Words like “us” and “them” are some of the first we learn as children and we never forget those words. I have heard them echoed over and over again in recent days. “We” don’t want “them” here. “They” don’t have a place in “our” neighborhood.
At the 2016 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, a pastor rose with some comments and a question. He said, “They (Muslims) are murdering Christians, beheading Christians, imprisoning Christians all over the world…These people (Muslims) are a threat to our very way of existence as Christians in America…How in the world (can) someone within the Southern Baptist Convention support defending of the rights of Muslims to construct mosques in the United States?”
Dr. Russell Moore, President of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, listened patiently and responded unequivocally.
“Sometimes questions are complicated and sometimes we have hard decisions to make, but this is NOT one of those times,” Moore said. “What it means to be a Baptist is to support soul freedom for everybody.”
His answer was grounded in Baptist theology, but it was also grounded in an ancient rule―often called golden―that we “love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus answered the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Defying the conventional wisdom of his day (and ours), Jesus broke down the walls of “us” and “them,” calling for us to love beyond ethnic differences and religious labels.
My church, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, is located at a great cultural crossroads just a short distance from Clarkston, Ga., the largest refugee community in the Southeast United States. Within 10 miles of our church, we have a Hindu Temple, Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues, and Buddhist Temples.
The neighborhood is changing.
Our church has decided to respond not in fear, but in faith.
Fear labels. Faith loves.
Our church welcomes other houses of worship in our community, because we believe that religious liberty must be for all, or it will not exist at all.
We choose to be a Good Neighbor.
Jesus said, “Love God and Love your neighbor.” It is not an either/or, but a both/and. If we love God, we will love our neighbor, regardless of our differences.
The conversation in Newton County and in many others places across the country is about more than politics or building permits. It is about people.
One person who has inspired our congregation is Malik Waliyani, an Indian-born Muslim. In April, he purchased the local gas station about a block from our church. In July, his station was robbed and ransacked. After learning of his loss, we wanted to be a good neighbor and support him. So, one Sunday, our congregation went to buy gas and groceries from his store.
He gave us the items we purchased, but he also gave us something else that Sunday, something that you can’t get on a shelf, something priceless… He gave us his friendship.
In August, Malik came to our church and shared a meal with us, expressing gratitude and introducing himself and his faith to his new neighbors.
Malik is a Muslim AND Malik is our friend and our neighbor.
Georgia is still scarred from a time where exclusion was the order of the day. But, a new day is dawning. Today, Georgia is the most diverse state in the Southeast. We have a unique opportunity to move beyond our prejudicial past and embrace a new identity as a community of welcome, a place where words like “us” and “them” are outdated and obsolete.
Georgia can be a place where everyone is treated like a neighbor and where strangers are welcomed as friends—Southern Hospitality in the best way.
We stand at the intersection of yesterday and tomorrow. Will we will run back to the past with fear or walk forward toward the future with faith?
Rev. Dr. Chris George is senior pastor of Smoke Rise Baptist Church, a congregation located in Stone Mountain, Ga., and affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.