For the past few days, a group of visiting Muslim students has been doing service work at a Christian church and, on Friday night, participated in an interfaith service at a Jewish synagogue.
The match between the graduate students from Georgetown University, St. Marks Church-Northshore and Mizpah Congregation was put together by the Rev. Steven D. Martin, the executive director of the Oak Ridge, Tenn.-based New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.
His friendship with both Yahyah Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at the Washington, D.C. school and the Rev. Mark Flynn, senior minister at Christ United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, forged the visit.
The students, members of the Georgetown Muslim Student Association, "wanted to help a Christian congregation on a project," said Martin. "We saw the opportunity to make the match."
Tennessee, he said, is an appropriate place for the interfaith activities. Controversy swirled around the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro over the last several years -- the mosque celebrated its grand opening this week -- and a bill against Shariah law was discussed in the state Legislature before being rewritten and passed in 2011.
"If you're Muslim and you want to put forth your best face and show people you're not dangerous, that you're not a terrorist," said Martin, "the best place to do it is in Tennessee."
The project at the Mississippi Avenue church, which is attempting to regain its status as a vibrant neighborhood congregation, will include the installation of a new playground unit, the application of mulch in the playground area and the interior painting of a hallway, office and classroom.
The previous playground, according to St. Marks leadership team chairman Carl Greene, "hadn't been used in 10 years."
Early this summer, the United Methodist church, with the help of some urban missionaries from Christ UMC in East Brainerd, began to chart its road ahead. The urban missionaries, Flynn said at the time, are people who would pledge their tithes, their gifts and their service as servants to another church for at least a year.
"As a larger church ... we could come alongside a struggling downtown congregation and bring to them some energy and life," he said.
The idea, said Martin, is that St. Marks would become "an everybody-come kind of church."
"In days where we're somewhat polarized," he said, "they would be open to [the assistance of] a Muslim group."
While here, the 11 graduate students -- both male and female -- are staying at St. Marks and sharing meals provided by various families and groups.
During their stay, the students participated in the Grateful Gobbler Walk on Thanksgiving Day, an interfaith prayer service on Friday and an interfaith Thanksgiving service at Mizpah on Friday night.
On Sunday morning, they will have breakfast at St. Marks, hear a prayer by Mizpah Rabbi Bill Tepper and share reflections on their visit before leaving.
Too often, said Martin, people have a "negative image" of Muslims. "But people are people, and [the students] are just wanting to show that."
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...