2016-06-30
Excerpted with permission from "A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation."

On April 18, 1993, St. Paul's United Methodist Church and the Islamic Society of the East Bay in Fremont, California, broke ground together for a new church and a new mosque, to be built side by side. Six hundred people were there, including the mayor of Fremont.

The two communities mingled in an atmosphere of celebration and took turns at the shovel. They named the new frontage road that enters their property Peace Terrace.


One Nation, Under God

  • In an interview, Diana Eck says we are a Christian nation no longer.

  • Gregg Easterbrook says America is still a Christian nation.

  • Another view: Despite pluralism, Rick Rood says, there is just one way to God.

  • Explore the website of Eck's Pluralism Project.
  • That April day they also dedicated the signs that would front the street on their property for months to come: Future Home of St. Paul United Methodist Church and Future Home of Islamic Center and Masjid. The message was a strong and clear witness to passersby that something new in the religious landscape of Fremont was being created here. Eventually, the dome and minaret and the church steeple, side by side, would convey in brick and stone the message of these signs: Muslims and Christians, next-door neighbors. This is one of America's heartening stories of bridge-building.

    Both the Methodists and Muslims were looking for land before they met each other. This parcel of land between Interstate 880 and a residential neighborhood stood vacant. As Lynn Shinn, chair of the building committee at St. Paul's recalls, "Someone in the planning department suggested that they change the zoning for this parcel and put in a convenience store. The neighbors were notified, and they got together and protested. They said this was institutional open space and they wanted the city to build a park. But the city had no money for a park. So the planning department said to the neighborhood, 'We'll give you a year. See if you can figure out how we can make this a park.'"

    Lynn recounted the story to us with pleasure. "I was watching this in the newspaper, so I called the Homeowners Association and the Parks and Recreation Department. What if the city were to sell part of it to a church and then use the proceeds to build a park?"

    Eventually, this was what happened. In 1987, the city held an auction to sell two parcels of 2.1 acres to nonprofit corporations. At the auction the Methodists and the Muslims bought the two parcels of land and suddenly became neighbors, even before they knew each other. "We met at the time of the bidding," said Nihal Khan of the Islamic Society of the East Bay. "All the people decided it was a great idea. We want to set an example for the world."

    One Nation, Under God

  • In an interview, Diana Eck says we are a Christian nation no longer.

  • Gregg Easterbrook says America is still a Christian nation.

  • Another view: Despite pluralism, Rick Rood says, there is just one way to God.

  • Explore the website of Eck's Pluralism Project.
  • "Some people were a bit uptight," said Syed Mahmood, one of the leaders of the Islamic center. "The reason, I would probably say, is they did not know much about us. A lot of times we live in the community and don't even know who lives next door. So we made an effort to reach out to the community, to let them know who we are." In this part of the East Bay, the Muslim community is composed predominantly of immigrants from India and Pakistan, with a smaller number of Muslims of Arab, Southeast Asian, and Afghani origin. The Islamic Society of the East Bay was established only in 1985. The group grew rapidly with new immigration and rented a place for prayers. The space was adequate for daily prayers, but it was too small for Friday prayers or for Eid celebrations in a community that had grown to more than 3,000 families.

    St. Paul's United Methodist Church has its own diversity, with as many Filipinos as there are Caucasians, and with a significant number of Hispanic and African-American members as well. St. Paul's had also grown from a core of committed people to a vibrant church community. Its minister at the time of the groundbreaking was the Rev. Ardith Allread. She said, "Long before I was here, this congregation had been open to interfaith dialogue. We have become more aware of our common heritage with Muslims and of the need for a witness: that people of different faiths and cultures can not only work together, but live together."

    From the beginning, the two communities became one in relation to city hall. "Every time we have to go the city, we go together. We are working as a group. Now we are part of a team," said Syed Mahmood. The Muslims may have been surprised to have the building committee of the Methodists headed by a woman, but Lynn Shinn, a business supervisor, was the boss on the Methodist side.

    One Nation, Under God

  • In an interview, Diana Eck says we are a Christian nation no longer.

  • Gregg Easterbrook says America is still a Christian nation.

  • Another view: Despite pluralism, Rick Rood says, there is just one way to God.

  • Explore the website of Eck's Pluralism Project.
  • She said, "We agreed early on that 'united we stand, divided we fall.' In front of the guys at city hall, we're going to be locked elbow to elbow." And so they were. Their first issue was parking. By sharing parking, each could build a bigger facility. Getting to know each other began not by discussing their faith as such, but by planning the landscaping, the outdoor lighting and the common parking that the communities would share. The agreement between them, with its complex set of easements, was signed on May 31, 1991. Lynn Shinn recalled the signing. "The city of Fremont has married us, for better or for worse, till death do us part. Actually, not even death would do it. The agreement requires that anyone who might buy the property in the future has to agree to this set of easements!"

    As the foundations were laid and the two houses of worship began to rise on the property, the Methodists and Muslims worked together on planting and landscaping. Syed Mahmood explained, "It's a good experience for all of us, the Christian and the Muslim community, to prove that yes, we can live together, we can respect each other, and we can take care of each other's needs. We have no choice now. We have to live together in order to have a good and happy environment." Cooperation in working together has, so far, been a success, but real interaction between the two communities will take time. Although the Methodists moved in first, both communities have been busy with the immediate issues of building.

    On our most recent visit, the Methodist minister, Blake Busick, told us, "I wish we were doing more with activities and joint ventures, but that is just going to take time, because they are just now getting to the point that they are going to start to focus on more than just their building." The Muslims have used the flexible space of the Methodist sanctuary for some of their classes, and the Methodists have visited in the mosque for special events.

    One Nation, Under God

  • In an interview, Diana Eck says we are a Christian nation no longer.

  • Gregg Easterbrook says America is still a Christian nation.

  • Another view: Despite pluralism, Rick Rood says, there is just one way to God.

  • Explore the website of Eck's Pluralism Project.
  • In the second phase of construction, the Muslims are building a full-time Islamic school on the site, so the construction continues. In our most recent discussion with Lynn Shinn, she told us how a reporter from the local paper called and asked whether the Methodists were frustrated about the slower progress of the Islamic construction process. "I asked this reporter, 'Do you have any idea what is going on? Do you know how large this building is? Do you know what a mortgage is? Well, the Muslims don't have one. We are green with envy. It is amazing to do what they're doing, and it's all paid for. Their religion will not allow them to borrow money. And they don't have a hierarchy to loan them money."

    Both the Methodists and Muslims discovered that the city of Fremont was able to learn from this new challenge. Lynn Shinn told us, "Until virtually yesterday, the city was in the habit of referring to 'churches' in its official statements. If you want to build a 'church,' you have to do this and that. Since we've come along, the city says a 'religious facility' has to do this and that. There are many of us in Fremont now. Church and synagogues, of course. But now there's a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, and a Sikh gurdwara." As Syed Mahmood put it, "The city of Fremont has been very supportive, very cooperative. They actually thanked us for choosing Fremont to build an Islamic center. They see Peace Terrace as being a landmark for Fremont."

    The Methodists and the Muslims have different days of worship. Friday noon prayers are the largest for the Muslim community. Sundays, of course, are the main days of worship for the Methodists. For the weekend school of the Muslims and the Sunday School of the Methodists, the communities may even share facilities. "If we ever have the end of Ramadan and Christmas on the same day, we'll have to have valet parking!" said Lynn Shinn as the project was beginning. "And we'll say, 'What a great day!'"

    One Nation, Under God

  • In an interview, Diana Eck says we are a Christian nation no longer.

  • Gregg Easterbrook says America is still a Christian nation.

  • Another view: Despite pluralism, Rick Rood says, there is just one way to God.

  • Explore the website of Eck's Pluralism Project.
  • As it turned out, Ramadan and Christmas did indeed overlap in 1999 and 2000, and the evening prayers and fast breaking at the end of the day in Ramadan coincided with Christmas Eve services. The parking lot was filled to capacity as Muslims parked for prayers. But Lynn had a solution, at least for this time. "I brought a load of rocks in and we parked here in the field. This was all we did, but it was a major accomplishment, getting us all in."

    We have followed the progress of these neighbors for nearly 10 years now. Their story, and the story of America's pluralism, is being written, year after year. The years and decades ahead will tell the tale of what a difference it makes to both communities and to the city of Fremont that the Methodists and the Muslims share Peace Terrace. In many places in the United States, as we have seen, the proximity of new religious neighbors is striking. Churches and mosques, synagogues, temples and gurdwaras stand within a stone's throw of one another. More often than not, no stones are thrown. But are there corridors of communication? Bridges of relationship? The potential is real, but interactive engagement of pluralism is just beginning.