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Repairers of the Breach

Alan Kelchner

Should they be allowed to build a mosque at Ground Zero? This question has been in the news for the past few weeks, with politicians and pundits weighing in on every side of the issue -- depending on which way they think the political winds are blowing. And it's understandable. After all, we're in the midst of an election season, and both sides are looking to gain an advantage.

Now, I have absolutely no desire to get involved in the political debate. And I have no great insight about how to balance people's sensitivity over 9/11 with the rights and needs of the people of New York.

However, I do want to speak to the profound spiritual issue that is at stake here. Some things are being said right now that simply have to be addressed. As people of faith, we cannot let them go unchallenged.

But let me start off by just expressing my astonishment and my admiration (I guess) at how adept the Far Right is at framing issues. In this case, they have taken a non-controversial local issue, that has been moving along just fine with broad community support, and they have completely re-framed it, and turned it into a national debate.

As an example, I recently saw a video clip from a few months ago, of a prominent Muslim leader, Daisy Khan, being interviewed on Fox News about this project. At the end, the interviewer says, "Well, I can't seem to find anyone who has a problem with this project. Mayor Bloomberg is in favorite of it. Local rabbis are very positive.... Miss Kahn, we appreciate what you are trying to do." This was Fox News -- 8 months ago.

However, that was before somebody got the bright idea to start calling this project the "Ground Zero Mosque" -- a phrase which is not only inflammatory, but also highly misleading.

After all, what is being proposed is not a mosque, per se, but a 15-story-high Community Center for the thousands of Muslims who live in the area. "Park51," as it is called, will include a swimming pool, a basketball court, a performing arts center, a bookstore, an art gallery, meeting rooms, and yes, of course, a place of prayer -- because Muslims pray often. Space would be available for outside community groups to rent, including other religious faiths -- much like our campus here at DCC.

But even more misleading is the claim that the proposed building site is "at" Ground Zero. It's not. Instead, it's in a neighborhood that is 21/2 blocks away. You can't even see the World Trade Center site from there!

And there is nothing new about the fact that Muslims are living, and practicing their faith, within 2 or 3 blocks of the World Trade Center site. They have been there for 30 years (!) in well-established communities.

Now, to me, it says a lot that the people of lower Manhattan -- the people who truly suffered the most in the 9/11 attack, the people who are closest to these issues, and the civic leaders who have been studying this proposal for a long time -- are overwhelmingly supportive.

The Manhattan Community Board voted 29-1 in favor of the project. And the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, has strongly and consistently said that the proposed Islamic Community Center is a good thing for the city.

But, now that has become a national media story, I guess we will just wait and see what happens.

I want to move on to the spiritual issue, and the piece of all this that concerns you and me most directly. What I am referring to is the prejudice and the bigotry toward Islam that has revealed itself over these past couple of weeks. Dear friends, there is xenophobia, and fear-mongering, abroad in the land. People are saying hurtful and hateful things, that are designed to demonize people who are "not like us." And you and I cannot just idly sit by; we have a responsibility to do what we can to end this.

Many inflammatory things have been said. But perhaps the most outrageous example is the former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, who has repeatedly used the analogy that we wouldn't allow Nazis to put up a sign by the Holocaust Memorial; therefore, we can't allow Muslims to build a community center in lower Manhattan.

In saying this, he is drawing a direct parallel between Nazis and Muslims. And he is deliberately conflating these moderate, respectable Muslims who live in Manhattan with the despicable terrorists who attacked us. In so doing, this prominent American political leader demonizes all 1.3 billion Muslims in the world -- the vast majority of whom are good and decent people: people with whom we share this planet, people whom we need to get along with, and people who deserve our respect.

And you and I, as people of faith, cannot let such statements stand. Yes, there are Muslims who have done terrible, hateful things. And there are plenty of Islamic terrorists who seek to do us harm -- and we are counting on our government to stay vigilant against them.

But, you know, there are also plenty of Christians who have done terrible, vicious things; and my point is that we don't judge all of Christianity by deviants who use the name of Christ to do despicable violence.

The Nazis, don't forget, were Christians. Adolf Hitler was raised a Catholic, although it was Protestant pastors and churches that gave him so much support in the early days of his rise to power.

So, OK, if we want to bring the Nazis into this, here's the proper analogy: Osama bin Laden and the Terrorists are to Islam, as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis are to Christianity. The terrorists are to Islam as the Nazis are to Christianity.

For just as the Nazis were an aberration, a twisted distortion of Christian faith, so also the Taliban and al-Qaeda are an aberration, a twisted distortion of the Muslim faith. Terrorists are a perversion of true Islam -- which is a religion of peace, humility, and self-discipline.

James Hutson is one of the head librarians at the Library of Congress and the author of a book entitled, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. He points out that our founding fathers understood the Islam better than we seem to.

Hutson cites Thomas Jefferson demanding recognition for the religious rights of the "Mahamadan," the Jew, and the "pagan." Jefferson recounts with satisfaction that his own state of Virginia passed a religious freedom bill (five years before the US Bill of Rights) that was designed to protect "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan."

You may also recall that, 4 years ago, when Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison became the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, he took the oath of office with his hand, not on the Bible, but on the Qu'ran. And the Qu'ran that he used belonged to Thomas Jefferson!

George Washington declared that he would gladly welcome "Mohometans" to Mount Vernon -- who were hard-working, law-abiding people. Another signer of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee, said that "Religious freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Hindu, as well as the Christian religion."

Based on his research, Hutson concludes that our founding fathers, rather than fearing Islam, would have incorporated it into the fabric of American life.

Last week, one of our own young people, Caitlin Kawaguchi, stood in this pulpit and spoke eloquently of how essential it is for people from different religious faiths to understand each other, and to work together; that this the pathway to true and lasting peace in the world. Caitlin was a participant this summer in the Interfaith Youth Initiative, sponsored by Brandeis and Harvard universities.

Yesterday, I received an email from a friend of mine, whose son is a US Army infantry officer, stationed in eastern Afghanistan. Last week, she had a chance to speak with her son, by phone.

Here is what she wrote to me: "My son is very disturbed by the controversy over building the mosque in NYC, near the World Trade Center site. He agrees that it shouldn't be built near the site. He thinks it should be built directly ON the World Trade Center site -- along with a synagogue and a church and a Buddhist temple.

"He feels that the protest against the mosque is making his job (in Afghanistan) much more difficult. It only fuels the feeling in the Islamic world that we are fighting against the Muslim faith. He asks, 'Are we really working against hate and terrorism by discriminating against other people of faith?'" 

Well, the wisdom and maturity of this young man, and of our own Caitlin, I think, provides hope that such sentiments may indeed take root in this next generation. Perhaps, by the grace of God, those who come after us will do far better than we have at understanding and respecting cultures, and races, and religions that are different from our own. May it be so.

All right. Let's turn then to today's scriptures. The story that Dee read to us from Luke begins with Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He sees a crippled woman. For 18 years, this woman has been bent over, and unable to stand up. Jesus lays his hands on her back, and heals her. The woman stands up straight, and she immediately begins giving thanks to God. It's wonderful; it's a miracle.

But, not everyone is pleased. The leader of the synagogue is indignant. Why? Well, because Jesus has performed this healing on the Sabbath.

Jesus responds by saying that "You take care of your animals on the Sabbath. Why wouldn't you help another human being?" Jesus calls him a hypocrite, who cares more about ideology than about people.

This is a recurring theme with Jesus. He constantly takes on those who are more concerned about ideology, and the purity of their beliefs -- rather than caring about the needs of real, live human beings.

Now, it is not hard to draw a parallel with what is going on in our world today. Right this moment, our Muslim brothers and sisters in Pakistan are crippled by a flood disaster of unimaginable proportions. An area the size of California is under water -- including most of that nation's agricultural land. 20 million people have lost their homes, schools, crops, livestock.

The Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, calls it a "slow-motion tsunami," and he says it is the worst disaster he has ever seen. They now are saying that this disaster is worse than the 2004 tsunami, and worse than the earthquake in Haiti.

And yet, aid has been very slow to arrive -- only a small fraction of what is needed. And I would suggest that, at least in part, this is because the Pakistan flooding is getting short shrift in the media -- who are focused instead on some trumped-up ideological debate over a community center.

Dear friends, the media and the politicians will do what they do; we can't control that. But you and I cannot, we dare not, allow ourselves to be distracted from our own ministry of compassion, our commitment to bind up wounds, and to heal what is broken. That's who we are called to be.

In today's passage from the First Testament, Isaiah says, "If you will stop the pointing of the finger, and the speaking of evil; if instead you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted: then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloomy days will be filled with sunshine.... The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs, and make your bones strong. You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring that never runs dry. You shall be called the repairers of the breach, the restorer of streets that are fit to live in."

Now, "breach" isn't a common word. We may speak of a breach of faith, or a breach in a power line that has to be re-connected. Dear friends, you and I are called to be "repairers of the breach"; the ones who mend what is broken.

We are called to stop pointing fingers and arguing over who's evil or not. Instead, we are to offer our food to the hungry; we are called to satisfy the needs of the afflicted. And then, our gloomy days will be filled with sunshine. We will be like a vibrant, watered garden.

As you know, our church is now actively seeking funds to help the suffering people of Pakistan. I hope you will join me in giving generously, for the need is great. I also hope that you will stay for 2nd Hour today to welcome Muhammed Juwaid of the SRV Islamic Center, and to learn more about this flooding disaster and what we can do to help.

There are many good Christian organizations who are helping with the relief work. But we decided that, in this case, given the poisonous atmosphere these days, that it was important for us to work directly with Muslims at our own local mosque -- many of whom have family in Pakistan. Therefore, the money you give to DCC for Pakistan Flood Relief will be added to the money raised by our brothers and sisters at the San Ramon Valley Islamic Center.

It will go to a highly-respected Muslim charity called the Hidaya Foundation -- the same group we we worked with 5 years ago, when we had a 40-foot semi trailer parked in our driveway for a couple of weeks, as we collected donations after the Kashmir and Pakistan earthquake.

Dear friends, whatever your political leanings, I urge you, do not get caught up in ideology, or pointing fingers. Instead, let us attend to the needs of the afflicted. Let us be repairers of the breach.

Likewise, I implore you, do not stand by while people speak untruths or make broad claims about other cultures or religions -- divisive statements that, in the end, make our world more broken, and more dangerous.

Let us be repairers of the breach.

For when you and I work to heal the divisions; when we feed the hungry, and care for the afflicted; then we find nourishment for our own souls.

As Isaiah put it, "Then, your gloomy days will be filled with sunshine. You will be like a watered garden, vibrant and alive."

May it be so. Amen.

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Dr. Alan Kelchner is Senior Pastor at Danville Congregational Church, UCC in California. You may contact him at

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