December 1, 1955, marked a turning point in the history of the United States of America. Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African American woman who worked as a seamstress, boarded a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to go home from work. She took a seat towards the middle of the bus. When the bus began to fill, a Caucasian man entered the bus. As the laws and traditions of racial segregation had it, this was a signal for non-whites to move to the back of the bus to make room for white passengers in the front of the bus. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. After a confrontation with the bus driver, she was arrested and charged with violating the "Jim Crow" laws of that time. This small incident turned out to be not so small an incident. It was, in fact, a triggering point for the civil rights movement for African Americans, resulting in a boycotting of public transportation in Montgomery that gained national attention and acting as a fulcrum for organizing African Americans for civil rights across the United States.
In visiting the site of the proposed Islamic center at 51 Park Place yesterday, I came across a man who was passing out fliers asking that the site be moved to a building some five blocks away from the proposed location. Surely, he argued, this was not too much to ask to stop the insanity of the confrontations that were going to occur over this facility. Just move a little further away, he insisted, and everything would be fine. I cannot say that I agreed with him at the time, and now I know why. It reminded me of what so many African Americans were asked to do for so long. Just accommodate people's divisiveness quietly, and everything will be fine. Surely that's not much to ask, after all, the proponents of segregation would argue then. It's not so far to the back of the bus, and everyone's still on it, after all.
Except we're not all on the bus as Americans when we make distinctions between Americans that are based on prejudice. We're not all "we" if we say that one group of Americans should be able to worship where they please in peace while another group must cater to the whims of others who feel uncomfortable with them for no other reason that they just don't think that they deserve to have the same rights as them. We're not a nation of religious freedom and tolerance if we say that this is true for "us" - but not for "them." I say this remembering that these are the very reasons why some of my ancestors came to this nation in the first place. They were called "nonconformists" by the British, because they did not conform to the disciplines or rites of the Church of England. The term was used derisively, to the point that many sought havens in other nations. Some of these nonconformists, the so-called "Puritans," gained their religious freedom in America, only to become rather intolerant of one another's approach to religion in due time.
It took a war and a Constitution to frame a way of looking at religion in America that separated the code of secular law from any endorsement of any particular religion's rule over public life. It is a delicate balance, because our quest for morality and equity in the United States relies on the wisdom gained from many religious sects. But through the centuries, America has managed to integrate Protestant Christians, Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and people of many other faiths, as well of people of no faith, into a continuous fabric of life that allows all of these people to celebrate their faiths in peace. Each of these groups in their own time has faced troubles in attaining some form of acceptance for their outlooks by majorities with different backgrounds. For some, their "Rosa Parks" moment has yet to come, perhaps, a moment in which their faith is finally recognized and accepted as one of many common ways of looking at the divine in American life.
For Muslim Americans, I sense that their "Rosa Parks" moment is taking form at 51 Park Place in New York City. Quietly, Muslim Americans seem to be coming forward to claim their seat on the bus of American equality and religious freedom. Like Rosa Parks, perhaps this move to put the Islamic center so close to the former World Trade Center towers was somewhat calculated, knowing that it would be pressing a point in some people's view. But like Rosa Parks, perhaps this calculation was for a good reason at a good time. Perhaps America has to confront how its media-induced equation of Islam with terrorism has created a code of injustice and inequality that is straining not only our international relations but as well our wholeness as a nation that thrives on openness, tolerance and inclusiveness. America's heart was poisoned on 9/11; perhaps it is time to start drawing this poison away from our hearts and to re-assume our natural leadership among nations as a place where anyone from any background can live in peace and freedom and have a chance to be happy and to succeed.
This is not to endorse anything specifically about this center; every religion has leaders who are less than perfect and whose motives can be questioned. And, certainly, any religious group that uses its worship as a means of organizing people for the purpose of violence begins to step beyond the purposes of religious freedom that are designed to protect peaceful and law-abiding people. But to presume that Muslims do not have a right to worship at any public or private building designated for this purpose because of the cruel acts of a few misguided plane hijackers and their accomplices is like saying that we should ban churches from Oklahoma City because the Federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh was a Christian with a radical agenda. Healing does not come from divisiveness. The national trauma from the horrific acts of 9/11 must be healed, but hatred and segregation will not heal it. The healing will come when we begin to recognize that the flags of all nations flew in the lobbies of the World Trade Center towers, when be begin to realize that as much as that day was a national tragedy it was a global human tragedy as well. Fear and withdrawal is a natural response to injury; after a time, though, adoption to the world as it is with love in our hearts and justice for all as our goal is the only final cure to our injuries. We heal when our tragedy become's everyone's tragedy - and when we accept that we need everyone to help us to heal.
May the healing begin in America. May peaceful and well-meaning Americans of all faiths step forward and learn how to accept our Muslim citizens as being endowed by their creator with the same inalienable rights that all other Americans enjoy. The segregation must stop, now. Our unity will be our salvation as a nation. It cannot come too soon.