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Crossing Religious Borders in the Bible Belt

by Sally Holt


November 7, 2016

Crossing Religious Borders in the Bible Belt

Dr. Sally Holt

The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this series from BPFNA!

I recently read that 12 percent of the current population in Nashville was born outside of the United States. Nashville, for instance, is home to the largest Kurdish population in the country, and because of its healthy job market and relatively affordable cost of living, it has become a popular destination for many others moving to this country as well. As new people coming from various locations around the world arrive in this city, they bring with them their own cultural and religious traditions. At times it seems that with the new people, Nashville gains new energy and insights. But at other times, tensions have increased as unfamiliar religious practices have become more visible in a community that is solidly positioned within the Bible Belt. During such times, this friendly city doesn’t seem very welcoming of its new neighbors.

For an example of such tensions, let me mention that over the past several years, every mosque in Middle Tennessee has been targeted by vandals or threatened in some way. The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, TN, located roughly 30 miles from downtown, has been targeted numerous times. The building of a new Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, completed in July 2012, caused such uproar in the community that it drew national attention. Featured in articles in the Huffington Post and the subject of a multi-part CNN documentary, Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door, the resistance to the presence of Muslims in the area became readily apparent. In recent years, both a state senator and a state representative proposed legislation that would have outlawed Sharia law, but fortunately the proposed legislation was defeated. Such inhospitable actions have weighed heavily on my own work as a teacher in this context.

Teaching at Belmont University in Nashville, a Christian institution situated close to music row and to Vanderbilt, is a job I cherish, and the most popular class I teach, one that focuses on world religions, is also my favorite course. It’s a class that provides me with the opportunity to cross the religious borders in town and to form relationships and friendships with people I may otherwise have never encountered.

This is how I came to know the current resident scholar of the Islamic Center of Nashville. I invited him to come speak to my students about Islam, and he did so faithfully and repeatedly. He agreed to come every semester and spoke not only of Islam, but also shared details about himself and his experiences. Telling my students of his first trip to America, he shared with them how he felt after arriving in Texas from his Egyptian homeland. He wore a suit on the flight because he was sure that Americans wore suits, and when he disembarked from the airplane, he saw many Americans dressed in a variety of styles. At this point, the very beginning of his journey in the United States, he immediately realized that he had much to learn. Through just this single narrative, he illustrated for students how we really don’t have an opportunity to understand those who are different from us unless we engage with them. As he has shared stories with my students, he has also emphasized the importance of reading and of cultivating a willingness to cross borders in search of knowledge.

Over the years, my own conversations with him ventured to the topics that friends would discuss. As parents we shared common concerns; his baby daughter’s ear infections and his oldest daughter’s love of math. We shared stories about the escapades of our young sons. We became friends.

Forming such friendships introduced me to the real struggle for meaningful interreligious dialogue in my community, and I’ve been fortunate to partner with several individuals and groups working to improve relationships and increase awareness among adherents of different religious traditions in Nashville. My students have also been able to accompany me on this journey.

My friends who are not Christian have encouraged me to cross borders in other ways too. Our work together has inspired me to explore faith traditions in other contexts. A rabbi met with me to prepare me for travel and study in Israel, and a Buddhist friend helped ready me for exploration in Thailand.

Working with people who think differently than me and who have different faith commitments has thoroughly enriched my life, and now, my understanding of who my neighbor is and what it means to be neighborly has taken on new meaning in a very tangible way.

Dr. Sally Holt is a professor of religion at Belmont University in the College of Theology and Christian Ministry. She also serves as the site director for Central Seminary’s location in Nashville, TN and as the American Academy of Religion's regional coordinator for the Southeast.

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