A simple kind gesture with six words on a sign that read, “Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center,” served as a catalyst that sparked a lasting bond between the Memphis Islamic Center and the Heartsong Church nine years ago. That friendship grew into the Memphis Friendship Foundation, a group dedicated to fostering unity and understanding between the Christian and Islamic faith-based communities in the Mid-South. The foundation is led by the Rev. Steve Stone, PhD, of Heartsong Church, and Bashar Shala, MD, of the Memphis Islamic Center.
Recently, Drs. Shala, who completed his Internal Medicine Residency training in 1994 and his Cardiology fellowship in 2000 at UTHSC, and Stone, were recognized by the Roosevelt Institute for their efforts in promoting solidarity between the two faith-based communities. They were jointly honored with the 2017 Freedom of Worship Award, one of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Awards, at a ceremony held recently in New York City.
“This award is one of the greatest honors I received in my life,” Dr. Shala said. “I was truly humbled by this award. But beyond that feeling of humility, there was a bigger sense of responsibility. To be a Freedom Award laureate means that seeking and fighting for freedom is a lifetime endeavor, which will not cease until my last breath.”
Presented each year, the Four Freedoms Awards are given to individuals who uphold and demonstrate the principles President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated as essential to democracy in his 1941 speech to Congress. These are freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
The Memphis Friendship Foundation has allowed this spirit of worshiping freely to foster among its members. “We hope to spread the spirit of friendship and understanding among people, regardless of differences of faith, ethnicities, races, or cultures,” Dr. Shala said. “We want to see this happen in Memphis and beyond, creating world peace one friendship at a time.”
Jointly, Heartsong Church and the Memphis Islamic Center have held fellowship and service together, including during Ramadan, and this camaraderie formed the foundation for the idea to create a park, called Friendship Park, where people of various faiths, cultures, and backgrounds could come together in unity and understanding.
The eight-acre park will connect land in Cordova shared by Heartsong Church and the Memphis Islamic Center. As stated on their website, “Friendship Park will serve as a world-wide monument to friendship, a platform for making and celebrating friendships, and a launching pad for outreach experiences that will make our communities safer and more joyful places.”
The project will feature an amphitheater, pavilion, crosswalk bridge, treehouse café, trails, water play area, and multiple play areas and venues with different themes from around the world. The park will use technology in the form of an app, along with audio and video translators, so visitors can communicate with people from other cultures visiting the park.
“As a physician, I learned early on to look beyond the thin and shallow veil of race, color, or whatever that separates us as human beings, and look directly into the depth of the human spirit within,” Dr. Shala, a cardiologist, said. “Even physically, we look very much the same inside and we are all vulnerable to the same ailments and diseases. It wasn’t a huge leap to apply these visions and principles to my work with the Friendship Foundation.”
Other 2017 laureates of the Four Freedoms Awards include Ai-jen Poo who received the Freedom from Want Medal; Cristina Jiménez Moreta, who received the Freedom from Fear Medal; and Dan Rather, who received the Freedom of Speech and Expression Medal. Past honorees include Presidents Harry S. Truman, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as Nelson Mandela, among others.
If you would like to contribute toward the Memphis Friendship Foundation or the Friendship Park of Memphis project, please visit: https://www.memphisfriendshipfoundation.org/donate/