Marty Aussenberg (f/k/a “Gadfly”), previously a columnist for the alternative newsweekly, The Memphis Flyer, is a lawyer in Memphis, Tennessee. He was, at one time, an attorney in the enforcement division of the SEC in Washington, D.C., when its good reputation was still intact.
I live in a city that has a history many outsiders like to rub its nose in. I admit, the assassination of an icon of the civil rights movement is not something you want your city to be known for (though Dallas and LA seem to have escaped equivalently perpetual scorn for their arguably equivalent assassinations). Which, of course, is why I prefer to say I live where Elvis lived rather than where Dr. King died (though I‛m never quite sure which historical episode some outsiders consider more shame-worthy).
Memphis does, indeed, have a shameful history when it comes to race relations, and not just because of the King assassination. Let’s just say that part of the reason it can hold its head up, insofar as race relations are concerned, is that at least it’s not Mississippi. It has also suffered from continued strains in those relations, even after the events of the 60’s, the most recent manifestation of which was the political campaign for a congressional seat marked by an overt appeal to race by one of the candidates, the black former four-term mayor of the city, whose campaign was based almost entirely on his assertion that he was entitled to be elected because, unlike the incumbent he sought to unseat, he was black. Sadly, this was not unlike the kind of race-baiting the campaign for the same seat saw just two years earlier. But more about that later.
More recently, the city council had to shelve a proposed ordinance that would have outlawed discrimination against city workers on the basis of their sexual preference. Sadly, the ordinance was opposed by, of all people, a coalition that included black ministers, presumably demonstrating that discrimination is apparently easier to inflict than it is to suffer.
In addition to racial issues, the city, part of the buckle of the Bible belt, is also reputed to have more churches per capita than virtually any other city its size in the country. Though I can’t confirm that as factual, I can say that when I first moved here I noticed the number of Yellow Pages listing churches exceeded the number listing lawyers, which, I must admit, as both a lawyer and a fallen Jew, I had really mixed feelings about. Some of those churches have been, shall we say, less than tolerant of some of their brethren.
One example is the megachurch which refused to allow a team to play in its softball league (hey, it’s gotta do something with its ten softball fields, doesn’t it?) because one of the team’s members was openly gay. Not surprisingly, that church’s pastor was one of the ones who opposed the city’s proposed anti-discrimination ordinance.
So, with all of that said, by way of overly lengthy prologue, it came as something of a surprise to many when, amidst all the brouhaha about the mosque (actually, a cultural center) being built in the shadow of Ground Zero, violence against a mosque being built in a neighboring Tennessee town (a truly hilarious take on which can be found here), and most notoriously, the upcoming planned burning of Qurans (which–praise whatever deity you choose–has apparently (I’ll believe it when I see it) been canceled) by what can only be described as a deeply disturbed preacher in Florida, the bright, shining example of tolerance and understanding of Muslims would come from, of all places, Memphis.
I refer to the hospitality and, yes, love extended by a Memphis church to its Muslim neighbors who are in the process of building a community center across the street from the church. The Christian church has welcomed its neighbors in a variety of ways, including allowing the Muslims to use the church’s facilities for worship services while their facility is being built. The story of the Heartsong Christian Church and its Muslim neighbors has gotten some, but not nearly enough, play in the national media.
The point of this isn’t that beauty can’t exist simultaneously with ugliness. Cactus flowers are the best proof of that in nature. Nor is it that enlightenment can’t spring from ignorance. Hey, Arianna Huffington used to be a conservative. Rather, it is that no place is destined to be doomed by its historical DNA to repeat its mistakes. The story of the bond between Christians and Moslems in, of all places, Memphis, Tennessee, is heartwarming, and serves as a dramatic counterpoint to some of the vile behavior and rhetoric targeted at Muslims we have been treated to recently, including by some otherwise progressive voices.
Now, about that attempted throwback to earlier times by one of the candidates for a congressional seat whose campaign was based almost exclusively on an appeal to race. He lost the election, by an overwhelming margin (80% to 20%) to the white incumbent (who also happens to be a Jew), amazingly enough in a district that is 60% black (and probably 99.9% Christian).
See what I mean about not being doomed to repeat mistakes?