Town struggles to welcome Muslim neighbors

May 14, 2011 in Faith Matters, Featured Rotator by David Waters

Luci Taylor first noticed the change when she was working at Walmart and women wearing long, flowing robes and head scarves began shopping there.

“They were fascinating. They looked like Catholic nuns running around,” said Taylor, a Catholic who moved here from Ohio more than 25 years ago.

Stephen Caine noticed when his son came home from school one day and mentioned that he was working on a project with Eprah and Muhammad.

“Not your typical Middle Tennessee names,” said Caine, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church who moved here from South Carolina in 2000.

Welcome to Shelbyville, whose bucolic hills and valleys are home to the Sharpie marker, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration — and scores of Somali Muslim refugees who have resettled here, mostly to work at the Tyson Foods poultry processing plant.

In recent years, faith-based organizations such as Catholic Charities and World Vision, working with the U.S. State Department, have resettled an estimated 1,000 Somali refugees among Bedford County’s 45,000 residents.

The Somali resettlement has been unsettling for a rural area already experiencing a growing Latino population.

Shelbyville “is in many ways a microcosm of many rural communities across the country that are grappling with the challenges of rapid demographic growth and integration,” filmmaker Kim Snyder said in a recent interview.

Snyder explores Shelbyville’s efforts to understand and accept its new Muslim neighbors in her documentary “Welcome to Shelbyville,” which PBS will broadcast later this month. WKNO2 will show the film at 9 p.m. May 29, but the local PBS station is co-hosting a free screening at 5 and 7 p.m. Tuesday at Malco’s Studio on the Square.

Shelbyville isn’t the only Middle Tennessee community grappling with Islam.
In 2008, a mosque in Columbia was burned. Attempts to build new mosques in Brentwood and Antioch have been stopped. Opponents of a new mosque in Murfreesboro have staged protests against it and gone to court to try to stop it.

Last year, failed Republican congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik called the Murfreesboro mosque part of “a political movement designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee.”

Earlier this year, two Middle Tennessee legislators introduced a bill that would have made it a felony to follow Islamic teachings, including praying, fasting and almsgiving — all part of Shariah or sacred Islamic law.

The bill has been amended to remove all references to Islam, but as Dr. Gary Gunderson of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare points out in a guest column in this section today, the bill still carries an anti-Islam bias.

Shelbyville hasn’t avoided anti-Muslim sentiment, but Snyder thinks the community has responded with more hospitality than most because people of faith like Taylor and Caine have worked to welcome and get to know their new neighbors.

Taylor, who is giving the new immigrants lessons in speaking English and being Southern, said much of the anxiety about the Somalis is the product of a culture gap.

“A lot of people here think the Somalis are being unfriendly or even rude,” Taylor said. “They don’t look at you or speak to you in the grocery store. They don’t shake hands or hug. But in Somalia, Muslim women are taught not to do those things as a sign of humility and respect. We like to hug, but they don’t even hug other women.”

In the film, Taylor, a third-generation Mexican-American, hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for several of her new neighbors.

“God has blessed me in so many ways, but I have felt what it’s like to be an outsider, to have people judge you because of how you look or talk or practice your faith,” she said. “Most of us are from somewhere else, and most of us came here for freedom — just like the Somalis.”

Caine said suspicions surrounding the Somalis also are a product of anti-Muslim rhetoric and distorted views of Islam.

“When you’ve got a top state official calling Islam a violent cult, it doesn’t put people in a very welcoming mood,” Caine said. He was referring to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who last year said, “You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, a way of life or cult.”

Caine, who is shown in the film meeting and talking with the local imam, has taken some flak for his efforts to welcome Muslims to Shelbyville. He expects to hear more criticism after PBS broadcasts the documentary.

“I’m just reading the Bible and doing what it tells me to do,” said Caine. “Welcome the stranger. Love your neighbor. Do for the least of these. It’s not that hard.”

Some Shelbyville residents think their community has been asked to absorb too many immigrants.

In fact, the legislature this week approved a bill by state Sen. Jim Tracy, a Shelbyville Republican, to allow communities that lack “sufficient absorptive capacity” to opt out of refugee resettlement programs.

Caine sees another option.

“Our small community is changing each and every day and we can either resist it or embrace it,” he said.

“We can wall ourselves off, become defensive and rigid and hardhearted. We can exclude those not like us, who don’t look, sound, speak and worship like us. Or we can listen to the word of God and through our faith embrace the stranger and learn from them and them from us.”