Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations responding to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s call to "Grow Christ's Church Deep and Wide." The call to grow in evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity was adopted by the 2008 General Assembly and renewed by the 2010 General Assembly. — Jerry L. Van Marter
With recent news reports full of controversy over the proposed Islamic community center near the former World Trade Center site in New York City and a rogue pastor in Florida threatening to burn copies of the Quran, a church in Ohio grabbed some headlines as well.
But Goodyear Heights Presbyterian Church in Akron garnered the attention for a much different reason.
In what seemed like a simple gesture — but ended up being one that spoke volumes — the sign that sits in front of the church carried the message "Freedom of Religion Blesses All — Ramadan Kareem Noble Month to Our Neighbors."
The Rev. Christy Ramsey, pastor of Goodyear Heights, posts messages on the sign.
"I try to think about what to put up and what’s in the news. I try to keep it community-based and relevant to folks and this seemed like a good chance to do both," Ramsey said.
He checked with his congregation of about 60 members before posting the message and said they agreed overwhelmingly. The members of Goodyear Heights have warmly welcomed a Muslim family that lives a few doors away from the church to fellowship events for some time.
"I was thinking in more than an 'us versus them' thing," Ramsey said. "I was thinking we could share in the happiness of our Muslim neighbors. Ramadan is a very special time for them."
Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, is a time for prayer, fasting and reading of the Quran. This year, it was observed from Aug. 11 to Sept. 10.
While Ramsey hoped people would see the sign, the response it has received from a large segment of the community was a little surprising. Ramsey said he's received comments from all over as well as e-mails from friends and pastors and presbytery personnel, all very happy and very supportive.
"Folks from all over are saying thank you so much and how good it was. It was something that needed to be said and it's a great witness," Ramsey said.
"My first thought when I became aware of the sign was what a timely witness to the hospitality of Christ," said the Rev. Dan Schomer, general presbyter of Eastminster Presbytery of which Goodyear Heights is a member.
"I'm aware that there is a Muslim family that fellowships with them and the warm relationship that's developed between the congregation and this family. I think that really becomes a model, if you will, for the challenges that are being faced right now from the talks that are going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians to the crazy makings of a pastor threatening to burn the Quran," Schomer said. "I think it's encouraging to be reminded that something as simple as words of hospitality on a sign can make such an impact."
Because some Christian individuals and groups have made statements against Islam, Ramsey's sign can be seen as a departure from the Christianity so often portrayed in national media.
"On the one hand, I wish it wasn't news that Christians love their neighbors, but on the other hand, I think it really points out the necessity of the Gospel to the congregation and the community that’s really desperate for good news," Ramsey said. "And that's what Gospel means: good news."
Ramsey is aware that his simple statement carried some political connotation as well and is fine with his message being viewed as a response to other recent events.
"I think America is a place where we build things, we don’t burn things," he said. "I want to be on the side of the folks that pray. People that want to destroy things and burn things down, I think I’m always going to be against that."
While Ramsey did want to add something positive to all of the negatives concerning Islam in the news recently, he also meant his message in a much simpler way.
"Christians go around saying 'Merry Christmas' to everybody and I think that's OK, and I think it would be OK if Muslims went around saying ‘Ramadan Kareem’ to everybody because that's their holiday," Ramsey said. "I think it would be great if everybody in American wished everyone else a happy holiday, whether it’s their particular one that time or not, and see the happiness and specialness that each religion offers the community."
Ramsey notes that Christians are used to public acknowledgement and words of greeting being passed back and forth and felt that Muslim Americans should get to have that joy well. Ramsey has wished Ramadan Kareem to people he’s encountered that appeared to be Muslim and gotten some very surprised but also positive responses.
And beneath that, there is an even simpler reason why Ramsey and his congregation welcome and celebrate their neighbors.
"We're very clearly a Christian congregation and unashamedly Jesus Christ is our Lord and because we believe so strongly that Jesus Christ is our Lord we try to do as he tells us and he tells us to love our neighbors," Ramsey said.
In spite of the modesty of Ramsey and his congregation, the message they have delivered both with the sign and by example is very strong.
"Part of the whole sense of hospitality is that we not only welcome one another, but we welcome one another and celebrate one another in our diversity," Schomer said. "I think that would please our Lord very much. I'm personally very proud of Christy and the Goodyear Heights congregation for their willingness to publicly express that hospitality."