By Jeff Brumley
Those dismissive of interfaith ministry and outreach as purely symbolic efforts may have reconsidered during a prayer garden dedication at Mercer University on Thursday.
Scores gathered on a shady corner of the school’s Atlanta campus to celebrate and consecrate the Interfaith Prayer Garden that includes a stone-and-shale labyrinth, space for Muslims to deploy prayer rugs and outdoor classroom and dining areas.
One needed only appreciate the lineup of those speaking and blessing the garden — and its setting — to see the power of interfaith ministry, said Alan Culpepper, dean of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.
“The blessing was given by an imam on the campus of a Baptist university with a benediction by a rabbi,” he said.
The diversity of that lineup was reflective of the cooperative effort that went into the garden’s inspiration, funding and construction, Culpepper said.
“This collaboration is really something, a sign of hope in a time when there is so much distrust,” he said.
‘A difficult sell’
Thursday’s dedication capped three years of planning, fundraising and, finally, construction, by a multi-religious coalition led in part by the interfaith task force of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.
The task force coordinated the fundraising and accepted donations for the project, said Frank Broome, executive coordinator of CBF Georgia.
Broome, who was not able to attend the ceremony, said most of the $25,000 to $30,000 came from Muslim donors, including the largest portion from Atlanta businessman Aziz Dhanani. The garden is named for his late parents.
After some lobbying, Mercer agreed to donate the land for the garden.
“It was a difficult sell,” Mercer University President Bill Underwood explained during Thursday’s ceremony.
‘A world of bridges’
But Charlotte Connah, who was the driving force behind the garden idea, was equally hard to resist, Underwood said.
Connah, a member of the CBF Georgia interfaith task force, said she was called into interfaith work after a 2010 Holy Land pilgrimage where she was disturbed by the religion-versus-religion persecution there.
Taking classes at McAfee at the time, Connah said she saw the Mercer Atlanta campus, which has a good number of Muslim students, as an ideal location for the garden.
She envisioned the garden as a spiritual oasis where every faith and ethnicity may find peace.
The idea to add a labyrinth to the garden came during a later pilgrimage to Scotland, she said.
There were options other than Mercer, the retired educator said, but the university was ideal because its understanding of diversity offered the “best shot” at contributing “to a world of bridges rather walls.”
Moving with spirit
The garden and labyrinth also tap into the deepening spiritual formation movement within Christianity, said Loyd Allen, professor of church history and spiritual formation at McAfee.
“It’s a further sign of broadening interests among Baptists and other Christians in spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines,” Allen said.
The labyrinth is an ancient discipline that became popular at a time when Christians could not journey to the Holy Land on pilgrimage. The walking prayer form was meant as a substitute for pilgrimage.
Allen said the garden will be an active place. Planned programming includes teaching and washing stations which will enable Muslims to perform their ritual prayers there.
Some have been using the garden even before its dedication on Thursday. The garden was completed in April with volunteer labor made up of Mercer and McAfee students, faculty, administrators and multi-faith volunteers from around the community.
Barrett Owen said he’s been walking the labyrinth every morning before reporting to work as associate director of admissions at McAfee.
It takes him about 10 minutes to complete the walking prayer. He said it deepens his morning prayer routine by giving it a moving, physical dimension.
“I can move with the spirit as opposed to sitting still,” said Owen, also pastor of National Heights Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga.
‘This is sacred ground’
Imam Plemon El Amin and Rabbi Scott Colbert agreed the labyrinth isn’t a spiritual practice common among Muslims and Jews. Yet both men participated in Thursday’s dedication because it represents a coming together of faiths.
“We all share the same God and one human family in a complex world,” said Scott, the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-el in Atlanta. The prayer garden demonstrates that “Jew and Christian and Muslim can sit down and break bread and pray.”
El Amin, the spiritual leader of Atlanta Masjid of Al Islam, said his passions are in interfaith ministry and in the garden spaces provided for prayer. But he’s even OK with the labyrinth.
“God is over all of this,” he said. “What we call God moves us in different ways and this is sacred ground.”