What a West Oak Lane building’s transition from synagogue to church to mosque says about religious nonviolence

     The building at Washington Lane and Limekiln Pike houses the Masjidullah mosque. Since 1947, it has also housed Temple Sinai synagogue and West Oak Lane Church of God. (Photo by Solomon Jones/ for NewsWorks)

    The building at Washington Lane and Limekiln Pike houses the Masjidullah mosque. Since 1947, it has also housed Temple Sinai synagogue and West Oak Lane Church of God. (Photo by Solomon Jones/ for NewsWorks)

    I’ve never understood religious violence. I don’t understand it when it comes from Christians like myself. I don’t understand it when it comes from Muslims. I don’t understand it when it comes from Jews. I don’t understand it when it comes from any religious group.

    No matter how hard I try, I can’t wrap my mind around the concept of killing someone in order to convince them that one religion is better than another. Nor can I grasp the idea of painting an entire religious group with a broad brush.

    I’ve seen people do so throughout my life, and I’m seeing it again as sectarian violence grips Egypt.

    Troubling times

    As recently as two years ago, Egypt was considered a model of Middle East stability. Then, longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled, and everything changed.

    Muhammad Morsi—a member of the previously outlawed Muslim Brotherhood—was elected president. A year later, amid mass demonstrations, the Egyptian military deposed Morsi. Then, as Morsi’s supporters protested, the military cracked down, killing more than 800 of them.

    In the wake of those horrible events, Egypt’s Christian minority was targeted by groups of armed men, and 60 churches were attacked, vandalized and, in many cases, set on fire.

    Some reports say Islamists targeted them to avenge what they perceived as Christian support for the military crackdown that killed hundreds of protestors.

    Others say the attackers were opportunists who wanted to loot the churches.

    Still others say it was a combination of the two.

    One thing is sure: Christians were singled out. It was a reminder of the ugly side of religion that rears its head far too often.

    Not just in Egypt

    We’ve seen it with Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, and Jews and Muslims in Israel.

    The story of religious violence seems to follow humanity wherever we go. But the story doesn’t have to play out that way.

    I’ve seen things happen differently, and I’ve seen it in my own community.

    A local beacon of hope

    It started 66 years ago when a squat, angular building was constructed on the corner of Washington Lane and Limekiln Pike in West Oak Lane.

    Back then, the neighborhood was largely Jewish, and the building was the new home for a synagogue called Temple Sinai. The congregation later added a school.

    An older Jewish friend who attended the synagogue back then remembers it as the place where she received her religious instruction.

    By the 1960s, however, the neighborhood was beginning to change complexion. Blacks, including my own parents, began to move into the area. That’s when the building was sold to a black Christian congregation—the West Oak Lane Church of God.

    The transition was peaceful. No one was attacked, beaten or burned. The building was not looted or destroyed. And while there was a racial element to the transition of both the neighborhood and the building, no one was castigated based on their religion. In the aftermath of the sale, the Christian congregation thrived there for decades.

    I know this because I, along with my wife and children, attended the West Oak Lane Church of God.

    In fact, my daughter began her education at the church’s school.

    Shifting demographics

    We left the church a number of years ago, but we learned recently that the building had been sold again—this time to a Muslim congregation.

    The Muslim presence is growing in Philadelphia, especially in the black community.

    Muslims are not strangers. They are, in many cases, our brothers or our cousins, our friends or our neighbors. They are people we know.

    And while my Christian beliefs are fundamentally different from the beliefs of my Islamic friends and relatives, I don’t paint Muslims with a broad brush. I don’t see them as the cause of my problems. I see them as exactly who they are—people I’ve known all my life.

    What place does religion play in that reality? My religion teaches me to love my neighbor as myself. The new occupants of that squat brown building at Washington Lane and Thouron are my neighbors.

    I pray that Egypt and the world can look to the peaceful manner in which that building has changed hands, and learn how to love their neighbors, as well.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal