Christmas Eve, Williamson County, and Learning to Live Together in a Religiously Diverse Community

By Will Berger, Co-Pastor/Music Director at Historic Franklin Presbyterian Church


WillBerger

I have only lived in Williamson County for twenty-one years. That may sound like a lot to some, but when you serve in a church in the Franklin historic district and assist your wife in pastoring some people who can claim to be seventh generation Williamson Countians, it isn’t so impressive. We moved here so we could pastor a church where my wife could serve as pastor, and I could serve as co-pastor and music director. We moved here to be near her family in Nashville. And, we moved here because it is a place where we would be, and have been, happy for our children to grow up. Part of the joy of this place is having had our three children in the area schools, Liberty, Freedom (Intermediate and Middle), and Centennial.

They were not always thrilled to say what their parents did for a living when they were students here. One of our children even told his class that I was a police officer so as to avoid saying that I was “a preacher.” I can’t say for sure, but some of that may have been that churches and Christians don’t always have the best reputation, for whatever reason. I think they worried that their friends would think they would try to convert them, or something like that. We didn’t teach them to do that. We taught them to keep an open mind and to learn from their teachers and also from others. Some of those ‘others’ were people who didn’t claim to be especially religious. Some were people who were adherents of other faiths—Jewish, Hindu, Muslim. While we are not as diverse in this county as some other places, that diversity existed in our schools and for our students, and for our children. They appreciated that, and we wanted them to.

Recently I read of a director of the Muslim study center in Columbia, Daoud Abudiab, who moved to Williamson County because he felt it would be a “safe environment” for his son to grow up. He should know. That center was torched in 2008 in a hate crime by white supremacists making so-called Christian claims. (Read Why I’m Absolutely Not Islamophobic for more information.) I hope he’s right about us, that ours is a safe environment for his son, and all of our sons and daughters, because I’d like ours to be that kind of place. It was that for our children precisely because their sometimes different points of view were respected along with those of everyone else in the classroom.

Because of the location of our church in downtown Franklin, we have Christmas Eve services that draw from the larger community. The earlier service is sort of a Bethlehem mayhem that maybe matches the sudden chorus of angels in the field where shepherds kept their flocks by night. The later one feels closer to that chance for wise ones to bow down in a quiet manger and offer gifts. We’re glad that people come to either service, and I like to think that many who come may not even consider themselves especially religious. But, we don’t see it as some kind of opportunity to convert people. We see it as a chance to share in some good news—we call it gospel—about someone who brings peace and good will and just might save us from all of our world’s warring ways.

But, sometimes I’m afraid our words sound less peaceful and seem to have little good will. One area group paints Muslim-Americans uniformly as a threat. Their so-called ‘facts’ are loosely drawn from internet declarations. They remind me of the careless portrayals of African-Americans in the deep south where I was raised, portraying them as threats to our way of life rather than fellow citizens who hope for the same kinds of communities my family and I hope for. We were even required to use history textbooks that painted slavery in a positive light, and the wonderful gains of civil rights as a disturbance of our peace. Those portrayals, and these more recent ones, were meant to create fear, fear of people who are different from us. They are no more based in facts than the way some vigorous secularists portray us Christians as ignorant and intolerant, or more to the point, they take isolated facts and certain segments of any religious community and pretend that’s how we all are.

As someone who loves Williamson County and as a Christian, I like to think we all can do better. I like to think we all want good communities. I like to think we don’t want to insist on our religious point of view in a way that makes those around us who think or believe differently feel uncomfortable. I think we want the kind of education that helps us all understand each other, not fear each other—understand our wonderfully diverse religious ways of experiencing life here. As for us, at our Christmas Eve services we’ll read about where angels keep saying, “Fear not,” because they bring good news of great joy. Peace and good will, respect for all people. That’s what makes for better schools, for a better Williamson County. I even think that makes for better Christians.

For a better understanding of American Muslims, see “What is the Truth About American Muslims?” by the Interfaith Alliance and the Religious Freedom Education Project of the First Amendment Center. Also, see the Faith & Culture Center website.