Chattanooga faith leaders work together to plan July 16 service

Chad Harris bow his head during a prayer vigil at Redemption Point Church following the shooting that left five dead in Chattanooga on July 16.
Chad Harris bow his head during a prayer vigil at Redemption Point Church following the shooting that left five dead in Chattanooga on July 16.

If you go

› What: Chattanooga Strong Together interfaith event› Where: UTC Student Center› When: July 16, 2:30 -4 p.m.

A lawyer, two Seventh-day Adventists, a Methodist and a Muslim go to the Firebox Grill for lunch.

The lawyer gets a salad, the Adventists get falafel, the Methodist gets a bacon cheeseburger and the Muslim doesn't get anything because he's fasting for Ramadan.

It's not the setup for a bad joke, however unusual the meal might be for Chattanooga. These leaders came together to break bread and help bring love to a broken city.

Reconciliation after tragedy.

"We stand together," said Dennis Flaugher, senior pastor of Brainerd United Methodist Church, as the group sat at lunch. Last year, in the days after a 24-year-old Muslim man raised in Chattanooga gunned down five U.S. servicemen, faith leaders directed a constant stream of candlelight vigils and prayer services, not only for their own congregations, but for the whole city.

At an interfaith service that brought together more than 1,000 Chattanoogans, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Marines and police officers gathered to mourn and tearfully repeat the words, "Chattanooga strong."

On the one-year anniversary of the attack, this small group of leaders wants to bring the city together again. The goal? To grieve and remember and show that the community will not be pulled apart along lines of religion, race or politics.

"When you reconcile where you're different and can accept that, that's when you begin to love one another," Flaugher said.

Few feel that desire for unity as deeply as some members of the Muslim community, who mourned the fact that one of their own could do such a thing and feared for the future.

Bassam Issa, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, said the attack was a "Fitna," an opportunity to sift the good from the bad like a man panning for gold. The community would come together and find something good or tear itself apart.

He said, "We could either rise and sift and get the gold out of it, or make things worse."

For Issa, the gold was seeing the community reject hatred and come together. While the other leaders ate, he spoke about a verse in the Quran that supported such love across boundaries. He said, "Oh mankind, we created you from female and male and made you nations and tribes so you may know one another."

"That describes America."

Boyd Patterson, the assistant district attorney who will help emcee the event, said, "We are far more alike than different."

"We all have the same goal - to solve this thing."

So the group met as Americans and made final decisions about how the event would look. Whether to hang posters or send an email blast. Whether to have volunteers direct parking. Whether to provide snacks or just bottled water.

One person agreed to pass along details to Mayor Andy Berke's office so he could be ready to speak, while another person offered to get in touch with a rabbi who may be willing to come.

Gabriela Phillips, coordinator of Adventist-Muslim relations for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said that when it comes to the issue of evil, the Christian and Islamic holy books have the same answer.

"What the Bible and Quran both say is, 'Overcome evil with good,'" Phillips said.

As she sees it, there are two options on the table. "There is a logic of fear and there is a logic of reconciliation. They are incompatible."

One brings seclusion and spite and death, while the other brings life-giving love. Sitting around that table at Firebox Grill, the group prayed their city will continue to choose love.

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at or 423-7576731.

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