Muslims, Jews, Christians unite to build a home for K.C. family

Steve Engler of Visitation Parish leads Christian prayers at the Sept. 11 groundbreaking for a Habitat for Humanity home in Kansas City. (Kevin Kelly/Key photo)

By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — No network television cameras were there, not even local TV for that matter.

There weren’t 80,000 fans, as at Arrowhead Stadium, bowing their heads for a moment of silence, with a football field-sized U.S. flag unfurled before them.

But on the day America paused to mark the 10th anniversary of one of the worst days in the nation’s history, about 50 people held what could have been the most significant sign of healing on that day.

They were Muslim, Jews and Christians. They were America, and they come to dedicate themselves to a cause they all hold in common.

Sharon Johnson and her three children need a home. People from the three great monotheistic faiths in a loosely knit local coalition begun by the Rev. Stan Runnels, rector of St. Paul Episcopal Church in midtown Kansas City, will build another “House of Abraham” for her through Habitat for Humanity.

“I feel blessed,” Johnson said at the conclusion of the prayer service and groundbreaking at the vacant lot near 25th Street and Bellefontaine Avenue that will soon be the site of her brand-new, four-bedroom, two-bathroom house with attached garage.

“I want to thank God first of all, then Habitat for Humanity because I couldn’t get a home without Habitat,” she said.

The “House of Abraham” coalition, including Visitation and St. Francis Xavier parishes, has sponsored two houses for Habitat clients so far. The coalition provides the seed money to get construction started as well as volunteer labor to help build it.

Johnson and her children are also required to put in 350 hours of “sweat equity” into their own home, plus repay a no-interest mortgage loan.

The “no-interest” part of Habitat mortgages eliminates a thorny issue for the Muslims, said Shakil Haider, chairman of the Midland Islamic Council.

Islam generally forbids charging or paying interest on loans.

“The scholars have told us that when you live in a non-Muslim society, you can make some adjustments,” he said. “You can take out a mortgage to buy a home and pay interest, but we are not allowed to accept interest payments at any time.”

Rev. Runnels said the participation of people from the three faiths that trace their roots to Abraham was another step toward understanding.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there was a push among people of all three faiths to get to know and understand each other better. There were, and still are, many opportunities for people to explain their faith, but at some point, that wasn’t enough, Rev. Runnels said.

“This was built around the idea of, instead of sitting around a table talking, let’s do something,” he said. “Habitat for Humanity became the perfect vehicle for doing something together constructive.”

Haider recalled that the days following 9/11 were terrifying for the American Muslim community. They were grieving with the rest of the country, and viewed with suspicion virtually everywhere they went.

Haider said he even received a phone call from an FBI agent after his son made a remark in school that his father knew every Saudi pilot.

“It was true,” Haider said. “I worked in aircraft maintenance dispatch in Saudi Arabia for years, so I told the FBI, ‘I know all Saudi pilots, but I do not know any Saudi terrorists.’”

Since those first fearful few days, Haider said, the better part of America has emerged, and he is in constant demand to speak to both Christian and Jewish congregations to explain the true faith of Islam.

Today, he said, there is even a healthy exchange among Christian, Islamic and Jewish children as they visit each other’s schools to learn more about one another.

That’s what made the groundbreaking on Sept. 11, 2011, so special, said Craig Colbert, planning director for Habitat for Humanity in Kansas City.

“I can’t think of a better way to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” he said to the crowd.

Colbert said that the latest “House of Abraham” is only one part of Habitat’s overall plan to build affordable housing in the neighborhood centered around True Vine Missionary Baptist Church.

The lot on which the house will be built is one of several vacant lots in the neighborhood under the control of Jackson County Land Trust, which held the property for non-payment of taxes. It was one of many neighborhood eyesores that will be converted into new, owner-occupied single family homes.

“We’ve already built three houses in this neighborhood,” he said. “We hope on this block we will have another five to seven.”

That gave the prayer leaders even more reason to offer prayers from their own traditions of both gratitude and blessings for the Johnson family and their soon-to-be new home.

“Please allow light and peace and compassion to dwell in this home,” prayed Susan Choucron of Congregation Ovem Shalom. “Let no sadness come through this gate.”

“We can join you as you build your home, but we are here because God wants to build his home within us,” prayed Steve Engler of Visitation Parish.

“Your home is not a place,” said Sheik Hasan Aly. “Your home is your family. May God give you strength and courage.”

Sheik Aly also drew a laugh from the crowd when he said that the next time the group gathers for the official housewarming of the completed home, he expects a feast in the Islamic tradition.

“You should kill a healthy sheep,” he said. “But if you don’t have a sheep, some chicken will work.”


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October 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph