To get to Littlefield Presbyterian Church in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, the directions are easy. Turn right at the clothing store with the sign written in Arabic – across from the bakery with a sign in Arabic. If you get to McDonald Elementary School, where about 80 percent of the students are Muslim, you’ve gone about two blocks too far.
It is here, in the middle of the largest Arabic population in the world, outside of the Middle East, where Littlefield parishioners work to not only love their neighbors, but to learn about and appreciate their neighbors.
“I know people are watching me,” said the Rev. Fran Hayes, pastor at Littlefield for the past eight years. “Everything we do in life is about Christian witness. I know that the kids in the neighborhood, they know that I am the Christian pastor. If I treat everyone with respect, I can have conversations with people.”
Conversations, particularly between Christians and Muslims, have been high on the priority list at Littlefield Presbyterian for more than a quarter century now.
“We’re blessed with the world’s diversity, right outside the steps of the church. We have this gift of different cultures right here. The charge to us, is what are we going to do with it,” said the Rev. Dr. William Gepford, a semi-retired minister who has been the Presbytery of Detroit’s resident missionary to the local Muslim and interfaith community for more than a quarter century. Gepford, who had been a missionary in Lebanon, came to Dearborn in 1979, part of an interfaith outreach program funded by a 2-year grant from the General Assembly. Littlefield offered to support the program by providing an office for Gepford; he’s been there ever since.
Today, Littlefield is at the center of a variety of active, ongoing interfaith efforts in the Detroit area. During the school year, the local public school system teaches English as a second language classes to area residents at the church. The church is also the site for a local Headstart program for pre-schoolers, most of whom are the children of first- or second-generation Arab immigrants who have settled in the neighborhood. More directly, the church runs an annual weeklong Peace Camp in the summer for children. The camp, which welcomes area children of all races and faith backgrounds, is similar to a Vacation Bible School and all the lessons deal with getting to know and understand your neighbor. In the stressful days following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, Littlefield was well positioned to be a leader in the community because it had been already been working on interfaith dialogue for decades. The October 2001 Christian-Muslim Day of Dialogue at Littlefield has since become an annual event, featuring Scripture readings from both the Bible and the Islamic Qur’an and sermons from Hayes and a local imam – both delivered from the Littlefield pulpit.
“They are the founders of the interfaith movement here,” said Eide Alawan, a lay leader at the massive Islamic Center of America in Dearborn. “Since 2001, many churches have jumped on to the interfaith bandwagon, which is a good thing. It has been made easier for them to do so by the work done at Littlefield Presbyterian for these many years.”
While thousands of area Muslims attend worship and prayer services every week at the Islamic Center – one of about 75 mosques in the Detroit area – Littlefield’s membership stands at approximately 110, Hayes said.
“We consider ourselves demographically challenged,” she said. “The community around us is about 80 percent Muslim and we neighbor Detroit, which is pretty well churched.”
“But the people who are here are dedicated to our mission, to be good Christian neighbors.”
Alawan, who moved from the Middle East to Dearborn in 1964, said Littlefield has proven that churches both large and small can have a huge impact in the world around them.
“I am doing my darndest to connect my people to the world around us,” he said. “This country is based on people understanding one another.”
Hayes and Gepford said in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, they would often invite local Muslim leaders to accompany them to functions, to allow them a chance to meet others – and to let local Christians meet them.
“I can tell you about Islam, but it is much better if I can introduce you to a Muslim person and allow the two of you to get to know each other. Too many people have not had that experience,” Hayes said.
Gepford said while there’s been frustration over the years in his work, he is pleased by the signs of progress that have been made. He advocated for the hiring of Arab teachers, police officers and medical professionals in the Dearborn area. By and large, Dearborn has now come to embrace its local Arab population. There’s even an Arab American street festival every June in the city.
Arab immigrants were drawn to Dearborn the way many new arrivals were: Dearborn is the home of Ford Motor Co. In 1914, Henry Ford made international headlines by offering his factory workers a $5-a-day wage and thousands – including immigrants from the Middle East – flocked here to find work. The local Arab community has been growing ever since.
“I measure this work in part by the conversations my wife (Barbara) hears at her bridge group,” Gepford said. “Five or six years ago, parts of Dearborn were still very stand-offish to the Arab and Muslim community. Today, the conversation she hears at the table playing bridge is different. It is more accepting.
“Are we done with our work here? No. But we continue to love our neighbors and to talk to people,” he said.
“You have to stay true to your goals, true to your mission. You have to care about your neighbors in good times and bad,” Gepford said.