BY ANNE STANTON
TRAVERSE CITY — Editor's Note: Part of a series of stories about people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region in 2012.
First Congregational Church officials' decision to omit a Muslim prayer from a musical event prompted heated local debate about patriotism, religious freedom and tolerance.
The two perceived "whistleblowers" believe they're no longer welcome in their college choir, congregants think they are misunderstood, and Muslim high school choir student Alya Nadji is grateful for letters and words of "heartwarming support."
The Mel Larimer Concert Series was performed at the church in November, and drew choirs from the college and Traverse City West High School.
Three weeks prior to the Nov. 11 performance, Pastor David Walls and the church council banned an Islamic prayer from a planned Veteran's Day performance of "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace," a piece that suggests religious harmony can avert war.
Northwestern Michigan College choral director Jeffrey Cobb opposed the church's decision and waited until the performance eve to announce it, hoping Walls would change his mind.
Choir members Duncan Moran and his partner, Heather Shaw, immediately alerted NMC officials of the prayer snub, and college officials declared the decision "discriminatory."
Moran said he and Shaw believe they're no longer welcome in the choir because Cobb denounced their actions at a subsequent rehearsal.
"To me the biggest issue is not the church," said Moran, who has unsuccessfully tried to meet with Cobb. "The issue is you cannot be a public institution and involve yourself in censorship. It involved me and censorship, and I didn't sign onto that."
Cobb did not return a call for comment.
Russ Larimer said the event has pulled at him from both directions — as the son of the late Russ Larimer, for whom the concert is dedicated, as the West High School choral director, and as a church congregant. He said Walls' decision took him by surprise because non-sacred pieces were previously performed.
"I was in the middle of a rehearsal with the church choir, and (Walls) said, 'I'd like to talk to the choir for a moment,' and he did. He said this was going to be the way it was going to be ... When that kind of directive is going up to the church choir, I thought, 'it's a battle I'm not going to win'."
Larimer said the concert series' future is undecided, given the public schools' vision of exposing students to world cultures.
Meanwhile, congregants believe there's more to the story.
For one, the Grand Rapids mosque leader — in addition to reciting the call to prayer — offered to speak for five minutes, explaining his "faith for peace and Jesus" and to supply English translation copies of the Koran to be picked up voluntarily, according to an email exchange with concert organizer Sally Lewis.
Sharif Sahibzada, leader of a Grand Rapids mosque, told the Record-Eagle his offer was not conditional.
Some church supporters also asked whether a mosque would welcome a Christian speaker. Sahibzada said two St. Andrew Cathedral pastors took part in an interfaith conference at the mosque, and a Christian pastor, a woman, spoke in the mosque after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America.
Church congregant Jan Vlech said some look at the concert as a community event, but the pastor viewed it as a sacred mass, in which worship can be given only to a Christian God. A prayer to Mohammed, the great prophet, would not have been appropriate.
Vlech also said the church entirely paid for the concert, which cost almost $3,000. Moran pointed out that NMC and high school students rehearsed under the direction of publicly paid instructors.
Walls emailed that he wanted no more stories about the controversy.
"I for one am very tired of all of this and do not wish to expose my family or church to any more anger and venting," he wrote.
Weeks later, Hanukkah song was pulled from a Christmas concert performed by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton middle schoolers.
Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools Superintendent Mike Buell excluded the song because he wanted the concert wholly devoted to Christmas, a significant holy day.
Because the students are directed by Traverse City Area Public School teachers, TCAPS administrators quickly met with Buell, who decided that GTACS would take over the concert.
His decision precluded the TCAPS choir and band instructors from directing, but they attended the concert.