TRAVERSE CITY — A year ago, controversy rocked the First Congregational Church in a very public way when church officials reneged on their invitation to a mosque leader to perform a Muslim prayer during a concert.
Church leaders ultimately determined they wanted nothing to do with the Islamic Call to Prayer, part of an emotionally powerful concert, “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace.” The piece is sung atop a video that depicts graphic war scenes and ends with different faiths drawn together in peace.
Officials said they backed off the invitation because they opposed the idea of a Muslim prayer within a Christian sanctuary. They asserted they had the right to censor it because the concert was a private event, paid for with church dollars. They also feared it would offend military veterans they planned to honor that day.
But the situation wasn’t that simple. The Veterans Day 2012 concert, to be performed in honor of the late Mel Larimer, included not only the church choir, but also public high school and college choirs, which had rehearsed for months during school hours with publicly paid instructors.
The decision deeply upset a Muslim girl who sang in the Traverse City West High School choir. It also led Northwestern Michigan College to drop its official support for the Mel Larimer Festival Choral Concert; NMC officials said the decision was “discriminatory.”
Following the blow-up, Traverse City Area Public Schools stopped using the church for its full concerts, but will begin again in April, said Wendee Wolf-Schlarf, the district’s K-12 music coordinator.
“Until we got things sorted out, the administration was being extremely sensitive and methodical to make sure we had the appropriate separations,” Wolf-Schlarf said.
The college and school choirs won’t be part of the upcoming Mel Larimer concert on Dec. 22, due also in part to scheduling conflicts.
Church congregant Russ Larimer, the son of the late Mel Larimer, opposed church leaders’ decision at the time, but said he was ordered to stay mum by the Rev. David Walls. Larimer wore two hats last year as choir director for both the church and West Senior High School.
Walls has since left the church.
Larimer said part of the misunderstanding owed to Walls’ statements that the mosque leader would not perform the prayer unless he was allowed to distribute English copies of the Koran and talk about his faith.
The mosque leader, Sharif Sahibzada, made the two requests “to remove misgivings of my faith” in an email to concert organizers.
But Sahibzada wrote in an email to the Record-Eagle last year there was no truth to rumors that he said it “wasn’t worth his time” to come up to Traverse City unless granted permission to speak or provide Korans.
“There was no such statement as you have mentioned in your email with Pastor Walls,” he wrote. “ … It was crystal clear in my mind that I have to read Azaan only to play part of Muazzan. There was no condition for distribution of Qur’aan or delivering of speech for 5 minutes to take part. It was merely suggestion, if it is allowed.”
Larimer said he looked at the concert as “just another concert,” but others believed it was an extension of the church and viewed it as a church service. Some still do.
“I agreed with (Pastor Walls) on that one,” said church congregant Dianne Walker. “We should be able to say in our church what kind of songs we’re singing. Even though it involved public choirs, it was still our church. But it was handled poorly.”
Larimer said his dad began the concert collaboration in 1997 with an aim to bring together “all the musical forces in town.” A patron, Dick Johnson, donated to the church to support an ongoing concert series.
Church board members have since extended an olive branch, meeting with both TCAPS and NMC.
“I have discussed with both Russ and (NMC) that I went to get this behind us and reintroduce the ability to do the great things that the Mel Larimer concert series has done in the past,” said Donald Bell, church council president.
Bell said First Congregational offers one of the area’s largest performance venues with excellent acoustics and the largest pipe organ, a Casavant, north of Grand Rapids.
TCAPS officials decided there’s no problem with students performing at the church. But if the event is considered “sacred,” participation is voluntary and the performance can’t be used to determine a grade or credit, said TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins.
Jeffrey Cobb, NMC’s director of music programs, said he’s hoping to find a way to “heal wounds in the community,” but the Mel Larimer series remains a gray area.
“If it’s a church-sponsored activity, it will have a whole different feel,” he said. “My hope is it returns to being a community event. Many knew and loved Mel, so it’s neat to be part of something that honors him.”
Larimer personally believes it’s a community event hosted by the church. He intends to discuss future concerts upfront for the purpose of transparency.
“The mission statement is not quite done, but I want it to be one the community will be comfortable with and the church as the sponsoring entity,” he said.