Charleston is a wicked old city. We've had our pirates, wars, slave traders, mass executions, and the rest in this city's quaint and charming neighborhoods. Today we make an industry out of showing tourists where this carnage and misbehavior took place. And there are monuments and museums to mark much of it.
If we ever erect a monument to peace and goodwill in Charleston, it might feature the image of Cookie Washington. My old friend has been doing good and working for peace and justice here for years. You may have seen her on the pages of The Post and Courier on Sept. 12. A day earlier she had organized and led an interfaith service at James Island County Park with Imam Mohamed Melhem of the Central Mosque of Charleston.
While others around the country were threatening to burn copies of the Quran and using the day to shout, wave flags, and beat their breasts, some 200 Christians and Muslims gathered reverently at the park to break bread together and demonstrate mutual respect and goodwill. Washington and Melhem alternated reading passages from the Bible and the Quran.
"It was the least I could do when I saw all the craziness that was happening," Washington told me a few days later. For her, the 9/11 observance was an opportunity to demonstrate that the vast majority of Muslims and Christians respected one another and wanted to live in peace. Not everyone shared her feelings. She got several e-mails from people who saw the story and wanted to sound off. A woman wrote, "I cannot believe you had some sort of church service with Muslims. Are you crazy?"
She added, "Where in any Muslim country is a Christian church? A Holy Bible? They will kill any Christian they see in those countries. To place a mosque in the area of Ground Zero is most offensive to most AMERICANS! ... They can build a mosque, and we can't put any CHRISTIAN CHURCHES IN THEIR COUNTRIES ... I am sure there are very nice Muslims in this country, but there are many who want every Christian dead as that is in their KORAN ... I just hope they do not rape your daughters, but if they do, it will be your fault."
Someone else sent an appalling video of a young woman being stoned to death by a mob somewhere in the Middle East and suggested it spoke for all Muslims worldwide.
I am in sympathy with Cookie Washington. I, too, get loads of ignorant and mean-spirited communiques in response to my columns and my blog posts. Reading them is not informative or edifying. It merely opens the window onto the souls of a lot of truly sad and angry human beings. For that reason, I do not read the responses to my blogs and columns nearly as much as I used to. And why should I? I cannot reason with these people and reading their angry, confused words only makes me want to respond in kind. When I do that, I feel that they have triumphed. So I usually let my critics rant and rave without comment. Maybe my friend Cookie should do the same.
I ran into her a few days after the interfaith gathering at the park, during a meeting of Colin Kerr's Talks on Tap. I have written about Kerr a couple of times in recent years. He is a minister at Second Presbyterian Church and heads up a transient salon of philosophers, beer drinkers, and fast food gourmands who gather at local eateries every two weeks to sample the wares and discuss current issues. On Sept. 14, the topic was the anger in the land over building mosques and burning Qurans. About a dozen people were gathered on the patio at Andolini's downtown. I was there. So was Cookie and a young woman who probably needed some seasoning. She was insisting that all Muslins were of a single, anti-Western worldview and questioned whether the so-called Ground Zero mosque was really meant to be a cultural and community center as its proponents argue.
Cookie lost her patience with the woman, saying, "I am intolerant of intolerance. I am intolerant of ignorance." Later, when the woman tired to make amends, Cookie rebuffed her, saying, "I don't respect your opinion."
I was frankly shocked at my old friend's behavior and talked to her about it the next day. By then she was cooled down and repentant. "I am really somewhat ashamed," she told me. "I am so passionate about things, but I didn't have to be a bitch about it ... I was not being a good Christian."
But she was being very human in troubling times. And she was proving how anger and intolerance can be contagious — even to the best of people.