A fertile crescent of intolerance

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Ron McRae, Somerset County street evangelist

As adherents to every creed from anarchism to Zoroastrianism rush to lay claim to available symbols, I ended my conversation with Bishop Ron McRae wondering whether I am going to hell because I have gay friends, am a Roman Catholic or because of all those crescent rolls in my fridge.

McRae is a self-proclaimed Anabaptist bishop and, as such, has felt it his calling to disrupt the lives of gays, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses and whatever other among the citizenry he considers the future entree at the Almighty's celestial barbecue come Judgment Day. He has been found with a sign and Bible and loud denunciations at such venues as the convention of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the annual Rosary Rally in Johnstown. A former police officer from Houston, Texas, his earlier career gave him a keen eye for the line between protected dissent and prosecutable harassment. Thus, in his subsequent life as an evangelistic nuisance, he has always been able to win civil liberties cases against the police when they get fed up enough to cart him off to the hoosegow.

"The Supreme Court has ruled you can reasonably limit free speech in time, place and manner. But they have not placed those restrictions on the free exercise of religion," McRae explained. "We don't protest. We are not protesters. What I do falls under the free exercise of religion."

Paul Murdoch Architects
A crescent of maple trees is one aspect of the 2,000 acre "Crescent of Embrace" memorial site as seen in this artist's rendering.
Click photo for larger image.

Oh, good.

This week, examining the winning design for the Flight 93 National Memorial, honoring the passengers and crew who rose up against a quartet of hijackers who were, I suppose, exercising their religious prerogatives, McRae suddenly spotted traces of paganism. The architects had made the mistake of calling an arc of maple trees to be planted along a depression overlooking the crash site "a crescent."

McRae promptly denounced the design as a symbol of Islam. Granted, the memorial includes a tower with wind chimes and a wall that zags along the flight path, and there is, of course, the Sacred Ground, the spot where the plane nosed into the earth. But that arc of trees, which will turn red in the autumn, was called a crescent, and to McRae, a crescent is the symbol of Islam.

"Everything they've done has symbolism to it, and it has a meaning to it," McRae said. "I'm sorry, I do not believe it was an accident. They chose a red maple. C'mon, man." The Red Crescent is, of course, the Islamic world's version of the Red Cross which, when last I checked, is not a recognized church.

The committee that judged and selected the design, by Los Angeles architect Paul Murdoch, expressed some misgivings about the term "crescent" as well. It means one thing to an architect, but they suggested a more carefully chosen term, "arc." And so that feature is now called an arc.

McRae, who is accustomed to standing rather alone, insists he has supporters.

"All the Muslim churches in this town, they also take affront to that crescent being used," he said.

I phoned one of the Muslim churches, which, for future reference, are generally called mosques or masjids or, in the case of the congregation led by Imam Fouad El Bayly of Somerset, The Islamic Center of Johnstown.

What, I asked El Bayly, does McRae's concern about the crescent mean?

"It tells me he doesn't know very much about Islam," Bayly said. The crescent is often used to denote a new moon, which is how Muslims mark the beginning of a new month. But it no more encapsulates their religion than an intersection of two highways -- a crossroads -- signifies Christianity.

"He is a man of peace? He doesn't really have to make a big issue out of something when we are trying to heal the big wound of Sept. 11," El Bayly said. I wished him a good Jummah, which is a Muslim day of prayer. Doubtless El Bayly will pray for McRae, raising the question: Who's the better Christian here?

Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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