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September/October 2011

US Christians learn to love their Muslim neighbors

PRISMmagazine.org


What’s So RADICAL Ab

A growing number of evangelicals are building How would you respond if your pastor proposed hosting a banquet at your church for the local Muslim community? Pastors Kevin Luce and Matthew Kruse of Seven Mile Road Church in the greater Boston area were willing to take the risk in 2009. “When we learned that there were tens of thousands of Moroccan Muslims living within a few miles’ radius of our church, we began thinking of ways that we could extend grace to them,” says Kruse. So on a chilly Saturday night members from Seven Mile Road joined with Muslims from the Moroccan American Cultural and Civic Association to share a warm meal and remember the events of Christmas.1 The experience was so positive that it led to an ongoing series of events in which members of each community gather to build friendships, dialogue about their faiths, and grow in their understanding of each another. Pastor Andy Larsen has been teaching a course called Extending Hospitality to Our Muslim Neighbors

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at Pine Lake Covenant Church in the Seattle area. “I’m now working full time in this initiative and am beginning to facilitate church to mosque and Christian to Muslim relationships in our broader Covenant church family,” explains Larsen. “Who would have ever thought this would be possible in our post 9/11 world? I clearly didn’t see it coming.”2 And he’s thrilled with the positive response to the initiative. “One thing I have noticed, most folks in Covenant churches I visit love this stuff and are eager to learn about, respect, and engage their Muslim neighbors.” One Pine Lake member recently shared: I am one of the millions of Americans who had a bias against the Islamic faith. It wasn’t anything specific, but more related to news media and, more importantly, my own ignorance. I had little knowledge of the Islamic faith and really didn’t care to…[Pastor Larsen] had arranged for us


bout Loving Muslims?

g bridges into Muslim communities to attend a service at a local mosque, and that experience opened my eyes tremendously. At the mosque I met a fellow from Saudi Arabia, and we had a tremendous amount in common. This relationship has been my first Muslim friend. These are just two examples of a growing trend among American evangelicals willing to refuse the antiMuslim rhetoric that has proliferated in public media and opinion since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Instead, they are choosing to tear down walls and build bridges into Muslim communities. What’s the motivation? Simply taking seriously Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Radical love

Loving our Muslim neighbors should be no more radical than loving any other neighbor. Neighbor-love is an essential part of being a follower of Christ. What is radical

by John Becker

about this shift is the nature of the love being cultivated in Christians’ hearts. First, it is a love that refuses fear. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18). The love that motivates “bridge-building” refuses the recoiling nature of fear. In place of fear is an active, embracing love. Richard Sudworth states this well in the title of his book about Christian presence in a multifaith society, Distinctly Welcoming. Sudworth writes: The events of 9/11 and 7/7 [in London] have brought to the fore our deepest fears, and we could be excused for being paralyzed by inaction…How do Christian communities appropriately reach out to those of other faiths in such a time as this? The challenge is to walk on a journey of interaction with others which somehow enables us to be true to our faith yet appropriately shaped by our experiences and the people As part of the Trac5 (Trac5.org) conference in June, Christians visited the mosque at the Colorado Muslim Society in Denver. (Photo by Andy Larsen)

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Building Bridges’ Bruce Green, center, reached out to Muslims when a tragedy hit the Afghan community. (Photo by Tammy Sawyer).

we meet…The background noise is alarming, yet we are called to be witnesses to the world, to offer hope and a distinctiveness centered on Christ. What should contemporary church life in its engagement with those of other faiths look like while the background noise of the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ assaults all our senses?3

building is only effective if it gives birth to genuine relationships. In our divided world, Christ’s followers must be committed to reconciliation that seeks to embrace Muslims as individuals who display the image of God, are worthy of relationship, and have much to offer. Too often Muslims and their Islamic faith are seen as a monolithic entity. As I interact with American Christians I hear Muslims being referred to as “they” or “them” when in fact Muslims, who make up roughly 25 percent of the world’s population, represent enormous diversity in ethnicity, culture, language, religious practices, and beliefs. Many Americans are surprised to learn that the majority of Muslims are Asian, not Arab.

Shared life, shared pain

My own journey with Muslims began in Nairobi in 1994. Our family shared living space with a Muslim family in a growing Muslim-majority neighborhood full of South Asians, Somalis, and Swahili Arabs. In a short time our network of friendships with Muslims became rich. I will never forget the first wedding we attended, hosted by a Pakistani family. Because of their deep appreciation for hospitality, our new friends made us the guests of honor—they offered us trays of savory food and videotaped our every move. We felt like celebrities and worried that we were receiving more attention than the bride and groom! Many of our relationships with our friends of Muslim faith became endearing and meaningful to us. Our neighbors were exceedingly generous with us, inviting us

In the past two decades, terrorism perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists has victimized the world like never before in its catastrophic destruction of civilians, property, and infrastructure. Before the 9/11 attacks, most Americans didn’t spend much time thinking about Muslims. In its wake, US citizens had a new enemy, one it had to put a face to, and, unfortunately, it was a Muslim face. For many American Christians, ambivalence towards Muslims morphed into hostility. According to the Pew Research Center, a quarter of Americans say they know “nothing at all” about Islam, and Christians, Muslims, and Jews gathered at the Community Multifaith Forum hosted by Trac5 in Colorado in June. (Photo by Andy Larsen) of the non-Muslims polled, 58 percent said they don’t know any Muslims. The research also found that evangelicals are more likely to view Islam as a violent religion than are others.4 Even among Christian leaders, the majority have an unfavorable opinion of Muslims.5 Conversely, Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, says that 86 percent of the world’s Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus know not even a single Christian. “The friendship gap is significant,” says Johnson.6 Second, radical love refuses alienation and therefore seeks reconciliation. Bridge-

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Take the Radical Love Pledge! into their lives. They were kind to our children, concerned for our wellbeing, and vocal in their appreciation of our values as they shared their burdens with us. We were free to speak of our love for Jesus and discuss both the common and conflicting tenets of our faith. On August 7, 1998, our neighborhood was shaken by a massive explosion that took place just a mile away. It wasn’t until we were in the midst of a swarm of blood-stained people running helter-skelter and saw the plume of smoke rising from the US embassy that we realized what had happened. Hundreds of people were killed that day in simultaneous truck bomb explosions at US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. The date of the bombings marked the eighth anniversary of the launch of Operation Desert Shield, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The attacks came at the hands of members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. We were overcome with emotion, full of righteous anger over the needless bloodshed of innocent bystanders. Is this Islam? Is this what Muslims do? Why do they hate America? These were the questions running through our minds as we reeled with the up-close reality that the world was not a safe place. The truth, however, was that all of us were victimized that day—every single resident of Nairobi, whether Christian or Muslim, Kenyan or immigrant or foreign national. We all lost something to terrorism, and it was pointless to vilify Muslims by association. Radical, reconciling love chooses forgiveness and seeks redemption. These acts of violence could have brought alienation to our relationships with our Muslim friends, but instead our friendships were deepened as a result of our common pain.

Blessings from curses

Pastor Bruce Green, executive facilitator at Bridge Building, an outreach ministry to Muslims in the San Francisco Bay area, knows the power of sharing pain with the Muslim community. In 2006 an Afghan woman was killed while walking to her children’s school just a few blocks from the church that hosts Green’s ministry. Although the murder turned out not to be a hate crime, it was trumpeted as such by the local media and, predictably, says Green, “produced a revenge-style response, and graffiti appeared on several local buildings,” including the church Green works from, where the victim’s name and “R.I.P.” were painted in large letters. The church left the tribute there and added a wreath, Green explains, “as a symbol of Christian identification with the angst and pain of our Afghan neighbors.” “The very moment we hung the wreath,” continues Green, “two Muslim men drove up from a local mosque, offering to remove the graffiti. When I explained our desire to see God bring a blessing from this curse, they wanted to have their picture taken with me in front of

Christian relationships with the wall. I sent that Muslims have often been photo to the media, characterized by conflict, fear, and it appeared on and lack of love. This is the the front page of the local paper. Thereafter opposite of how Jesus taught his people to live. As his the media descended followers, we are promised a on that wall as a backdrop to their TV love that casts out fear. We are commanded to love neighbor coverage. The next and even enemy. Therefore we day I visited the vicresolve to imitate and obey tim’s family and met Jesus by making the following her husband, Ahmad, who shared his broken pledge: heart with me in a • I will repent of any hateful room full of Afghan feelings toward Muslims and leaders. In front of will pursue love. all these Afghans we • I will pray for Muslims, agreed to have an asking God to bless them interfaith community and help them experience his memorial service for peace. his wife in the church • I will do at least one act of gym the following kindness for a Muslim in this Saturday. This unprecnext year. edented arrangement • I will respectfully share the became controversial good news about Christ. within the Muslim • I will not spread negative community, but stereotypes about Muslims but despite pressure to will season all my words with back away from the grace. Christians, Ahmad • I will champion this cause, courageously followed armed only with love, truth, through.” (This story and good deeds. is featured in a film available at Pluralism. org/FremontUSA.). This type of radical, bridge-building, reconciling love has broadened Bruce’s scope beyond the Bay Area; earlier this year Green was a part of a delegation that visited Afghanistan to develop the Ghazni-Hayward Sister City project, which is helping to rebuild one city in Afghanistan devastated by a decade of war. Radical love expressed through reconciliation is a powerful antidote to the violence of our day. Hundreds of thousands of refugees live in the Americas today, and the vast majority of these are from war-torn Muslim-majority nations.7 Due to two decades of civil war, Somalia produces the third biggest refugee population. In the United States, Minnesota alone hosts over 70,000 Somalis. What does radical love do in welcoming people so desperate for reconciliation? Mike Neterer, whose master’s thesis was titled “Loving Our Somali Neighbors,” answered this question, in part, by developing Somali Adult Literacy Training (or SALT), which seeks to address the crippling condition of illiteracy

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Feed Your Understanding Daughters of Islam: Building Bridges with Muslim Women by Miriam Adeney (IVP, 2002)

“Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims: An Exposition,” published by the International Journal of Frontier Missions (IJFM. org) in 2009, is available at tinyurl. com/3pl7rw6.

Muslims, Christians, and Jesus: Gaining Understanding and Building Relationships by Carl Medearis (Bethany House, 2008)

among Somalis in the Twin Cities. Local churches, such as Bethlehem Baptist in downtown Minneapolis, host the program and offer volunteer tutors who work oneon-one with Somali students.8 Volunteers are given one main instruction at the start of their stint: “Get to know one person: Learn their name, learn how to pronounce it, and commit to praying for them.” Another aspect of radical love is peacemaking. On a recent flight to the United Kingdom I had the privilege of sitting next to a Somali businessman. In the midst of our vibrant conversation, I was compelled to share with him my favorite scripture, Matthew 5:1-11. He was intrigued to read these words of Isa, as he calls Jesus, and especially verse 7: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” He said his people were not examples of peacemakers because they did not live what they claimed to believe. We both confessed our own failures at practicing our respective faiths. By the end of the flight we had discovered that we had a common interest in his country and a real possibility of working together to bring teachers and supplies to schools he had started in Somalia. Rick Love, president of Peace-Catalyst International, recently organized Building Hope, a 10-day conference for Yale’s Reconciliation Program that brought together Christians, Jews, and Muslims for a period of dialogue, reflection, and informal engagement.9 Love says he learned some new lessons in peacemaking during this conference: “The Yale Building Hope Conference did not just happen. People proactively decided to take steps toward the ‘other’—to bridge the divide. Jesus taught that we need to take initiative when relationships are strained or broken. We don’t wait for people to come to us. We go to them.”10 A Pakistani Muslim who was a participant at the conference told his Christian counterparts:

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Islam & Christianity is a concise pamphlet that compares the basic beliefs of Christians and Muslims and helps believers understand the key differences in a single glance. Available for order at bit.ly/ncDWZR.

Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel (Beacon Press, 2007)

My time with you has totally transformed my attitude toward Christians and toward MuslimChristian relations. Before meeting you, I thought that many Muslims took an interest in Christianity but that no Christians cared for or respected Muslims enough to take an interest in our faith. But you know our faith better than I do, and you have also helped me to see that I had previously completely misunderstood what Christians believe.11 Jesus said, “He who abides in me and I in him bears much fruit” (John 15:5). As we abide in Jesus, his love compels us as ministers of reconciliation who pursue peace. “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18). The promises of scripture and Jesus’ command to love even our enemies challenge us to take the next step. Those who step out in radical love find that their efforts of bridge-building, reconciliation, and peacemaking are effective not only in engaging Muslims but also in giving definition and beauty to their own faith. Learn more and consider joining the Radical Love Campaign at RadicalLoveNow.com. Currently residing in the San Francisco Bay Area, John Becker has lived and ministered in Africa and the United Kingdom with his wife and four children for the past 16 years. He takes great joy in sharing the love of Jesus with people of other faiths, especially those displaced by war and violence. (Editor’s note: the endnotes for this article have been posted at EvangelicalsforSocialAction.org/PRISM-endnotes.)

Loving Muslims  

Sept/Oct 2011 article