This week I am embarking on something I never would have imagined. As many of you may know, I am friends with Imam Kamil Mufti, whose mosque is next door to our church. I am also friends with Rabbis Daniel and Karen Bogard, who had been serving at Congregation Anshai Emeth here in Peoria. Over the past several years, our friendship has blossomed, and as a result, many doors have opened for us to share our story and to model what it looks like to be friends and to live at peace and civility with those of different religious convictions.
The three of us have taught classes and participated in private and public gatherings to discuss Islamophobia and living at peace with one another. For my part, I am especially burdened in these meetings to discuss an appropriate Christian response for the evangelical community to the issues of Islam in America.
We have been told by various people across the country that what has been happening in Peoria is rather unique. While some may feel threatened or disagree, many others are finding hope and inspiration. As a result, the three of us have been asked to participate in a project to tell the story of our unique friendship and the dialogue that has been taking place. Therefore, this week I am in Cincinnati for several days with Kamil and Daniel doing a series of interviews that will become the foundation for a documentary and/or book on what it looks like to live in peace with those of different religious beliefs without compromising or succumbing to a wishy-washy, everyone-believes-the-same mindset.
Over the years as I’ve leaned into this, some Christian friends have expressed concern for me and asked many questions—Do you really know what you’re getting into? What if you’re taken advantage of? What are others going to think of you? Others just shake their heads with skepticism. Yet there are several reasons why I’m stepping into this and allowing it to go to the next level:
1) I have the support of the leadership of Richwoods Christian Church. Obviously not every person in my church agrees or is happy about this, but the staff and elders have supported me. That’s not to say that there have not been some questions and concerns articulated, but they understand that, as Christians, we are called to love our neighbor without conditions. And we believe that the fact that our Knoxville Campus is next door to an influential mosque is not a coincidence.
2) These are my friends. It is a beautiful thing when you take the words of Jesus and put them into practice in spite of fear and uncertainty. As I have stepped into these relationships, I have come to find that Kamil, Daniel, and numerous people in their congregations are true friends. I am no longer trying to love them or be in relationship with them because I ought to, but because I want to. Not only have I found some incredible friendships with people at the mosque and the synagogue, but I can also truly say that my faith in Jesus has been enhanced and deepened as a result of these relationships.
3) It’s the right thing to do. Jesus was very clear about the importance of loving our neighbor. He even took this a step further and said that we are to love our enemies—offering them food or drink if they are in need. The Epistles tell us that we are to make “every effort to live at peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14) and that “as much as it depends upon us we are to live at peace with all people” (Romans 12:18)—not just our friends or the people who share our beliefs, but all people. This is really quite simple, even if it is hard and scary to do.
4) I’m afraid the church is our own worst enemy, and as a whole, it is adding to the problem rather than solving it. Too often we forget that the “only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love” (Galatians 5:6). Oh, we say that we are loving and often believe what we say. Unfortunately, our words, tone, and actions (or lack thereof) betray us.
When a representative of one of the major Christian universities in America suggests to an on-campus audience that the answer to Islam should be more concealed carry permits and it’s ok to shoot Muslims, it should be unconscionable. Instead, that comment was met with resounding applause. Then there is the well-known TV evangelist who stated that what happened in Orlando is God’s judgment and that we should allow Muslims and gays to kill each other. I understand that these examples are extremes, but these are spokesmen for incredibly POPULAR ministries. So, is the attitude behind these words the exception or the norm? I may be wrong, but I believe it is more commonplace than most of us what to acknowledge.
When every survey taken reveals that the primary attributes the world associates with Christianity are being judgmental and mean, we object and become defensive. Like an alcoholic who continues to deny he has a problem, the church continues to be more concerned over political engagement, exclusive rhetoric, and truth wars than actually loving people who are different from us.
Recently I was talking with a Muslim man, and he said to me, “I’m surprised you are an Evangelical because you’re nice—the Evangelicals are some of the meanest people I’ve interacted with.” When that is our witness, should we really expect those people to respond to a canned presentation of the Gospel? Furthermore, a common refrain among my Jewish and Muslim friends is that Christians only seem to want to convert them—that Christians don’t really seem to love those who are different unless or until those people convert. But that is not the way of Jesus.
I understand that many of you reading this are still not sold. Some of you may even be angry. That’s OK. Ten years ago, I think I would have likely reacted the same way, but the Lord has brought me on a journey that has led me into unique friendships with two men who have very different views of God than I have. These friendships have opened my eyes to false narratives, stereotypes, and assumptions about Muslims and Jews that I was holding. These friendships have also made me a better Christian and more alive to the things of God.
Therefore, I would ask for your prayers, and perhaps even your patience, as I step into this project. I have no desire to water down or compromise the Gospel. Actually, I believe this project will allow the good news to be shared with a wider audience—one that too often has not heard the Gospel because they cannot see it in the lives of Christians. I hope that in the midst of my imperfections, God uses me to be a light and helps others to do the same in the process. Fear, hate, and judgment do not advance the Gospel. Love in action does. I hope by God’s grace that I am able to do that in some way.