Each semester I take students from my Missiology class to a Muslim prayer service at a local mosque here in Memphis. It’s a practical learning assignment to observe, listen to and learn from our Muslim neighbors. I find this a very enriching experience for both myself and students: to step into the unknown, to learn by talking to and interacting with actual Muslims, and to perhaps see our preconceived notions about Muslims torn down.
Because it’s easy to view Muslims through a foggy or cracked lens.
I think we have generally moved away from any notion that Muslims are, at their foundation, terrorists. But I also believe it’s easy for many Christians to believe that, even if all Muslims are not terrorists, they at least carry a pro-violence perspective, ultimately wanting to rid the world of all “infidels.”
We have the Crusades, 9/11 and current events to underline this idea.
But interestingly we, as Christians, find it hard to own much of our own role in terrorist history (yes, terrorist): terrorizing forces under Constantinian Christianity, Crusading King Richard and troops, the mix of colonialism and Christianity, the perpetuating of slavery and removal of civil rights, etc.
Both Muslims and Christians have a stained history.
But we also have both Muslims and Christians looking to make things right, to rethink their faith in light of where we are now in history, to re-engage with their sacred scriptures on points of war, violence, power, etc. It’s not about a watering down of the faith but rather wise, as well as mournful, reflection upon our past in light of scripture.
So, for a group of Christians to enter a Muslim’s holy terrain on a Friday afternoon in order to observe, listen and learn can be a transformative experience. This has yet to let us down.
In particular, I recall a moment from this past Spring that really threw us a curveball (in a good way).
After observing the prayer service from the back of the meeting hall, the students and I met with the mosque’s imam (“pastor”) for a time of Q & A. While varying students posed questions on their minds, I also offered a question of my own. In light of the recent executive orders given by Donald Trump in regards to the immigration ban, how had his community dealt with that as Muslims themselves?
The imam shared some thoughts, but one statement stuck out. It went something like this:
“If Donald Trump wants us to leave, I will tell my people we need to leave and leave peacefully. I am a citizen of the U.S. and have a right to be here. But if it ever came to the point of us having to leave, I will go and I will encourage all those in my care to leave peacefully. We will be able to find another place to live and worship.”
This imam was speaking more like Jesus than many Christians.
This imam had learned the ways of the cross (self-sacrifice) more than many Christians.
This imam was advocating for God’s peace-shalom more than many Christians.
Right then and there, Jesus was present teaching our class.
It was a bit of “reverse evangelism” if you will. This is a term Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder use in their book, Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today. They advocate that, at times, we will need to first be evangelized by others before we will ever be able to evangelize them. We will need to take of our shoes as we enter the holy space of others, listen, learn and be transformed as we interact with those of all different backgrounds who are created in the image of God. Then, and only then, could we consider how we might make the good news known.
It happened that spring Friday.
I am grateful for what this imam taught us on that Friday afternoon. We met Jesus in the most unexpected way. And that’s what we can come to expect: Jesus revealing himself through Samaritans, eunuchs, Moabites, the poor, the weak, the despised, Muslims, and whoever else we thought God could and would never use.
Thank you, Imam Abdullah Al-Hajj, for your desire for peace and your willingness to lay your rights down if such an unjust edict ever came about. Thankfully such an order has not come.
Thank you for teaching us the way of Jesus.