I woke up this morning at 4:50am to get ready for work, which entailed a round-trip total of 7 hours of driving, to and from West Lafayette, IN. The organization I work for (part time) called Crescent Project was doing a seminar at a church called Faith West and I was co-teaching the seminar with Fouad, the founder and president of the organization. It was funny how much I thought about that Louis C.K. interview on Conan on the drive to Indiana. I was lonely. Companionship is pretty important to me on long drives – translation: I don’t like driving long distances alone. Especially at the crack of dawn (I literally saw the crack today).
The Bridges Seminar is designed to teach church-people some basics about Islam and Muslims, identify similarities and common misconceptions that Muslims have of Christians, and to ultimately mobilize people to interact with Muslims in our communities out of love and not fear/hatred. I was tasked with teaching the “Pillars of Islam” or basic practices and the similarities/misconceptions portion of the seminar. This was a unique opportunity, because Fouad rarely/never shares teaching responsibilities with anyone. Especially not with white guys like me.
As I shared my story of how I came to be involved with teaching Christians about Islam/Muslims, I realized how ridiculous it is. I’m from Pekin, IL. Pekin is one of the most renowned racist towns in the country, and the diversity quotient at my high school while I was attending was 1/2500 (meaning one non-white student to 2500 white students). When my wife and I moved to Amman, Jordan in 2008, I had had exactly 1 interaction with a Muslim and knew only that Muslims hate Jews. That was my knowledge of the Muslim world when I moved there 5 years ago.
While we were living there, we volunteered teaching ESL at an English Center run by a Christian missions organization. Its well-known that the Al-Wahda Center in Amman is run by Christians, but poor Arab students take classes there anyway because it’s cheap and the teachers are native English speakers. Most of the students are Muslim.
One Friday night, there was what was dubbed a “Conversation Night” at the center, and I was excited to talk politics and God with some of the students…you know, to have conversations. This turned out not to be, in any way, shape, or form, what the night was about. We, students and teachers alike, were herded into small groups to have a guided discussion on spiritual peace. I was so frustrated. I knew what they were doing, and I hated it. They were trying to start “spiritual” conversations with the students. It was fake. I hate fake.
But there was one student, named Mahmoud, that caught my attention during the discussion. He was talking about his search for truth. I thought that phrase was interesting, so after the discussion group was finished, I went up to him to ask him about it. I had no inclination that I would talk with him about anything that I believe. I really just wanted to hear his story. But he threw me a curveball by telling me he genuinely wanted to know how he could find spiritual peace. The discussion never answered his question.
This started a conversation at the Center about stuff that I had been learning that I thought was interesting: I told Mahmoud about how Jesus shows up throughout the whole story of the bible, in Abraham’s story as well as Moses’ story. I told him that I see that God has been writing this story of redemption throughout history. That God has always intended to redeem all of humanity through Jesus. When I said this, I grew uneasy because of my surroundings. In Jordan, it is illegal for a Christian to “evangelize” a Muslim. I could get kicked out of the country if someone perceived that I was trying to do this to Mahmoud, which I wasn’t, and didn’t want to. I didn’t even go to Jordan for this purpose. I just wanted to love some people and do some good stuff and come home and get on with my life. So, I asked Mahmoud if he wanted to go up to my apartment to continue the conversation in lieu of getting kicked out of the country.
He obliged. I didn’t expect that either.
When we got to my apartment, I got out my Bible and started reading different stuff to Mahmoud that I thought was awesome. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I came to a pretty familiar passage in Galatians which says, “…there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but we are all one in Jesus, heirs according to the promise given to Abraham.” As I read this to Mahmoud, his eyes welled with tears. He exclaimed, “This is good news! Everyone needs to hear this!” My mouth dropped. This young Muslim man just informed me that the gospel is good news. He also just said that it is good news for “everyone”, which for him meant Muslims. According to him, this good news is good news for Muslims.
That conversation changed me. I understood that day in 2008 something that I had said I believed for at least the ten years leading up to that conversation. I understood that the gospel is good news for everyone. I’m still learning what the implications of that may be, all because of Mahmoud.
You might believe that, and you might not. But I do. I believe that Jesus is for EVERYONE, and that Jesus is FOR everyone. If anything that I said today to that room full of 70 white/Chinese people stuck, I hope it’s this: the gospel of Jesus, which is that in his life, death, and resurrection he made right everything for everyone that went wrong at the beginning of the story, is good news for everyone. I hope that we all, including myself, learn to live in this way which is the way of life.