[This article was originally published on radical.net on Nov. 11, 2019.]
A gray sedan pulled through the gate kicking up dust. As it slowed, the driver turned the car onto the dirt patch opposite of the Quick Reaction Force building. A soldier sitting on the building’s stoop looked up from his novel with indifference. He shot a piercing gaze and dropped his eyes back to the book. I watched as the car door slowly opened. A tall Iraqi man slid one foot out of the car cautiously. He grabbed the side of the door and pulled himself out of the vehicle. After exiting, he stopped. Looking at his surroundings, he walked to the trunk, placed the key in the slot, and lifted the lid.
The man wore old tan pants and a long sleeve button down white shirt. His face was pensive. It was obvious from the condition of his shirt that he had been wearing it for several days in the relentless heat of the city. He opened the trunk, adjusting his weight to lean in and grab a red cooler. Steadying himself, he grabbed both handles, lifted it from the car, and turned to set it on the ground behind him.
The soldiers sitting on the stoop of our Battalion Tactical Operation Center looked at him with suspicion. This was not normal. Why had the gate guards allowed him entrance? What was he doing here? A SGT next to me mumbled under his breath, “Why is he in here?” Another soldier remarked, “Who knows. Don’t buy whatever he’s selling—its probably poisoned.” Others close grunted their agreement. For nearly two hours, the man sat on his cooler waiting for a customer. None came.
Finally, my curiosity got the best of me. Grabbing my wallet that hung from my M-16 on the wall, I walked out the side door to avoid comments. As I approached, he lifted his eyes to meet mine. There was a tenderness in his gaze. His face was rough and his beard stubbled. It was obvious that he had not shaved for the better part of a week. As he saw me coming closer, he stood up and gave a weak smile. His eyes were a deep brown and his hair short. His nose was slightly crooked and long, and his eyes were accented by bushy eyebrows that softened his appearance. He reached out with his right hand to meet mine, and we introduced ourselves. I didn’t realize in that moment that I would be forever changed.
Over the past fifteen years, I have dedicated myself to the people of the Middle East. After returning from the Iraq war, I served as a local pastor in Louisville, Kentucky. During my time in pastoral ministry, I lead our church through revitalization, focusing upon missions and evangelism. My time in Iraq helped me embrace people who were culturally different and held strong beliefs opposed to my own. I dedicated myself to Islamic studies and eventually a doctoral degree in World Religions, focusing upon Islam. Too many of my Army friends returned from deployment with bitterness toward the Iraqi people, but the Lord did something different in my heart. He broadened my horizons and developed within me a deep love for Muslims that continues to inform the work I do in the Middle East.
There are several simple truths the Lord revealed to me while I served in the military.
1. Muslims are people just like me. Regardless of background or culture, human beings are very much the same. We have different origins, stories, and experiences, but the most basic personal joys of family, trauma of loss, or hope for the future are shared around the world.
2. Muslims earnestly desire the flourishing of their families, communities, and countries. A majority of people around the world desire to provide for their families and make a positive impact. Muslims are no different. They yearn for healthy family relationships, respectful and caring neighborhoods, and the betterment of society.
3. Muslims are open to discussing spiritual matters. From my experience, Americans are far more resistant to discussions about spiritual realities. Because the Muslims’ experience—political, social, or personal—is interconnected with faith, they are more interested in discussing the impact of faith upon their lives. This is a helpful bridge for sharing about Jesus.
4. Muslims are passionate people. Many Western people are dispassionate about religion or faith. However, many Muslims strive to live obediently according to their particular expression of Islam. I have found sharing the gospel is much more fruitful with people who possess religious faith rather than those who are secular. Muslims are generally passionate about God and the application of God’s commands to society. Sharing Jesus with Muslims, who need no convincing about the existence of God, can be very rewarding.
5. Muslims are people with wonderful humor. Too many Americans view Muslims as stodgy, puritanical “sticks in the mud.” Often this persona is attributed to Muslims because of their conservative style or values. However, Muslims, both men and women, love to laugh, celebrate, and invest in their friends.
6. Muslims are paralyzed by fear of rejection. For an American this fear is difficult to understand. While almost every human being desires acceptance, the fear of losing family relationships because of faith is especially heightened for Muslims. Collective identity and family relations are essential to Muslim identity. In order to share Jesus with a Muslim friend effectively, you have to understand their fear of rejection by family and friends. Jesus’ call for self-denial and broken relationships in the wake of following him are significant challenges for Muslims who wish to trust Jesus as their savior.
7. Muslims are in desperate need of authentic Christian relationships. Too many Christians try to create friendships with Muslims for the purpose of sharing Jesus with them. Muslims see right through the ruse. Many Muslims are already skeptical about Christian motivations to evangelize. Invest in the person. Listen to their stories. Learn about their beliefs, experiences, and culture. Treasure the image of God imprinted on their lives. Care about them as a friend and after such a relational investment, Muslims are much more willing to hear about the gospel of Jesus.
8. Muslims need the gospel of Jesus. They need hope and grace in the same way that every person on the planet does. They are people who are no further from God than anyone who has yet to place his or her trust in Jesus. Whether that person is a soccer mom living in suburban Alabama, a hedge fund investor working in Manhattan, or even a young man selling tea and cigarettes from a roadside shop in Najaf, Iraq—all need Jesus equally. Muslims are people like anyone else. They are people living in a spiritual fog that prevents them from seeing the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. As Christians we are called to meet people living in darkness with the candlelight of Jesus Christ.
As I walked up to the man next to the sedan, I had no idea that moment would be the start of an incredible friendship. I sat with him and bought a Fanta soda. Over the next year, he taught me Arabic and I taught him English. He introduced me to his two-year-old son, Mustafa. We shared pictures of our families. We ate kebabs together. He gave me beautiful handmade jewelry for my wife. We laughed. We even cried together about the brokenness of the war-torn city around us. We talked about faith, Christian and Islamic. I shared with him the hope I found in Jesus and the riches of the story found in the Bible. In the end, I am not sure how he responded to Jesus. His life was cut short by radical members of his own religion. However, I rest in the grace of God and trust in the Spirit’s ability to draw sinners to himself. He did it for me, and I hope that someday I will see my friend again as we worship Jesus for all eternity.
Life rarely goes the way you think it will. Sometimes people leave. Sometimes people die. Don’t stockpile regrets by remaining silent and unengaged. Invest in friendships and share the gospel.