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    Reaching local Muslims for Christ has been successful, ministries say

    The uneasy relationship between Christians and Muslims has a long history. But things are new in the post-9/11 landscape of San Diego County:

    € Insulated Americans have been drawn into a global quarrel.

    € Fear has encroached upon lives of plenty.

    € Christians who knew little about Islam have become quick students.

    A more important development is this: Beneath a blanket of denial, hesitation and uncertainty, Christians are reaching out to Muslims.

    Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church is a forerunner. Its Arab ministry was launched in 1996 with two people, Mofid Wasef and his wife. Eleven years later, Wasef is Rancho Bernardo¹s doctorate-holding associate pastor — and Rancho Bernardo¹s Arabic population is a hundred strong.

    ³I am pleased, and the Lord is blessing us,² said Wasef. ³For about five years we had only about three families. It was like tent-making. I was doing another job as a caregiver and doing a ministry, no pay at all. The Lord opened the door for us at Rancho Bernardo.

    ³We have several people who have been converted from Islam. The Lord used me to bring and baptize several people from Muslim Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Arab Israel.

    ³Many were nominal Christians, and the Lord led us to bring them to Christ. We have people in our congregation who started to go to church after 35 years of their life. They never went to church at all. And we kind of lift them up.²

    On the other end of the life cycle is the Iranian ministry of Scripps Mesa Bible Church. Launched in December, it is led by Roubik Hoospianmer.

    ³What we¹re doing is more evangelistic than a typical church service,² said Kevin Clark, the church¹s lead pastor. ³There¹s less discipleship and spiritual growth emphasis, and more evangelistic emphasis. Most people coming know very little about Jesus. Roubik tries to keep it focused on real life things like how to have a healthy marriage.²

    The Saturday service, typically given in Farsi and translated in English, bears little resemblance to Scripps¹ English-speaking Sunday service.

    ³It is more involved in the actual worship,² said Clark. ³They talk back to Roubik. And when we pray, everybody prays. We gather in a huge circle and people pray brief prayers, even those who are not Christians. There¹s a lot of fellowship afterwards. They get involved in lively conversations. It¹s less of a lecture environment: more laughing and people talking back to Roubik.²

    Elsewhere,church-goers around San Diego County are approaching the dialogue with various-levels of involvement. As Lakeside Presbyterian Church, Pastor Bob Mentze said: ³We don¹t live in a community where we see a lot of Muslims. One never knows. Things change.²

    Matt Hammett, lead pastor of the Flood, realizes that while his church does not minister directly to Muslims, there is a roundabout connection. Three examples:

    1. For a while, one of Hammett¹s congregants was translating his sermons into Arabic for distribution on the Internet.

    2. The Flood¹s primary summertime missions work is in Malawi, where the Muslim influence has increased notably with each passing year.

    3. The Flood sponsors a missionary who interfaces extensively with a burgeoning Muslim culture in France.

    From the latter experience, Hammett notes that birthrates of the Muslims migrating into France are several times that of the French. ³So what is that going to look like in a generation? That¹s biological expansion, not talking about conversion. France is going to be Muslim.

    ³In Europe there isn¹t a strong presence of the church. It¹s kind of a Œbelieve whatever you want to¹ kind of mentality. And you have Islam come in and say, ŒNo, this is what you believe.¹ It¹s going to stand up against that ideologically.²

    Such phenomena may be looming on the horizon in the U.S., where tolerance reigns with each younger generation.

    ³That population in particular, there¹s quite a percentage who say, ŒWe don¹t convert Muslims. Let them be who they are.¹ That whole pluralistic influence is definitely there. Like, ŒWho are we to come change them.¹ I think it¹s not the majority, but I think there¹s a growing number of people who would subscribe to that belief. ŒHow can you convert Muslims? They already have a religion.¹²

    While tolerance feeds our malaise, another obstacle is fear. ³I think there are obviously different media stereotypes. People are afraid of Muslims, I think,² Hammett said.

    For that reason, many local missionaries and churches who serve the Muslim community operate anonymously or pseudonymously.

    Fear is spurred by real and obvious threats. The Islam religion is deeply rooted in culture — and guarded by force. When asked if conversion is life-threatening for Muslims, one local missionary said: ³¹Following Christ in that community is an intensely intimidating prospect.¹ That would be no overstatement.²

    Rather than live with intimidation, many transplants are finding new religion on U.S. soil. And this comes with its benefits.

    ³There is an alternative that faith in Christ offers that nothing else can touch,² said Hammett.

    Said Wasef: ³Our church receives new families who are newcomers to the U.S. We stand beside them, support them until they get on their feet. Some people contact us before they come. Some call after they come. Some we find in grocery stores or Arabic, Middle Eastern stores. That¹s our ministry, to help and show God¹s love and the love of Christ. That¹s what¹s important.²

    Service comes not only to Muslims, but the Christians who reach out to them. The upside is peace and reconciliation among fractured peoples.

    ³My only experience had been what I heard in the news,² said Clark. ³I assumed what I heard from the political end is representative of the average person¹s opposition to America. But most of these people aren¹t politically concerned. They are concerned about how to stay healthy, raise kids, keep a job, keep the marriage. If Americans are afraid of the average Iranian, that fear is misplaced, because the Iranians you and I meet in these ministries are concerned about the same things in life that we are.

    ³I did not get involved in it with intentionality. It¹s neat watching God working His plan where we didn¹t have a plan. And He¹s doing the things we see happening. That¹s very cool to be a part of.²

    Wasef has a vision for all churches in San Diego County. Some might call it a New Testament vision, or one that is eschatological.

    ³We have people in our congregation with a background of Islam, Catholic, Baptist, Protestant,² Wasef said. ³We all worship as one family. We are not a separate congregation. So members of our Arabic ministry are part of Rancho Bernardo Community Church. We have elders, deacons, who have been ordained in the Arabic and the English speaking and they serve together as one board. So we have people of Arabic background ministering to English speaking; also, English speaking ministering to Arabic speaking.

    ³We are one church. So we feel at home here. We are not renting and not just using the facility. We are one body worshipping together. This is the unique thing about Rancho Bernardo. I would like other churches to do the same thing.²

    That may seem simple enough for Wasef, but how does a Christian in San Diego County get started?

    An anonymous missionary said: ³Help whatever way you can, followed by a long-term friendship. It¹s not hard to help for a while, not hard to befriend for while.

    ³The other thing is, so that you don¹t turn the corner in the road, immediately identify yourself as a follower of Jesus. Expose that card in the beginning, then sort of let it go. And the degree to which you share more of that, you decide in time.²

    According to Wasef, there is a delicate balance in patiently accepting the immigrant¹s culture while also welcoming them into ours.

    ³People who come from the Middle East,² he said, ³feel like foreigners, strangers, and it¹s very hard for them to get adjusted to American culture and churches. So, the first generation would be very hard to bring to worship in American church, very hard.  My advice, as I¹ve experienced it: Have a ministry for these people. At the same time make them feel like they are part of the body of the church. They are not kind of second class, as some churches do. They are not all foreigners. We are all foreigners on this earth.²

    A mantra among Wasef¹s people has been adopted from the early church. In Acts 4:32, ³All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.²

    It is a heartfelt song that offers peace and hope in a world burdened by uneasiness old and new.


    T.C. Porter is a freelance writer and student at Bethel Seminary San Diego.

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