Prior to 2005 I hated Muslims. I would not have admitted that openly, but my deepest feelings toward them were resentment, distrust and bitterness. Now, ten years later, I love them and see them as my brothers, sisters and dear friends. What brought about such a radical change of heart? It took place one afternoon in a Starbucks when I had an encounter with a Muslim boy named Omar.
Three months before I met Omar, I had been invited to attend a class at a church on Muslim/Christian relationships. I laughed at the invitation when I received it. My wife, Oceana, told me she felt like I should attend the class because I had a deep prejudice against Muslims, especially Arabs. I had always prided myself on being a progressive pastor who promoted racial reconciliation in the churches that I had lead, but when it came to Muslims I just could not see them the same way. After some prodding and prayer on the part of my wife I finally decided to take the class.
As I read books on Islam and attended the class, I began to realize that I was judging and condemning a group of people that I really knew little about. I read Muslim, Christian, and secular authors on Islam. I made a point to hear all sides. I did this to ensure that my conclusions concerning Islam would not be romantic in nature, but would be based on a sense of honesty, realism, and empathy.
I was not naïve in processing this information. I am concerned about the radical extremists who are committing horrible acts in the name of Islam, but I am equally concerned that the U.S. foreign policies toward the Muslim world have helped create much of the resentment that the Muslim world and other nations have toward us. Suffice it to say, I believe I am a more committed Christian today because of my genuine friendships with Muslims.
Although the class and the books I was reading were impacting my view of Muslims, it would take a small child named Omar to completely turn my heart around.
One day I was sitting in a Starbucks reading a book about Muslims and their culture. The more I read the book the more frustrated I became. I decided to pray for guidance on this issue. I closed my book and prayed: “God, surely you are not calling me to reach out to Muslims in friendship and to build bridges between Christians and Muslims. I want you to know that I have no desire to do this because it would stretch me way beyond my comfort zone. But if you are, I need you to give me a sign so clear I will never doubt it.”
I went back to drinking my coffee and felt a sense of relief. I did not believe He would answer that prayer. Within a couple of minutes, a little boy walked over and asked if he could borrow one of the highlighters that I was using to mark my book. I said, “Sure.” He got in a chair and said, “By the way, my name is Omar. I am five years old and I am here to teach you Arabic.” I was stunned. Omar’s mother called to him to leave me alone, but I told her that Omar was fine.
God had my complete attention.
Omar began writing in Arabic and coaching me on how to do it. Afterwards, I approached his mother and told her that I believed Omar would be a great teacher one day. She told me that Omar was a shy child and he did not typically approach strangers. She was trying to figure out what compelled him to come over to me. As I left Starbucks that day, I began my journey of walking with Muslims as a genuine friend.
I have never doubted that God sent Omar to soften the heart of this Christian who had forgotten the words of Jesus. He said that His followers must love their neighbors as much as they love themselves, and that we even love, forgive and pray for our enemies.
I no longer see Muslims as my enemies and I can say that I have a deep love and genuine friendship with many of them. I encourage Muslims and Christians to form friendship groups and to eat together; to discuss the Bible and the Qur’an, not to debate, but to find out what they have in common and to gain understanding about how they are different; and I encourage churches, mosques and synagogues to partner together on humanitarian projects.
Some will say that I am compromising my faith by what I am doing. I believe such endeavors of mercy are at the core of the teachings of Jesus the Messiah.