[Cherie Gray is the Executive Director of the Tucson Refugee Ministry in Tucson, Arizona. Her website is Tucson Refugee Ministry. I consider her one of the foremost experts on refugee assimilation in the U.S. I am deeply grateful for Cherie being a guest blogger and providing this three part series]
This is a new era! It is no coincidence that God is moving millions of people from one continent to another. He is reshuffling the deck –moving people out of their comfort zones – out of the land of their ancestry – out of their spiritual strongholds. There are so many who need to witness the extravagant compassion and mercy of Jesus! He is airlifting them right into your neighborhood.
The good news is that God has already equipped us to bind up the brokenhearted, to comfort those who mourn, to provide for those who grieve, to administer justice, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked and to welcome the stranger. What a job description! And it belongs to every believer – not just the “professionals”! You’ve got this!!
Below are a few more pointers for reaching out to refugees:
Identity. The word “Christian” is often misunderstood and defined quite differently by international friends, so you may want to consider other ways to identify yourself with Jesus that carry less negative baggage. If you want your international friends to know that you honor God, even before you open your mouth, consider what you wear (err on the conservative side) and be aware of gender boundaries.
Humble Yourself. Learning the English language will be the key to success for your refugee friends. You can bring them joy (and entertainment) by making an effort to learn some words in their language. They may laugh at you, but it will build a bridge and they will always appreciate your efforts!
Healthy Balance. Respect their culture and teach them yours. When you visit them in their house, go by their rules (shoes at the door? sit on floor? eat with fingers?). When you invite them to your home, go by your rules (pray before meal? help yourself?). Our international friends have a beautiful culture and unique traditions. We don’t want them to leave everything behind when they assimilate.
Report. Ask your pastor if you can give a report to the congregation about your international, cross-cultural adventures with your refugee friends. Prepare a short powerpoint presentation to help others understand your experience. Consider starting a program at your church to give others a chance to embrace a refugee family.
You are called and commissioned to love and serve among the nations! But no need to raise funds for an airline ticket, get your immunizations, write support letters, or even pack your bags. All you need are your car keys! God is bringing the nations to your doorstep. Will you welcome them?
We Welcome Refugees – positions the global church as a key agent of hope and compassion in the current refugee crisis (wewelcomerefugees.com)
Refugee Highway Partnership – a worldwide network for Christian believers who are serving refugees; they offer many wonderful resources and an annual refugee ministry summit for the North America region called the RHPNA Roundtable scheduled for July 20-22 in Toronto, Canada. (refugeehighway.net) (www.rhpna.com)
IAFR – International Association for Refugees is assisting forcibly displaced people together with the refugee church. (iafr.org)
International Teams – helping churches embrace refugees along the Refugee Highway through ministries of presence, compassion, empowerment and training. (refmin.iteams.org)
World Relief – empowers the local Church to serve refugees and other vulnerable populations, working in community with the local church to see people transformed economically, socially and spiritually. (wr.org)
UNHCR – The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. (www.unhcr.org)
[Cherie Gray is the Executive Director of the Tucson Refugee Ministry in Tucson, Arizona. Her website is Tucson Refugee Ministry. I consider her one of the foremost experts on refugee assimilation in the U.S.]
“It’s you!!” Like a deer in headlights, I stared at the smiling man, unable to place his face. “It’s you”, he said again, “You’re the one!”. Caught off guard, I wasn’t sure how to respond to this Arabic gentleman. “Do you remember me?” he asked. I desperately scrolled through my mental address book – searching for a clue but drawing a blank. Still insistent, he took off his glasses and stated emphatically, “Now you recognize me?!” I couldn’t place him, but he quickly filled in the blanks explaining, “You were there when my family and I arrived at the airport two years ago.”
After cries of joy and many warm greetings we made our way into the room where we were both attending a dialog between Muslims and Christians called “Loving God – Loving Your Neighbor”. Instead of finding a chair nearby, he made his way to the podium. When he was introduced I silently gulped. This was the Imam!! He offered some opening statements extending gracious greetings, then while I was still putting the pieces together, he pointed me out saying, “This is my friend. She welcomed my family when we first arrived in America. She is an example of loving God and loving your neighbor”. Although that night at the airport had been a small effort for me, he and his family remembered my face and that welcome was permanently imprinted in their memories. (That night also relaunched an amazing relationship with the Imam and his family that continues to this day!)
Loving our “neighbor” may not be the obvious (or the easiest) choice. It might mean crossing the street to help someone from an “enemy” country – someone who has been beaten and has stared down death. It may involve binding their wounds, putting them on our own “donkey” and taking responsibility for their recovery. We won’t be surprised when governments hurriedly cross to the other side of the road – their budgets too overburdened for them to stop and help. We won’t be disappointed when non-profits and charitable organizations are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis, and start looking the other way. We, as followers of Jesus, are uniquely suited to be the Good Samaritans!
Here are more ways we can reach out to our New American neighbors:
Stick your toe in the water. Make a commitment together to serve for a specific period of time, with clear boundaries. Ensure everyone involved agrees on what is expected during this timeframe. Consider a “milestone party” at the end of your commitment – to celebrate the interesting things that all of you have learned from each other.
Pencil It In. Schedule your visits with your international friends – literally put those visits on your calendar. (For Americans, if it’s not on the calendar, it’s not going to happen!) Time is the most precious gift we can give. Invite your pastor or one of your church leaders to come with you to visit your new friends at least once.
Empower. Avoid the “Fairy Godmother Syndrome”. Giving gifts, meeting needs, and endeavoring to fix everything can leave those we are trying to assist feeling helpless and dependent. Empower your new friends to stand on their own two feet. They are amazing, resourceful, creative survivors to have made it this far! If they ask for help with financial or material needs, point them to God and remind them that He is the Provider. Offer to pray together about their needs. If you still feel led to help with a specific need, first consult their agency case manager, confirm it is a valid need, and give anonymously through them.
Radical Hospitality. Invite your new friends over for a meal. Hospitality is their love language, and it is a great honor for them to be invited to an American home. Hospitality trumps all other arguments (i.e. – “if they see my house, they will think I’m rich”). What we share with our international friends over the kitchen table will be repeated to their beloved relatives in faraway homelands. Cross-continental conversations happen almost daily via Skype, Viber and WhatsApp.
“Americans are not like what we expected!” an Afghani refugee told her volunteer. The Afghani lady was evasive when asked what they had anticipated – and how they had arrived at those assumptions. She hastily offered, “I tell my family back home – Americans are so nice! They ask me to come to their home! They are so friendly!” Hmmm – reminds me of I John 4:18, “There is no fear in love”!
[Cherie Gray is the Executive Director of the Tucson Refugee Ministry in Tucson, Arizona. Her website is Tucson Refugee Ministry. I consider her one of the foremost experts on refugee assimilation in the U.S.]
Have you watched the news lately, feeling helpless as streams of ragged, bewildered, desperate refugees flood the screen? Until recently, these forcibly displaced people have been mostly hidden from mainstream society, although nearly 70,000 are accepted legally into the U.S. annually! How many are resettling in your city?
The nations are not far away anymore, confined to forgotten islands or forsaken bush country. Bringing hope and sharing truth with least-reached and unengaged people groups is no longer reserved for the valiant and few super-saints – the selectively “called” that we send overseas.
God is now tapping “average” church members on the shoulder – those who have never applied for a passport, nor speak other languages! He is inviting soccer moms, school kids, businessmen, fitness instructors, grandfathers, spelling bee winners, board presidents, techies, photographers, football stars and politicians to love God and love our neighbor.
And it’s really easy to get started! Here are some first steps…
Connect. Look up your local refugee resettlement agency. Sign up to be a volunteer, attend their training, and determine where God wants you to serve. There will be a variety of opportunities and different levels of engagement – one time projects and short term commitments. Ask if you can greet a newly arriving family at the airport when they first land in America, and give them a hero’s welcome with signs, flags, flowers, etc.!
Meet and Invite. If your city doesn’t have refugee resettlement agencies, consider visiting international markets, food stores or ethnic restaurants to meet foreigners. In many countries, it is not uncommon to be invited to a stranger’s home for tea/coffee. If you have a divine encounter while shopping, don’t be afraid to extend an invitation to your home.
Pray. Begin praying for your international friend as soon as you learn their name. Research their country – learn about their language, culture, religion and traditions. Continue to be a learner and a listener. Ask God to show you how to build bridges and be the Good News!
Together is better! Recruit your friends to join you in an airport welcome, hosting a meal, or another special project. Embrace one refugee family together, taking turns making visits. Engage your entire family in ministry. Kids are great connectors – they are non-threatening, provide universal commonalities, and are often better at building bridges with international neighbors than we adults are.
I found this really cool website called We Welcome Refugees. I am so encouraged by their desire to take the message of Jesus seriously in their efforts to help solve this global crisis.
No doubt there are many Americans who are concerned that if we let more refugees into the country we are in danger of letting “sleeper terrorists” slip in among us. Others may feel that the refugee crisis is just too big and we do not have the power or resources to do anything about it. This website does a great job of attempting to address these questions and more. Here is the link to their questions section. I encourage you to at least check it out and maybe make a donation. We Welcome Refugees
Also, they have a section on their website they have a section called “Now Is The Churches Moment.” It will give you a list of organizations to choose from to help refugees. One of my favorites is World Relief. They have a proven track record with helping refugees. Samaritan’s Purse is also leading the way in this crisis. Rev. Mike Slaughter and the United Methodist Church Rev. Mike Slaughter and the United Methodist Church are planning a major Christmas project to raise over 2 million dollars to help refugees. If you prefer a more secular route the The United Nations Help Refugees would be a good consideration. Just do something!
The Greatest Human Migration Crisis In Recorded History
According to Methodist Minister and human rights activist Mike Slaughter we are living to see the greatest refugee crisis the world has ever known. He says, “Wars, conflict and persecution around the world have forced more people to flee and seek refuge elsewhere in recent years than has previously existed at any other time in recorded migration history. The U.N. reported in June that by the beginning of 2015 nearly 60 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced. One in every 122 human beings is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum on Planet Earth. This is simply incredible.” See Mike’s full article: Mike’s Article On Jesus Being A Refugee
These numbers are staggering. I am a student of history. I used to think that the migrations of the barbarians who eventually destroyed the Roman Empire were astounding, but when you look at these numbers there is no comparisons. One difference between the barbarian invasions, the massive people movements of Rome’s final years, and our current refugee crisis is that the barbarians came to conquer Rome, but our present refugees are fleeing for their lives. In order ignore this suffering, misery and want we have to give up our humanity. Be warned! If we give up humanity by closing the doors of compassion on these suffering peoples, who are fleeing for their lives, it will eventually come back to bite us as individuals and as a nation. There will be terrible consequences for all of us. Terrorism thrives where there is great poverty and want. But the most terrible consequence will be becoming a people of fear and indifference.
Jesus & The Refugee Crisis
It is clear from Matthew 2:13 that Jesus was a refugee. Mary and Joseph were told by the angel of the Lord to flee to Egypt to escape the violence and hatred of King Herod. Herod was searching for Jesus so he could kill him. I am so glad Egypt granted asylum to our Lord.
As I stated in my previous blog What Would Jesus Do About The Syrian Refugee Crisis it is clear that Judgment Day is not so much about the precise theological ideology we embraced cognitively, but whether or not we ministered to Jesus in practical ways when he came to us through people suffering on the margins of life (Matthew 25:31-46). One cannot be a follower of Jesus and ignore the implications of Jesus words when he says:
For I was hungry and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I WAS A STRANGER, AND YOU DIDN’T INVITE ME INTO YOUR HOME….
In the parable of the Ambitious Guest (Luke 14:7-14) Jesus expresses the importance of showing love, compassion and generosity to those who are marginalized and can never repay us. He promises a reward on Judgment Day to those who follow him in loving their neighbor in such sacrificial ways. He says
Then at the resurrection of the godly, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.
I am convinced that of all the great avatars and spiritual leaders of human history none can empathize more with the pain and suffering of humanity than Jesus. Just when I am tempted to embrace the politics of fear, polarization, violence and exclusion that permeate the political ideologies of the Right and Left in this country I am reminded that there is a Third Path. This Third Path of Jesus is to love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself, treat other people the way you want to be treated and if you find enemies along the way do all you can to make them your friends.
Jesus came to show us a better way of being human and he backed it up with his life, death and resurrection. When our Lord rose from the dead he showed once and for all that the path of loving God and neighbor was superior to the path of human default which is desire (envy) rivalry, hostility, violence and scapegoating. He showed us a better way of being human.
What Can You Do To Be More Human?
At the World Refugee Day on June 10, 2015 Pope Francis said:
The number of these brother refugees is growing and, in these past few days, thousands more have been forced to leave their homes in order to save their life. Millions of families, millions of them, refugees from many countries and different faiths, experience in their stories tragedies and wounds that will not likely be healed,” said Pope Francis. “Let us be their neighbors, share their fears and uncertainty about the future, and take concrete steps to reduce their suffering.
I am challenging each of you to not be indifferent but do ONE thing to help with the global refugee crisis. Mike Slaughter offers some practical ways you can help through an upcoming Christmas project in the Methodist Church. Read his blog for more information Jesus Was A Refugee. In my last blog What Would Jesus Do About The Syrian Refugee Crisis? I discussed Lynne Hybels’ article in the Washington Post. Her article is loaded with practical ways organizations and individuals can make a difference. If you decide to do something respond to my blog and let you me know what are going to do. Let’s start of revolution!
*Photo of Pope Francis by VINCENT PINTO/AFP/Getty Images
Coming from an Evangelical Christian background I grew up having a deep respect for the Bible. After being a follower of Jesus for almost 40 years I have come to the conclusion that we as Christians in this country either take the words of Jesus seriously or we become atheists. I cannot stomach a Christian faith that teaches me to love God, but turn my neighbor away if he or she is an atheist, Muslim, Gay or a Syrian refugee.
I want a Christianity that is real. I want a living faith I can sink my teeth into. Many of my Evangelical brothers and sisters are putting their lives, resources, and reputations on the line as they serve the marginalized and hurting of this world. Their love knows no borders nor do they discriminate as they serve unconditionally. There are others, however, who seem to have forgotten what Jesus said about loving our neighbor, helping the suffering and stranger among us and those desperately trying to survive on the margins of of our society and in war zones around the world. Our Lord said:
For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I WAS A STRANGER, AND YOU INVITED ME INTO YOUR HOME. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited.
No Christian who claims to be a follower of Jesus can get around these words. They are either true or they are not. What we do with Jesus command determines whether or not we are his followers.
The Politics of Jesus
I have been studying the Bible all my life. I have a bachelors degree in Pastoral Studies and Philosophy, a Masters of Divinity, and an earned doctorate that I completed in 2013. I was an Evangelical minister for 18 years. I am familiar with this wonderful book called the Bible. As an Evangelical I was taught that the Bible was to be read through the centrality of Christ’s teaching, but as I look at the political landscape of Christians both on the Right and the Left I am convinced that if Jesus ran for public office and declared his domestic and foreign policies we would destroy him in the media as a dreamer and idealist. We would probably declare that his message is not relevant to American life today.
Jesus made it clear as to what he believed was the most important central truth of the entire Bible. He said that we must love the Lord our God with all our being, love our neighbor as ourselves, treat other people the way we want to be treated and if we find an enemy we should try to turn him into a friend. There is no way around this. I believe Jesus message applies even if my neighbor is an atheist, Muslim, Gay, or a Syrian refugee who needs a home and a sanctuary. We just cannot get around the politics of Jesus. The Mennonites have been saying this for 500 years.
Applying Jesus Message To The Syrian Crisis
So what do with do with the 4 million Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives from ISIS, president Assad and now the Russians? My friend Lynne Hybels, a leading Evangelical humanitarian, peacemaker and human rights activist has written an outstanding article on how Christians and other concerned human beings can follow Jesus by helping our desperate brothers and sisters whose lives have been destroyed by the war in Syria. I strongly encourage you to open your hearts and minds to what she has to say and ask God how you can follow Jesus in helping these refugees in very relevant ways. Feeling Paralyzed by the Migrant Crisis in Europe? Here Are Some Practical Ways You Can Help. — Lynne Hybels
I was 13 years old in 1975 when the movie Jaws first came out. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I invited about eleven kids from the neighborhood, without my mom’s permission of course, to go with us to see the movie. My mom and older brother Gary had to drive separate cars to accommodate my newly arrived posse, which included my younger brother Tim, my favorite cousin Jody Lefevers, and the eleven neighbor kids.
In the movie Jaws, a new England town is terrorized by a 25 foot great white shark. For a pack of early and pre-teen kids crammed in the Paramount Theater in Bristol, Tennessee this was both an exciting and terrifying experience.
I remember sitting next to my cousin Jody, who was 11 at the time. He was holding a giant size bucket of popcorn that we were nervously munching down on together as we watched each scene of shark carnage unfold.
There was a scene where a couple of divers were looking for a man who was a recent victim of the shark. They discovered his sunken boat and as they explored the heavily damaged vessel the man’s decapitated head pops up in the face of one of the divers. The audience went berzerk! My cousin jumps to his feet and throws our large bucket of popcorn in the air. It was a total rush of fun and terror!
That summer millions of people chose not to venture into the sea. People stayed on the shore line, but were often unwilling to get into the shallow parts of the ocean. Many were afraid to even swim in lakes. I would not swim in our backyard pool by myself. Shark mania and anxiety had swept the country and it was totally frenzied by irrational fear.
From that moment on people around the world became hyper afraid of sharks and 100’s of millions of sharks have been slaughtered ever since then. I heard years later that Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, deeply regretted the impact that his book and the movie had on how people viewed sharks and the carnage that followed. Some species have been diminished by as much as 90%. The Chinese and Japanese have been the worst in the slaughter. They are killing millions each year just to get shark fins for soup. The great white shark and many other species of shark became endangered in part because of the anxiety that was created by that fun and terrifying movie Jaws.
Since there has been a ban on hunting great white sharks for many years their numbers are recovering. They were once a threatened species, but they are now seen as recovering to levels of abundance. Their numbers have increased 40% on the East Coast alone because of the increase in the seal population and conservation protection and efforts.
Recently, a great white shark was discovered that measured over 20 feet! They named her “Deep Blue.” She is only 5 feet shorter than the shark in Jaws and is estimated to be at least 50 years old and very pregnant. I have put a couple of links below so you can check her out. What a magnificent creature she is. She is truly glorious! You got to take a couple of minutes and check her out.
You might be asking, “Jeff, this is supposed to be a peace blog. Why are earth are you writing about a great white shark that is dangerous and could easily gobble you up while you bodyboarding and consume two surfers and and a swimmer to boot?” The answer is quiet simple:
So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that scurries and swarms in the water…. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:21).
Creation matters to God. “Deep Blue” the 20 foot great white shark matters to God. What happens to the shark populations of the world will deeply impact our own well being. You cannot have a healthy ocean without a healthy shark population. “Deep Blue” and the growth of the great white shark population are an indication that we are doing something right in conservation. She is 50 years old and pregnant. Great white’s are flourishing and not endangered. The ocean is becoming safer for “Deep Blue” and her kind in many parts of the world.
A key facet of the biblical view of shalom (my good friend Dr. Rick Love says shalom is peacemaking on steroids) is environmental shalom or peace. All through the Old Testament it is clear that God takes care of creation and wants us to do this also. He loves the sea and all that is in it. He declared creation good and sent Israel into captivity for 70 years because they worshipped idols, and violated His commands concerning economic shalom for the poor and environmental shalom because they would not let the land rest or have regular sabbaths. If we overfish our seas and wipe out our sharks for their fins or for unnecessary sport then what type of exile will it take for us to reset and heal the wound we have caused the earth?
I believe the good news of Jesus is not only good for our souls, but it is good news for our planet. “Peace on earth” means peace with God, peace with ourselves, peace with our environment, peace with each other and peace with creation. Jesus came to reconcile all creation and people to God (Colossians 1:19-20). Now that good news!
You keep swimming “Deep Blue.” If I see you while I am bodyboarding I will get out of your way. Rejoice you mighty sea monster because you and I have a God who deeply loves us.
In the end there are more people eating sharks than sharks eating people. There are only a handful of fatal shark attacks a year, but humanity kills millions of sharks each year. Are those who reject God’s shalom by overfishing our waters and decimating the shark populations the real monsters of the deep?
Recently, my friend Brian McLaren wrote a letter of to Franklin Graham appealing to him as a Christian minister to rethink his position on deporting Muslims and no longer permitting them to immigrate to the U.S. I confess I agree with Brian. If this grand vision of Franklin’s comes to pass then we are not far from putting Muslims in detention camps like we did the Japanese in WWII, trampling on the Bill of Rights, and escalating greater hatred and violence around the world between Muslims and Christians.
Fear offers no solutions, but love helps us find our way and clear our heads. The apostle John, the youngest disciple of Jesus once said, “Fear has torments, but perfect love casts out all fear.” The apostle Paul said, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.” Love is the only option for those could claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth. It is not always the easy path, but it is the path that leads us to the way, the truth and the life.
I am a full-time peacemaker in the way of Christ. For the past ten years I have traveled across the U.S. and overseas teaching Muslims and Christians how to follow Christ. What do I tell them? What does it mean to follow Christ? What do I attempt to show them? Jesus taught that on a foundational level to follow him means that we love God with all our being, love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves (even if they are Muslims:)), treat other people the way you want to be treated and if you run into enemies along the way pray for them, do good to them and try to turn them into friends. We either believe the message of Jesus or we don’t. It would be better an atheist than to claim to follow him and show contempt for any group of people.
Brian asked if he could post the video recording of how God used the little Muslim boy Omar in my life to turn me from hating Muslims to loving them. This is the longer version of the story that I share in churches, mosques and synagogues. It gives a lot more detail than my written blog post. If you would like to watch that video go to Brian’s blog and watch it. CLICK HERE: http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/dear-franklin-graham.html
This challenge from my seven year old daughter to help Meriam would take me on an amazing adventure I would never forget.
When I asked my seven year old daughter Olivia what she thought about me going to Sudan to try to help Meriam Ibrahim, her response surprised me. She said, “Dad, are you kidding me? Do you even have to think about this? You have to go and try to help Meriam and her babies! Oceana, my wife supported me 100% on this mission.
Back Story: Two Days Before Olivia’s Challenge
I had received several emails from individuals requesting that I attempt to do something about the impending trial and execution of Meriam Ibrahim of Sudan, who was scheduled to be executed for adultery and apostasy. The story of her case had become an international sensation. “If you are going to be a serious peacemaker then you need to do something about helping this woman,” was the gist of some emails I was receiving. I wondered what I could possibly do in a nation frowned upon by the U.S. government. A nation in Africa that was 11,000 miles from me in North Carolina.
My Muslim brother Abdel Azim Elsiddig, an Islamic scholar, peacemaker and friend, had received calls and emails from both Muslims and Christians to see what he could do as an American citizen who was also from the Sudan.
It was in mid-May of 2015 when Abdel called saying I needed to travel with him to Sudan by May 27th because Ali Karti, the Foreign Minister of Sudan, had agreed to meet with us in Khartoum concerning Meriam’s case. He said that we would also meet with some key individuals in the judicial system to discuss Meriam’s situation, and who could help us understand the legal complexities of this case that you never heard about in the media. I was glad that Abdel and I would be taking this journey together. He was a peacemaker and expert in Islamic sharia law and he knew all of these key governmental officials.
Become The Answer To Your Own Prayers
I literally could not believe this was happening. My head was spinning. I thought to myself, “Who am I to stand before these men?” I had been praying for Meriam for several months before this happened. I asked God to help her and to send people to do something about this. It did not enter into my wildest imagination that God would ask me to become the answer to my prayers. All I had was great love and confirmation in prayer from the Lord that I must go.
Meeting With The Foreign Minister
The following is shared with the permission of Ali Karti, the Foreign Minister of Sudan
While I was in the Sudan it was my highest privilege to meet with Ali Karti, the Foreign Minister of Sudan. He was the third most influential leader in Sudan. There has also been a great deal of controversy concerning his involvement in the Darfur crisis. We had a wonderful meeting together that lasted for several hours. Believe it or not we spent a good chunk of that time talking about Jesus and how Muslims and Christians can find a common bridge of connection in him, but the main focus of our conversation concerned Meriam.
The Foreign Minister made it clear to me that he did not agree with the lower court ruling concerning Meriam’s case. In fact he was surprised that it even got as far as it did. He said there were many interfaith marriages in the Sudan, so this ruling was a shock to him and to many Muslims and Christians in the Sudan.
He went on to explain to me how there were many diverse Islamic rulings that could have been chosen in a case like this, but for some reason the lower court went with this most severe one. He said to me that there had not been an apostasy ruling like this one in decades and that particular court case had nothing to do with interfaith marriage. He believed that this ruling was not a relevant Islamic legal option for modern Sudan today. He also believed that the ruling was unconstitutional because the constitution of the Sudan guarantees, in principle, religious freedom for all of its citizens.
I was told that under Islamic law a Muslim man can marry a Christian woman but a Christian woman, cannot marry a Muslim man. It still happens and in some instances the marriages are eventually accepted by the families, but in situations where they are not accepted the families simply cut off relationships with the couple. Meriam had a Christian mother and a Muslim father. Although he left Meriam and her mother when she was a small child this was the first instance that Foreign Minister knew of where an interfaith marriage in Sudan was being challenged on the grounds of apostasy in a Sudanese court.
Foreign Minister Karti went on to say that the firestorm that Meriam’s case had caused around the world was good for the Sudan. Some Muslim judicial leaders, scholars, politicians and clerics in the Sudan were saying that this case has shown them that they were in need of legal reform, and that archaic laws like this should be removed. The issue of constitutional reform was a conversation among many of them that had started as a result of this case.
As our conversation progressed Minister Karti made it clear that he had openly expressed his opinion to the international community. He gave me permission tell my friends that he was confident that Meriam would not be sentenced and executed, but that her case had to go through the court system because the executive branch of the Sudanese government does not have authority over the judicial branch. Meriam’s lawyer had made an appeal and he could contest each ruling all the way to the Sudanese Supreme Court.
Although Ali was an influential leader in the Sudan he could not just step in and force the courts to do what he wishes. He told me that he was confident that the ruling would be overturned in the judicial process. His desire was to see Meriam being able to go home to be with her husband while her case was working it’s way through the court system. He also was of the opinion that this lower court ruling that demanded Meriam renounce her marriage to a Christian and convert to Islam would be thrown out of court. As I stated previously, the current constitution of the Sudan in principle guarantees religious freedom for all of its citizens, but unfortunately this is not always enforced as it should be. The constitution as it stands now would make the lower court ruling unconstitutional because it would be a violation of Meriam’s religious freedom as a citizen of Sudan.
As I got to know Minister Karti I did not sense any deception or guile in his words to me. I told him that I often take a 45 minute prayer walk on the beach near my home, and that I had been praying earnestly for him and his country. I told him that I believed he wants to be a compassionate and just leader. I reminded him that God wants all of the citizens of the Sudan, both Muslims and Christians, to prosper and feel safe in their own country. I said, “My dear brother Ali, God wants you to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly before Him. He wants you to fight for the widows, the orphans and the oppressed. He wants you to stand for those who are weak and have no power and cannot stand up for themselves. He wants you to love the Lord your God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself and treat other people (both Muslims and Christians) the way you want to be treated. Brother Ali, I believe you have come into a place of influence for such a time as this. I promise you this day that every time I walk the beach to pray I will call your name out to God. I will pray that you will be just and merciful as He is and that you will love all your people well. The Qur’an says that if you save one life it is as if you have saved the whole world.”
Minister Karti seemed deeply touched by what I said. He paused for a moment to reflect and then responded, “Brother Jeff, when you pray on the beach my heart will be connected to yours and we will be together bound by eternal friendship. Please continue to pray for me that I will be the man God wants me to be.”
After two trips to the Sudan and five weeks after my first meeting with Minister Karti I received the following brief email from the Foreign Minister.
Thank you my brother… A few hours ago an Italian plane took off from Khartoum. On board was the deputy Italian foreign minister accompanied by the lady (Meriam Ibrahim), her husband and their two children. You have been with us all the time we were dealing with this issue. I hope to see you soon to pray together for a better future of the relationship between our two nations.
I was deeply touched and honored that the Foreign Minister went out of his way to let me know that he and his people had kept their word. He did not have to take the time to do this. I hope to pray with him again in the future.
The Only Way To Get Rid of An Enemy Permanently
It has been over a year since Meriam was released. She is living in the U.S. with her family and has created a new life.
It was a joy to be part of this amazing journey and to see first hand what God can do when we reach out in friendship to those we often perceive to be our enemies.
I have been told by some of my Sudanese friends that the Sudanese government does not care about sanctions and how much pressure the world puts on them. You will find this type of thinking all over Africa. They are used to Western disapproval and international pressure. This is a huge mistake that we as Americans make when we engage the Muslim world. Martin Luther King Jr. said that the only way to get rid of an enemy permanently is to make him your friend. I am convinced that most of our problems in the world could be solved over a few meals if we would go to the people we often think of as our enemies, listen to them, talk about Jesus, and put some of their interests above our own. Abdel and I attempted to do this in the case of Meriam and it worked. As I sat with these men I did not find enemies, but new friends who often saw the world through a different lens. I found we had way more in common than not. I love the people of the Sudan and a piece of my heart will always be there. God has a destiny for that country.
My goal in peacemaking is never ideological or theological conformity. Unfortunately, this seems to be the default position of our government and often our churches. My goal in peacemaking is to get people to like me and want to have a relationship with me. What I have found over the years is that I can be on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum with some one but if we start eating together and becoming friends then we start finding ways to work together to make a lasting change in the world. This really works. I have experienced this firsthand. If we wait for the people we often think of as our enemies to come into line and agreement with us theologically, politically, or ideologically, then polarization will remain. In the end we are all just people. Starting with friendship, loving our neighbor and treating other people (including nations) the way we want to be treated might just be the best starting place. I think Jesus said something very similar 🙂
As I said the turning point in all of this was when these Sudanese leaders realized that Meriam’s case was unconstitutional. The Sudan’s constitution guarantees religious freedom but unfortunately it is not always enforced by everyone in leadership on the grass roots level. Meriam’s execution would have been a violation of their own Islamic constitution. All of this took place over meals with prayer, laughter and building friendship. I credit my dear Muslim brother Abdel Azim Elsiddig with this because he is an expert in sharia law and he has known these men most of his life. I just had the honor of serving with him and being there to represent a Christian presence and perspective. I have not mentioned all of the names of the leaders I met with in the Sudan. These humble men did not want any recognition or publicity for what they did.
I am convinced that had it not been for the years of peacemaking that my good friends former Congressman Mark Siljander and Imam Abdel Azim had done in the Sudan none of this would have happened. I simply stood on the shoulders of giants.
Meeting With Meriam Ibrahim
Abdel and I were permitted to meet Meriam in person at the prison. We were told by Sudanese officials that we were the first Americans to meet with her. She was a shy person and somewhat withdrawn. Abdel was able to make her laugh. Her children were beautiful. I told her that there were thousands of people praying for her in the U.S. and around the world. I asked her if she had a message for them. All she said was “Pray that I will be released.”
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.