Forgiveness Islam Partnerships For Peace & Reconciliation People Personal Racial Reconciliation

How A Muslim Child Saved An Evangelical Minister’s Soul

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 11.00.51 AMPrior 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.


Justice Racial Reconciliation Restorative Justice

The Confederate Flag: Heritage or Hate?

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I Was A Confederate Flag Loving Southern Boy

As a Southern boy born in the rural South in the 60’s and early 70’s I grew up flying the “Stars and Bars” proudly from the front porch of my house and from my clubhouse (the old smoke house attached to our family home).  I was the ring leader of a rough and tumble group of boys who loved playing army, camping out with our dogs, fishing, playing lost trail, whiffle ball and best of all werewolves, the favorite game of the neighborhood that I proudly invented.

Sometimes when we would play army we would play the Civil War.  For hours we would reenact Civil War battles in our back yards, out in the woods, and on the hillsides and creeks near our neighborhoods.  I loved pretending to be a Confederate soldier as I proudly wore my “Johnny Reb” grey cap and waved the “Stars and Bars” on a thick wooden dowel as my flag pole.  I would joke that we were reenacting the war between the Yankees and the Americans.  Those were fun times and they were naive times.  As children it was about play.  We did not understand the deep implications of the racial injustice, human trafficking, slavery and oppression of black people that the Confederate flag represented to so many African Americans.  As a Southerner and a small child I was proud of my Confederate heritage. I believed in heritage not hate.  Like I said I was still naive.

In spite of my naivete I had a great role model of tolerance and racial inclusion in my mother. At an early age my mother had saved me from racism and hatred. She invited black people to our home and encouraged my friendship with my first black friend LC who became my best friend in the second grade. He would come home with me after school, have dinner and play with me.  Some of our neighbors did not like it, but that did not matter to my mom.  She warned me when I was seven years old that if she ever heard the word “nigger” come out of my mouth that she would wash my mouth out with soap.  She changed my life.  LC told me later that he looked at my mother as the mother of all the kids who came to my house to play.

Around the age of 13 I came to faith in Christ.  It changed everything. I loved everyone.  I wanted to go out and hug everything and everyone.  I told everyone in my public high school about Jesus. I evangelized everything that moved. My friends used to get frustrated with me because when they began evangelizing their fellow high schoolers they said, “I have already heard this stuff.  Jeff Burns has already told me all about Jesus and the gospel.” Some of my “disciples” handed out Bible tracts and said, “Read this booklet.  It changed Jeff Burns’ life.”  These funny memories still make me laugh.

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During high school I led some of my black friends to Christ and wanted to invite them to church.  Why not? The gospel of Jesus destroys racial, gender and social/economic barriers.  At least it did for the early church (Galatians 3:28).  This was one of the main reasons it spread so swiftly through the Roman Empire.  House servants and slaves led their Roman masters and their children into the Kingdom of God.  These early Christians believed that when they took the Lord’s Supper together that they were experiencing paradise restored on earth.  Slaves, masters, men, women, children and neighbors sat at the same table, broke bread together and worshipped in an unsegregated space.

This early collection of diverse humanity believed that the kingdom of God had arrived on earth in the person of Christ, and the impact and implications of his gospel were taking humanity into a reality of peace on earth and good will towards ALL people.  Through the gospel they could opt out of the violent, oppressive and unjust reign of Caesar’s kingdom and opt in to a kingdom where love, forgiveness and unity reigned under the Lordship of Christ.

Is it any wonder that by the third century over 50% of the Roman Empire had embraced the Christian faith? (See Rodney Stark’s book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in A Few Centuries) It was only when the church got in bed with the Emperor and exchanged the gospel of love and peace for political power and favor that the church morphed into something that could embrace war, genocide, slavery and racial, ethnic and economic segregation. I guess loving God, loving neighbor and treating other people the way we wanted to be treated and making our enemies our friends made the church and its new lover the Empire too uncomfortable.

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I was excited to invite my black friends to my church, but I was told not to do that again.  My pastor instructed me that they have their church and place and we have ours.  The people in my home church either gave them dirty looks when they came to visit or completely ignored them. My black friends never came back.  My pastor would shamelessly called black people “niggers” from the pulpit.  I confronted him about this and we had heated arguments over this issue. I deeply loved him like a father, but I would not back down.  I think deep down he knew he was wrong, but his pride and the acceptance of racism by many people he shepherded got in the way.  My experience was normative for many white evangelical fundamentalist Baptist churches in the South.  I cannot indict all of them but this was my experience. It would not be my last.

I decided to become a minister when I turned 16. I wanted to make a difference in the world and change things in the area of racial injustice, gender inequality, and social/economic separation. You might say I felt called to be a prophet to my own Southern fundamentalist faith community.  Little did I know that a prophet is without honor in his own community, and that prophets often get rejected and some times destroyed.

 I went off to Bible college, seminary and even completed an earned doctorate.  I pastored fundamentalist Baptist churches both Southern and independent for 11 years.  I was shocked to find such a high degree racism and segregation so entrenched in some of these Southern “Bible believing” churches that I pastored.  I found out after we left one particularly difficult church that several of my key leaders had been involved in the KKK at one point in their lives.  One of these men had threatened me on occasions that I would get into big trouble if I kept letting “niggers” come to the church.  He said, “Preacher, if you want to mix with niggers you need to take your wife, get in a car and head back to Virginia.”  I will share more of these stories in future blogs and my upcoming ebook, but let it suffice to say that some of these men proudly displayed the Confederate flag either as bumper stickers on their vehicles or the “Stars and Bars” flew from their front porches.

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I love being a Southerner and I am proud to be a native born son of the South.  Even Martin Luther King, Jr. loved his home, the South lands and considered himself a son of the South.  There are better ways to honor our Southern heritage than displaying the Confederate flag on state buildings and our state flags and ignoring the fact that the Civil War had nothing to do with defense of the brutal oppression of blacks and the perpetuation of their enslavement.  I think all true Southerners, both black and white need to begin a discussion on what makes the South a unique place and what are the good values, traditions, and practices  along with our redemptive analogies and symbols in our history that all of us can be proud of no matter what color we are.  Can you think of any?  I would love to hear from you on this one. Please check back in to read my upcoming posts about the common and best elements of EVERY Southerner’s heritage.

Below are two discussions I would like to share with you.  One is a Facebook post from a black farmer from Virginia.  He is the owner of Sylvanaqua Farms.  Check out his website. (This was a FB post and not a blog entry) He shares how he felt when he went to by hens from another farmer and saw the Confederate flag flying on the porch as he pulled in the driveway. This is an outstanding post.

Also, here is the link to an excellent blog post on the Confederate flag by a Southern evangelical pastor by the name of Perry Noble. He comes from a place that many Southern conservative evangelicals can relate to concerning the racial issue in the church.  Why I Changed My Mind About The Confederate Flag

Today I drove out to Orange to pick up some new hens. When I got to the designated address, I was greeted by the rebel flag. Normally I leave politics out of my posts here, but this might offer some insight into what it’s like to be a black farmer, and why there are so few of us.

There’s a very good possibility that the folks living under this flag don’t have a racist, prejudiced bone in their bodies. For them, the stars and bars represents bluegrass, big-ass trucks, bourbon, old barns, bobwhite hunting, and some cool facets of southern life that don’t begin with the letter B. Look at their Facebook profiles, and you might even see them in the company of a lot more brown folks than you’ll find in the overwhelmingly White social circles of supposedly progressive people that wax indignant about the flag.

Unfortunately, I’ll never find out. Why? Because there’s an equally good possibility that the folks living under this flag are among the thousands you can find, right this minute, on the forums at advocating violence against Black people from behind Confederate flag avatars.

If I knock on the door, Paula Deen might answer. She’ll feed me biscuits, call me ‘yall’ even though I’m alone, invite me to her next cookout, and hopefully have the good sense to leave me out of any plantation-themed weddings.

But if I knock on the door, Dylan Roof might answer. He’ll stick a gun in my face, sick his dog on me, club me with a blunt object, or otherwise precipitate a sequence of events that will leave one or both of us dead, blind, or crippled.

As a person of color, I have to make a judgment call about what the rebel flag means to the person flying it. Does it mean “heritage, not hate” or “heritage of hate?” Giving you the benefit of the doubt means I have to risk my wife becoming a 29 year old widowed single mother… so no thanks. Which is really too bad, because this really gets in the way of good business when you’re a Black farmer and so many of your would-be associates insist on flying the damned thing instead of doing what we southerners are supposedly best at: not being rude and inconsiderate.

End rant.

Sylvanaqua Farms's photo.