I wanted to write about the dialogue between Christianity and Islam, but that seemed wrongheaded because I have discovered that I do not dialogue with Islam in the abstract, but with humans in particular.
I am a conservative Christian pastor who does door-to-door evangelism. I understand the evangelical impulses, even the impulse that causes certain Americans to recoil against dialogue with adherents of Islam. I get that; I really do. And I want to address it. I want to speak to those who have that impulse. I speak to those who view Muslims as, first and foremost, subjects for conversion. And I begin with an assignment.
I want you to make this month the month that you become a friend with someone who is committed to Islam. Do whatever you have to do to make friends with a Muslim (at work, in your neighborhood, a stranger at Starbucks, wherever you have to go). Invite them to sit down for coffee, and tell them your desire to understand their view of the world. This is safe. After that, your replies to this conversation will be quite welcome, for if you are going to jump into this dialogue, you must do it in particular, and not in the abstract.
Before we can talk about a dialogue with Islam, I need to have a dialogue with you, my evangelical friend. And I start the conversation with a story about my friend Mohamed, a Muslim from Egypt who was born in Saudi Arabia. He is a faithful Muslim, who is here working on his doctorate in science. We have spent many days together dialoguing about life, technology, politics, family, child-rearing and religion.
I love my dear friend. He is expert in his religion and has taught me how to read the Koran, about the Narrations, the history of Mohamed and his followers, the life flow of the mosque, and the insider’s critique of the Middle East. I would like to tell you about these things. For now, however, I want to talk about talking.
I visited a local mosque and tried to learn Arabic (still unsuccessful after three tries, but I am trying). I watched them pray and asked questions. I accepted their literature and tried to understand their view of jihad and women. I was learning about them, and I found that I could not speak to their views until I could accurately speak their beliefs back to them.
In this process of learning, I found what I expected to find: Mohamed and his friends are amiable to hearing me, too. The conversation has to be two-sided. If they want to talk about Dubai, then I want to talk about Dubai. If they want to talk about the virgin birth of Jesus, then I will talk about the virgin birth of Jesus. This is Conversation 101. And this is the missing skill that bars some evangelical Christians from being invited into the homes of Muslims. My friends are not afraid to hear me talk about Jesus, but first they want to share a cup of coffee.
When I worked at Megiddo in Israel, I had the chance to get to know Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians. I found that there is a lot of pain, happiness, joy, sorrow, love, hate and all the rest. Humanity is equally on display in the Palestinian Muslim as it is in this traveling American who struggles with the same pains, joys, sorrows, hates and all the rest.
I was not encountering Palestinian Muslims, but humans. I was invited into the home of a Palestinian because we spent many days and hours working side by side. He watched me learn his view of the local conflict and then he invited me into his home to meet his family. The connection existed in the context of us treating one another according to our equal claim to humanity. I am as equally human as his family.
I found this same relationship principle during my last trip to Jerusalem. I was working at Gezer, and we have a particular Arab contact in Jerusalem who helps outfit us with phones and supplies. I went to meet him to get a cell phone one day.
I was warned that business with him is not like it is in America. I would not buy my cell phone and leave. I had to block off at least one hour to drink coffee, then we would talk about the phone, and an hour later I would have it. Relationship comes first. If that is true to buy a cell phone, how much more to talk about big things like the Bible and the Koran?
Steve Rives is pastor of Eastside Church of the Cross in Louisburg, Kan.