Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board
|Taking to the streets to win back souls...What are you doing about it?|
|10/10/01 at 10:11:49|
|Taking to the streets to win back souls|
Evangelical black churches are rallying the troops to make converts of Muslims.
By Jim Remsen
INQUIRER FAITH LIFE EDITOR
The Rev. Darien Thomas, a man on a mission, spotted the woman in the Muslim scarf approaching on the busy 69th Street corridor.
"Sister, can I talk to you?" the sidewalk evangelist beckoned. "I have some good news to share."
Majeed Abdur Rashid slowed - becoming his "prospect" of the moment - but as Mr. Thomas learned, she was not one to listen meekly. For a few charged minutes outside Popeye's, as Saturday shoppers bustled past, two world religions went toe-to-toe.
"You know how God allowed blood sacrifice?" Mr. Thomas said, alluding to Abraham's binding of his son, a story shared by the Bible and the Koran. "A lamb or a goat would be the scapegoat and have the punishment put on it. Jesus took on that punishment for you."
"I don't believe that," Rashid shot back. "I believe everybody has to stand before God for his own deeds."
"Yes, every soul is guilty," Mr. Thomas replied. "But Jesus made the sacrifice for us. God, in His mercy, put our sins on someone sinless."
"I don't understand that," Rashid said.
"There are some things we don't understand," Mr. Thomas answered quickly. "But the Old Testament teaches that Jesus is the lamb in God's sight."
"Jesus was a prophet," Rashid said. "But Muhammad was the last prophet. He was the seal of the prophets and he perfected it. That's what the Scripture says.
"But I appreciate what you're doing," she said with a smile and headed up the street with her daughter.
Unfazed, Mr. Thomas moved on with his wife, Sandra, looking for the next prospect.
The Thomases, of Walk in the Light Christian Ministries of Southwest Philadelphia, were in a contingent of 50 people canvassing Upper Darby last weekend. This was a field trip organized as part of a regional Evangelism Explosion conference at Sharon Baptist Church in Wynnefield Heights.
One of the conference's thrusts was proselytizing to Muslims. It is hard, specialized work - and, as Mr. Thomas found, often frustrating.
Muslims are effective at their own faith-sharing, carrying out the command known as Da'wah, and they are adept at debating Scripture with any comers.
In fact, Rashid, as a longtime Muslim and business manager at the Masjid Muhammad in Germantown, said later that she regarded her curbside thrust-and-parry with Mr. Thomas as a bit of impromptu Da'wah.
Responding to Muslims has become a keen concern for many Christians as they watch Islam's steady growth in this country. While Roman Catholic and most Mainline Protestant churches promote theological tolerance and dialogue with the 4.1 million U.S. Muslims, evangelical leaders have reacted differently - rallying their troops with the Gospel command to preach the word. Consequently, the number of interdenominational ministries to Muslims has grown from fewer than 10 in the mid-1980s to perhaps 100 today, ministry leaders say.
Nowhere is the turf fighting between the two religions more pitched than in African American communities.
Nation of Islam mosques and the more common Sunni Muslim mosques are entrenched in many black communities, and most of their members are either converts from Christianity or converts' children. The prisons also are a renowned mission field for Muslims, with an estimated 30,000 prisoners converting annually, many of them African Americans.
Fareed Nu'Man, a local Muslim analyst, estimates that 55 percent of Philadelphia's 85,000 Muslims are African Americans and that most of them are from Christian backgrounds.
At Sharon Baptist, a black megachurch of 4,500, most of the 70 people attending the Evangelism Explosion session on Islamic outreach were African Americans. A number of them relayed stories of having Muslim fathers or sisters or nephews or coworkers, or of trying Islam themselves.
"The black community is saturated with Muslims," said the Rev. Curtis Morris, Sharon's pastor for evangelism, himself a one-time Nation of Islam adherent. "It's a battleground on the street for souls."
A University of Pennsylvania survey of the city's religious congregations bears some bad tidings for the evangelists. It projects that Philadelphia's black churches have about 253,000 members - but that 27.1 percent of those churches report declining membership, as opposed to 15.6 percent of non-black congregations. Though causes for the decline were not reported, research director Stephanie Boddie figures that conversion to Islam is one of them.
"It's a concern to us that our children are becoming Muslim after being raised in the church," said the Rev. Randall Sims, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity. "We have to be able to witness to Muslims, and we're seeing a new phenomenon of that. It's new but not isolated."
The Black Clergy has not offered specialized Muslim training for its 400 member churches, Mr. Sims said, and he is not sure how widespread or successful the various street efforts are. But he said the Black Clergy leadership brought in Carl Ellis, a specialist on black Muslim outreach, for a briefing last year.
Ellis, head of Project Joseph in Chattanooga, Tenn., has traveled the country for a decade giving church workshops and has personally "seen 1,500 Muslims come to Christ." Reached by phone, Ellis said he nearly broke with his black-church upbringing as a young man because of the appeal of Malcolm X, and he urges black Christians to understand that appeal.
"The growth of Islam is a measure of the weakness of the church," Ellis said. "It's not dealing with the core issues for African Americans like identity, manhood, human dignity. We need to tell our young people that Scripture does deal with all of that. But we go around and peddle fire insurance instead, Gospel fire insurance. We've reduced the Gospel to that."
Muslims "do a much better job than we do. Our focus is on the conversion event. They focus on the learning process."
A check with several Muslim leaders confirmed that approach.
The city's 33 mosques, or masjids, all have Da'wah committees that pair up newcomers with educated members, said Rafiq Kalam Iddin, an ex-Catholic who is administrative assistant at Clara Muhammad School, a Muslim school in West Philadelphia. He said some masjids hold regular street-corner or door-to-door canvassing, handing out literature and inviting people to evening classes where they can be assigned a mentor.
Imam Yusef Jamal-addin is chairman of the Da'wah committee for the area clergy council called the Majlis Ashura. He said the Majlis doesn't have centralized training or campaigns but does urge a central message - a straightforward public pitch that the religion's distinctive dress and rules are secondary to its belief in one God. And that that God is not trinitarian: "The prophet says don't speak of God as three. God is one."
Imam Jamal-addin (a convert from Methodism) and others emphasized that Da'wah work is an obligation for every Muslim. Mentoring is routine, he said: "We stick close to the people." And he said it was becoming more successful as new generations of black Muslims are raised in the faith and have a "grounding and balance and poise" that is attractive to others, particularly in public schools and on campuses.
Over lunch at the Sharon Baptist conference, Nelson Hayspell, a deacon at St. James Baptist Church in Beverly (and a onetime Muslim), explained the predicament that he sees churches facing. Many black men are drawn to Islam's strong-male culture and find they can have a close "brother relationship" with their imam, he said, whereas they may feel out of place in churches with their majority-female membership led by aloof, intimidating, sometimes "flashy" male pastors. It is a black-church image that Muslims play up in their urban outreach, he said.
Hayspell, braids tied in a loose knot, told of a spiritual journey that resembled the life stories of other returnees to the church. As a young man and reluctant Baptist, he said, he embraced the black-power militancy of the Nation of Islam. He joined up for a few years, but broke over its "white devil" teachings and moved to a Sunni masjid.
There, he raised a family for nearly 15 years - until his wife and daughter decided they needed the church. He ultimately agreed: "They saw no hope and wanted a savior. I also found that Islam was giving me discipline, but no direction to hold on to. No spiritual hope. It couldn't keep me from sinning."
Hayspell's theological worry - that Islam does not guarantee salvation, while Christianity can - is the very point that ministries to Muslims try to build on. It was central to the conference's Muslim workshop.
The workshop's trainer was the Rev. Wally Ahmad of Germantown, a strategist for Multi-Ethnic Ministries of Upper Darby - and the born-again son of a Muslim man. In a rapid-fire presentation, he equipped people with ways to approach Muslims, and told them to be ready for theological intensity.
Mr. Ahmad offered talking points about divergent beliefs on sin and revelation and judgment and Scripture, as well as some common teachings. His listeners peppered him with questions and filled their handouts with notes like a class of A students.
"Muslims know God on paper. Christians know God in person," he said. "But the church has turned them off. The pastor has turned them off. Present Jesus to them."
And Mr. Ahmad sent them out with what he hoped was "soul-winners' fire" to the sidewalks of Upper Darby. The trip was one on several forays - billed as "fishing trips" - by the 430 conference participants.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington advocacy group, said Muslims were primed for the evangelists.
"We don't object to open and honest debate," he said. "We love to debate all the time. We believe we have the Ferrari of faiths and are not concerned, as long as their work is open and aboveboard."
Christians won't make headway, Mr. Ahmad told his workshop, unless they take a gradual approach and let Muslims see them living out their faith.
"Muslims are vigilant for their faith, and they want to see you be vigilant for yours," he said. "So examine your priorities and get out there. You may take some beatings, but get out there."
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