Dear friends: The deluge of mail and phone calls that poured forth in response to my January letter was startling. I asked friends and supporters for counsel concerning the advisability of a joint housing venture with the Muslim mosque in the rough East Lake neighborhood. The idea of intentionally establishing a mixed-faith community touched a nerve that brought reactions stronger by a hundredfold than any letter I have ever written. A leading Christian magazine wanted to write about it. A media company wanted to film it. A seminary wanted to study it.
A chorus of voices, some hot with emotional, some cool with reason, all firm with conviction, spoke to the issue. Some cautioned that partnering with Muslims is like "holding hands with the devil"..."light and darkness don't mix"... "inadvisable"... "noble idea but won't work in practice"... "compromising the Truth"..."a slippery slope". Others cheered "Go for it!" ... "ground breaking"..."the most Christian thing I've heard of in a long time"... "inspired by Jesus Himself" ... "highest standards of Christian integrity". Books on pluralism, articles on cross-cultural ministry, missionary case studies and scholarly treatises poured into my office, each offering insights into this complex issue of inter-faith relations. The counsel I had asked for came from every direction: theological soundness, business pragmatics, sustainability issues, cultural compatibility, evangelism dilemmas, intermarriage considerations, and organizational risk.
A missiologist from a school of world mission related to me a story of a missionary who served among the poor in a Muslim village. Years of effort had yielded little success in gaining converts to the Christian faith, though the missionary had established many good relationships among the people. One day a tragic fire burned the town mosque to the ground. The missionary, seeing the great distress of his friends over the loss of their place of prayer, concluded that the most loving response (and thus the most Christian) was to join in and help the community rebuild the mosque. He even helped to raise money for the project. The people were touched by his genuine concern for them and for the first time some showed interest in his message. From this caring act grew a thriving Christian congregation.
This account of the winsomeness of the Christian faith was counter-balanced by other friends who told me of competition and conflict that festers today among devout Christians and Muslims serving sentences in U.S. prisons who must live as "neighbors" in close proximity. And of the resistance and outright persecution that some Muslims inflict upon Christians who enter their cultures to help build affordable housing for the poor. Others reminded me of the biblical history of disastrous consequences brought upon God's people when they entered into alliances with those who worshiped false gods.
How is one to hear the voice of God in the midst of all this conflicting council? If God's will in this matter could be deciphered by the ratio of "pro" to "con" responses, then I would move immediately toward developing a mixed-faith neighborhood. The weight of the responses tilted seven to one on the side of interfaith cooperation. Yet, I know that God's Kingdom is not a democracy nor are opinion polls the standard by which we determine truth. Somewhere in the tension between opposing opinions, where sound and valid perspectives pull from different directions, in this unsettling place Divine Will is to be found. Here is where I continue to search.
This much I have concluded. It is better to make friends than enemies. It is no light matter to declare a group of people as my enemy. It is even more serious to do so in the name of Christ. So I must be very careful whom I declare war against. I know that war must be waged against the sinister forces that destroy communities - drugs, violence and gangs who rule by fear and intimidation. And against racism and classism. The reality of spiritual warfare with unseen forces of darkness must be taken seriously. But I must be very careful not to make enemies out of any people who seek the welfare of the community, whether we agree on issues of faith or not.
I have also concluded that peace is preferable to conflict. It is a good thing to "seek the peace of the city" and to follow the biblical admonition, "If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men" (Rom 12:18). I have decided that cooperation, supportiveness and reconciliation are preferable to competition, conflict and criticism among the diverse people of an urban community.
I have also concluded that faith without risk is not faith at all. The faith journey is a risk-taking adventure. It means venturing into territory that is unknown, following an internal compass when dependable landmarks are not visible. It beckons us to push forward into the anxiety of the darkness rather to sleep comfortably in the light. My responsibility as a leader is not to preserve or protect my organization, reputation, support base or any other asset of the Kingdom but rather to wisely invest (that is to say risk) whatever resources God has entrusted to my care. The preserved kernel never produces fruit.
So what do I do about the Muslin's in East Lake? Shall I enter a joint venture with them and attempt to establish a mixed-faith community? I don't know. There are many practical and philosophical issues yet to discuss, let alone the proselytizing problem. There are certainly many ways that we can cooperate for the benefit of the neighborhood, short of a full partnership, like athletic programs for the youth and a new shopping center to serve the community. The Imam and I have committed to meet regularly to continue our dialogue on these matters, he seeking the guidance of Allah and me depending upon the leadership of Yahweh. And I am depending in no small measure upon the continued prayers of the saints for guidance on this journey.
P.S. I am going to compile many of the letters, articles and conversations that my January letter elicited. Perhaps this rich response of diverse perspectives could be helpful to others who are wrestling with these important issues in our rapidly pluralizing society. Let me know if you would like me to send you the packet.