Dear friends: I need your input. I am facing an intriguing decision that is pregnant with both promise and risk, a decision that I do not want to make without the wisdom of counsel from trusted, spiritually-minded friends.
The East Lake community (where FCS is becoming involved in ministry) is a declining residential neighborhood just to the east of us. Sitting squarely in the middle of the community is a 650-unit public housing project that infects the entire area with its drugs and violence. Surrounding home owners, whose property values have plummeted, find it almost impossible to control the crime on their streets. Schools have become places of control rather than learning, their halls patrolled by armed police. Businesses, the few that remain, have barred their doors and windows and have installed bulletproof cages for their cashiers. East Lake is a community that needs an infusion of Good News.
There are two dozen churches in the area, a couple very large ones, that attempt to provide some food-and-clothing type services in the community. All of them are commuter churches - their members drive in from outside. Thus, their presence in the neighborhood is scarcely noticed except on Sunday when parked cars clog the streets. There is one notable exception, however. The Muslim mosque! This is the only congregation that is having a noticeably positive impact on East Lake.
The Masjid of Al-Islam is located in a once-defunct shopping center along a main thoroughfare. It is an attractively designed mosque of the orthodox world religion Islam (not the separatist Nation of Islam which Farrakhan leads). Their minister, Imam Plemon El-Amin, is a well-respected leader who has distinguished himself as a conciliatory influence in the sometimes turbulent racial politics of our city. Under Plemon's able leadership, the mosque has established a fine school in the community, started several businesses, organized anti-crime initiatives and has assisted a number of welfare families to move out of public housing into self-supporting lifestyles. I respect Plemon's vision. He is actually doing what 23 Christian congregations in the neighborhood only talk about doing.
Five times each day loudspeakers on the roof of the mosque trumpet a call to prayer. And five times each day the faithful gather for worship. Obviously, proximity to the mosque becomes important for reasons of both spirituality and convenience. Because of this "prayer theology," members are buying homes in the surrounding community. This means that hard working, law abiding, clean living, family-oriented neighbors are beginning to repopulate the area. If Plemon were Christian, his ministry would surely be held up as a national model of Christian community development.
In a recent conversation with Plemon about the plight of the neighborhood, I admitted to him that the Muslims appeared to be "out-Christianing the Christians" in loving their neighbors. He smiled humbly and went on to tell me of his dreams to develop some new housing on some vacant land in the community. I shared with him my commitment to affordable housing and to influencing middle-income Christians to move back into the city as involved neighbors. And then an outlandish thought occurred to me. What if we did a joint development together, alternating every other house - Christian, Muslim, Christian, Muslim, etc. - and then encouraged our people to be the kind of neighbors to each other that our faiths require of us. Wouldn't it be incredible to see Christians and Muslims trying to out-love each other?!
What kind of reconciliation would this be? It would go well beyond racial reconciliation into an arena that is seldom discussed in Christian circles, at least in this country. It would force to the surface the question of whether devout Christians and devout Muslims could or should be good neighbors to each other. And what about evangelism? Could neighbors who believe very deeply and very differently really love and accept each other without coercion? Could those who believe that Christ is the only way to salvation have integrity if they embraced their neighbor - faith and all - in love? I wondered what the Great Commission would look like in a setting where the Great Command was being lived out.
The Imam was obviously pondering similar questions, too. "I think it would be wonderful to attempt this kind of community building together," he said. "But I think it would be harder for you to convince your people to do it than it would be for me to convince mine." I thought about it for a moment and then reluctantly agreed.
But should it be so? Should not the followers of Christ be known as peacemakers, the ones most fervently committed to loving their neighbors as they love themselves? Was it not our Lord who gave us the rule we call golden: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets"? (Matt 7:12 NIV) Certainly there is scriptural admonition against being unequally yoked together with unbelievers but can this mean that we should disengage from those who are working for the health of the community because of our differing religious beliefs? Godly wisdom is needed if we are to navigate these waters. The safer choice is to stay the course, fly the Christian flag and maintain an overtly and exclusively Christian identity in our community development efforts. In this way we steer clear of unforeseen conflict and confusion that could arise in cooperative dealings with those who believe differently from us. This way also avoids the potential fallout that might occur with supporters of our ministry who would view such a relationship as dangerous if not heretical.
The more risky course is to raise the banner of Love (for God and neighbor) and sail boldly into uncharted waters. Real dangers lurk beneath the surface, dangers like accommodating untruth or risking the confusion or dilution of our message. We could be drawn off-course into pluralism, even lose our direction. On the other hand, we might discover a passage to greater understanding, to peaceful neighborhoods and to the elusive solutions to the problems of our inner-cities. We might find a way to be reconciled as neighbors while keeping the integrity of our faith intact. Perhaps we might even uncover a bold, courageous, winsome side to the Gospel that would be attractive to urban men - a challenge only Farrakhan seems to be winning these days.
You see why I need your input, don't you? And your prayers. I am responsible before God and to our faithful financial partners to keep FCS on the cutting edge of urban ministry. There is a fine line between staying on the edge and falling over the edge! That's where the wisdom of Godly counsel comes in. Please take a few minutes to pray with me for guidance. And if you have any insights or words of advice, please send them to me. I value your wisdom.
Your partner in service, Bob Lupton President