American Church And Muslim Immigrants!

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me an article about a pastor in some Southern state church who had decided to open his church doors to immigrants. It described how the pastor had let a group of immigrants start their own congregation in his building. The blog had been well circulated and received by many people. Among many comments, one that stood out to me was, “This is the kind of church that I want to attend.” It really puzzled me, and I had the following questions:

Really? Prior to his decision to “open his church doors” to immigrants, did the pastor stand on the doorstep and prevent the immigrants from coming in? And to those who were so impressed with this action to open his church doors to immigrants, is this the first time you’ve heard of an American pastor doing something like this? Have you been living under a rock?

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a Muslim background Iranian believer. I immigrated to the US in 1969 and became a follower of Christ in 1971. Maybe this is something common in SoCal, but there are 100s of Anglo churches that share their buildings with immigrant churches.

In 1986, when the first Iranian church in the US (the church I had started 10 years earlier) was looking for a meeting place, The Church On The Way (TCOTW) in San Fernando Valley opened its facilities to us willingly and freely. From the very beginning, the pastor of the church, Jack Hayford, treaded me as one of his staff members even though I was never on the staff. But he never thought what he was doing was out of the ordinary because many other pastors had done similar things before him. In fact, the Hispanic congregation at TCOTW, which had been meeting there long before we came along, eventually became the largest Hispanic congregation in the nation.

I wouldn’t have thought too much about the above article if a couple of days ago I hadn’t seen Christianity Today’s article Missionaries Dreamed Of This Muslim Moment. The article lamented how as the result of President Trump’s “Muslim ban” “evangelical experts on Muslim missions express concerns…”

Before I go any further, it is important my readers understand that I was not a Mr. Trump supporter, nor did I agree with the decision to ban Muslims, regardless of their immigration status, from getting into the US. I believe that decision was extremely ill-advised. However, I do believe in sovereignty of all nations and the right for them to have borders.

Just by reading the title of this article, one could very easily walk away thinking that this administration’s decision has deeply hurt Muslim evangelism, even though it specifically says, “Last year, the United States admitted about 39,000 Muslim refugees, a record high yet survey after survey indicate that white evangelicals are the least excited about their new neighbors.”

In other words, the issue is not Mr. Trump’s decision, but the evangelicals’ lack of interest in reaching Muslims for Christ. By the way, I find it interesting that the survey did not say anything about how the black or Hispanic evangelicals feel about their new neighbors and making this to be solely a white evangelical issue.

I wholeheartedly agree with my dear friend, David Cashin, when he says, “This is the best case we’ve had in human history to share the love of Christ with Muslims.” Not because of what the Christians necessarily have done, but because of how Muslim leaders have exposed Islam for what it is truly about.

On the other hand, I disagree with David when he says,

Would a Muslim feel the American church is a safe place for them? The answer probably is they would not. The more evangelicals come out in favor of Trump’s policies, he said, the more they exclusively view Islam as a threat rather than a ministry opportunity.

First, I’ve worked with Iranian Muslims in America for more than 40 years and I’ve yet to see one who found the church to be an unsafe place. Second, for just as many years, I’ve been saying,

America is the greatest mission field God has given us. He’s brought people of every background to our doorsteps. We can change a whole nation overseas without ever leaving our homes by changing one man or woman. We can accomplish that just by taking a glass of water in Christ’s name to the man or woman who lives across the street from us, who speaks with an accent and wears a turban or a burka.

Unfortunately, in the last 40 years, regardless of the administration in charge, Democrats or Republicans, most evangelical churches of any color have shown very little to no interest in reaching out to their Muslim neighbors.

After reading my book, Shame On You, a friend who used to be the president of a Bible college told me, “Shah, the American church is NOT interested in what you have to offer. Have you thought about becoming a comedian?” I guess he really enjoyed my humorous writing skills.

For years, I took the above statement as a joke, but today I wonder…

Don’t Control Me, Encourage Me!

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 4.09.52 PMRecently my son, Air Force Captain, Todd Afshar, posted this video on Facebook. I watched it with tears in my eyes. I marveled at the courage of the young soldier, but even more at the encouragement she received from her fellow soldiers, which reminded me of the following story and how much the followers of Christ are in need of encouragement from each other.

In 1978, I established the first Iranian Christian organization in the United States. It consisted of several house churches. I was a civil engineer during the day and a church planter/evangelist at night.

At the time, I desperately needed all the help and moral support I could get from the Christian leaders I knew, but the support was quite few and far between. After all, majority of the American leaders I looked up to, were mono-cultural. They had no understanding of what I eventually coined as “reversed contextualization”.

My philosophy was very simple. If every oversees-missionary is taught to share the Gospel within the context of the culture he/she is sent to, why not develop the same approach in reverse towards the displaced people whom God has brought to our doorsteps in America—in my case, the Iranians?

One of these leaders was the director of missions for the denomination I belonged to at the time. On numerous occasions, I called his office with the hope of getting an appointment to meet with him, but I never heard back from him. The only person I ever got the chance to talk with was his secretary, Pat.

About 15 years went by. I was conducting a workshop on Muslim evangelism at a convention when I ran into Pat and had the following conversation.

Me: “Pat, please remind me, how do we know each other?” I’d completely forgotten the genesis of our relationship.

Pat: “Don’t you remember? You used to call me all the time when I was Matt’s secretary.” And, then she continued with the following story.

Shah, I’ve never told you this, but one of those days when you’d called to talk to Matt, he walked into my office as I was talking to you. Although, he didn’t know you, from my side of the conversation, he knew I was talking to you. That’s when he leaned over my desk and whispered, “Hang up on him!” I shook my head and refused to do so, and again, he demanded the same. Eventually, he stomped out very angry.

Later, after I’d finished talking to you, he walked back to my office and said,

“Next time when I tell you to hang up on him, you hang up on him. Do you know why I want you to hang up on him? BECAUSE HE IS RIGHT, AND WE DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT!”

Can you imagine how encouraged I would have been if the man had at least said those same words to my face? If he’d said something like, “Shah, you’re right, but you’re way ahead of your time and our denomination. We don’t know what to do with you.”

Thirty years ago, all I wanted to tell the man was what will soon become the church’s war cry—Let’s reach the world for Christ one next-door neighbor at a time. Remember, you heard it here first. Yes, I was mostly talking about Iranian neighbors, but the principle still applied.

In any case, the man refused to meet with me. Was it arrogance, ignorance, pride, or simply a desire to control that prevented him from having a cup of coffee with a man who desperately needed that leader’s support and encouragement? Or was it the fear of not having an answer/solution to my question? After all, shouldn’t a Christian leader have an answer for every question thrown at him? Wouldn’t an, “I don’t know!” reveal a weakness that a mature Christian leader shouldn’t possess?

I am sure there have been times when I’ve come short of following I Thess. 5:11 mandate, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” For that, I’m deeply sorry. May the Lord have mercy on us to be better encouragers. Let us not forget that we are all in this together.