Unexpected guest welcomes chance to engage in real interfaith dialogue
Editor’s note. “Interfaith dialogue” is a big thing right now in the West, as churches seek to understand the Muslim population growing up around them due to immigration. But much of what passes for “dialogue” is nothing more than a contrived discussion about a “common word” and the “same god” theories while glossing over core beliefs that clearly clash. Below is one woman’s experience at a recent event in which a church is targeted for conversion to a mosque, first reported last week by LeoHohmann.com. She writes under the pen name Helen Abousamra.
By HELEN ABOUSAMRA
On a dreary, rainy Sunday in Southeast Michigan, my husband and I decided, after attending church in Troy, that we would drive over to nearby Sterling Heights where the former St. Mark Lutheran Church is being converted into a Sunni mosque.
A group of Pakistanis had circulated flyers in the community advertising an “Open House” from 12-6 p.m. on July 22. We thought we’d take them up on it.
Upon turning into the long driveway that led to the church, we were greeted by a rather lonely-looking, tiny house that seemed out of place, as if it were set down as an afterthought. There were no trees or shrubs adorning it. We learned later that this will be the new home of the mosque’s imam. The church building itself was about 80 feet beyond it.
Only six cars dotted the parking lot. We sat for a few minutes hoping more would arrive. We prayed, asking the Lord to give us His wisdom.
If this was an open door, we hoped to speak to a few of the Muslims regarding not only their plans for the church buildings but perhaps engage them in an honest theological conversation. I placed my beloved pocket New Testament in my purse just in case, and we ventured past a group of five kufi and thobe-wearing Pakistanis speaking with what appeared to be a Muslim man who was not wearing the garb.
When we entered the building, I noticed a tall, non-Muslim American standing at a wooden counter poring over hand-drawn configurations of the property. He was the Realtor, and he eagerly and excitedly told us the specifics of the property itself. The existing developed property is 460 feet, and there’s an additional 900 feet of dense woods behind the parking lot. The lot itself is narrow yet deep. Right next door, to the east, is a large Romanian Pentecostal Church. I wondered what the folks in that church thought of their soon-to-be new neighbors, or if they were even aware of them.
Next to the Realtor’s stack of papers and drawings, I saw a large quantity of pristine open-house invitation postcards, like the one below:
I’m guessing they wanted monetary donations not just a “Hi, welcome to the neighborhood” speech.
While we spoke with the Realtor, three Muslim men (there were no women present) made a beeline for us. Their hollow eyes said, “You’re not Muslim …Why are you here?”
We answered their unspoken question with, “A friend of a friend received one of your open-house invitations and since we were in the area we thought we’d stop by and ask what your plans are for the property.”
They responded that they were “converting this church to a mosque.”
“Where do you attend now?” I asked them.
Two of the men said they are members of the Islamic Association of Greater Detroit [IAGD] in Rochester Hills. The third did not answer.
“There are several mosques here in Sterling Heights,” the man in the navy thobe said with a big grin, and he proudly gave the locations of them, including a Shia mosque that has yet to celebrate a ground-breaking.
“We live near the IAGD in Rochester Hills,” my husband told them, “and that’s not far from the Ahmadyya mosque.”
“We do not accept them,” they all chimed. “They believe there are prophets after Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.”
“May I ask you a question?” I asked the talkative, younger man dressed in drab olive-green. “I have a friend who is Shia, and she insists her Quran is a different translation from the Sunni Quran. Is that correct?”
They all looked at each other, then replied nearly in unison with, “Oh, no!”
“There is only one Quran and it can never be changed and has never been changed,” said the man who earlier flashed the big grin.
“I have memorized the entire Quran!” declared the 50-something man dressed in a beautifully embroidered light-gray thobe. Instinctively, his chest puffed out.
Knowing that such a feat has significant salvific merit for Muslims, I gave him a nod, then addressed them all, “And just exactly where are your Quranic manuscripts, you know, like the early manuscripts of the Quran? Where are they?”
The youngest one straightened his back and said, “The Quran is perfectly preserved.”
“OK,” I said, “But I didn’t ask you that. I’m asking you where are the manuscripts that you could actually hold in your hands and read?”
They all stood stone-faced.
“Did you know,” I continued, “that there are thousands upon thousands of early Old Testament and New Testament manuscripts that have been copied so accurately with such meticulous care that they have little if any variation over centuries of being copied, and that if you wanted to, you could actually see them and hold those in your hands?”
The youngest one in drab olive-green turned on his heel and walked into the sanctuary.
The man in the navy thobe reaffirmed that there had never been any changes to the Quran, “even down to a letter marking.”
“If all the Qurans were destroyed, the entire Quran could be perfectly reconstructed because billions of Muslims have it all memorized,” the guy in gray added.
“Billions?” I thought but didn’t challenge him.
He continued, “This can be done because we have it in our hearts.”
These thoughts flashed like lightning through my brain: I wonder if all our Bibles were destroyed, could my church get together and rewrite the entire Old and New Testament, or even just the New Testament? And how would I do at that task?
My questions about Quranic authenticity remained unanswered. Afterwards I regretted not asking the follow-up question, “If you don’t have thousands of manuscripts to compare, then how do you know that the Quran has never been changed?”
We know in fact that the Quran has been changed many times, that there are only six manuscripts intact today and those are late, and that a final standardized copy of the Quran was not forthcoming until 1924. Sadly, Muslims believe what they’re told and do not investigate.
After this exchange, the conversation went flat, and I wandered into the church auditorium while my husband talked with the Realtor, who had suddenly appeared again in the very small lobby where we were standing.
The sanctuary was small too, approximately 40 by 80 feet. The floor was shiny beige linoleum. The walls were cinder block, painted off-white. A large wooden cross hung on the wall behind the pulpit area. I noticed that the pulpit was missing. There were two sections of pews. I could tell many of the pews had been removed, no doubt from the previous occupants, because there was a large empty space behind them. On a side wall in the empty space hung a large white board on which a picture of the bowed head of a crucified, crown of thorns-wearing man was drawn in all red. Written beside the picture were multiple Arabic words. I got my cell phone, took a picture of it and sent it to an Arabic-speaking friend who later informed me that the words said, “Allah” over and over again.
One tall, white-bearded man dressed in a bright cranberry-colored thobe sat statue-like in a back pew with his knees nearly in the air looking pensively toward the cross in the front of the auditorium. He won’t have to worry about being in an uncomfortable pew, I thought. All pews will be removed during renovation.
A group of about 10 pre-teen and young teenage boys, all dressed in kufi and thobe, were in the back pew of the other section, across from the old man. They were chatting slightly loudly and were restless as most boys are at that age and were obviously curious when they saw me, especially when I took my picture. I’m a mother to four boys – men now – and I have a special love in my heart for that age.
What will the future hold for these kids? I thought.
I sauntered up to them and as I approached they became even more animated. “How are you all doing today?!” I asked loudly with a big smile, trying to look each of them in the eye. They all put their heads down simultaneously. The old man turned and gave me a frown.
I returned back to my husband who had just finished speaking with the Realtor. It was then I looked down the short hallway beside the auditorium and noticed around 12 boxes of pizza on a side counter next to the back door of the church. I remember thinking this surely was not like any “Open House” we would hold in our Western culture.
Where were the tables of goodies, coffee, tea and punch, and where were the warm, friendly faces of the happy ladies serving them?
Where were the visitor cards?
Where was the, “Thanks so much for coming out on such a rainy day!” and “We hope to see you visit us again!” and “Here’s an information packet about us” that one would expect from a church open house?
We walked out the glass double-doors and immediately were met by two men, one very short and the other quite tall. I smiled at them as my husband told them why we came.
“Hi! What’s your name?” I inquired of the shorter one.
“My name is Muhammad, and I am the imam here.” he said. I don’t know why I asked, but I pressed for his last name.
“It’s Islam.” he answered. I remember thinking that was an incredible name; was he telling me the truth? I had no reason to doubt him, but I still did. He was decidedly unfriendly. His eyes seemed cold and dead and looked totally vacant.
My husband asked what the plans were for the property. Muhammad told us that all necessary changes would occur to the property to turn it into a mosque. We knew that meant removing all pews, all traces of crosses and anything else that smacked of Christianity.
“Do you have future plans for a day school here? Or even a college someday?” my husband questioned.
“Oh, no,” he said, “Nothing like that. We will have Sunday School here to teach the children and young people all about Islam.”
“Will you be building residences on the undeveloped portion of the property?” my husband asked. Muhammad gave a vague, nearly inaudible response and didn’t say yes or no to the question.
The taller man was older, sported a longish white beard and wore an ornate kufi. His light red thobe seemed too short for his frame. He volunteered that he attended the IAGD when he heard we lived in Rochester Hills and that his name was Abdul. He seemed much more open to speaking with us.
I decided to ask what would seem to him to be dumb questions.
“I’m curious about something in Islam. Would you say that you believe that Muhammad never sinned?” I asked, looking at him intently.
Abdul seemed to not understand my question, so I asked a different way, “I mean, would you say he was perfect and never did anything wrong?”
He gave a slight jerk with his head and answered with a definite, “No! Muhammad could not do anything that was wrong. Everything he did was willed by Allah.
“OK, so you are telling me that Muhammad was perfect, therefore sinless, which would then make him equal with Allah?”
He lowered his gaze at me and narrowed his eyes, “You mean God,” he corrected me.
“Well, no, Allah; Allah is your god, right?”
“No, you mean to say God.” he answered. I was later informed that the problem here was that I uttered the name “Allah” and that as an infidel this was punishable by death under Shariah Law.
“So he would not be equal with God, even though you say he never sinned?”
Abdul changed the subject slightly, saying, “All the prophets before Muhammad, peace be upon him, have never sinned either. Abraham, David, Jesus, all of them, peace be upon them, have never sinned.”
I remember giving a weak laugh at this and said, “What?! Have you never read the Old Testament?! We know Abraham and David sinned and the Bible records some of their specific sins.”
He said nothing.
“And as for the Lord Jesus, we know He never sinned because He could not, because He was God, come to us in a body.”
At this he jerked his head back wildly and said emphatically, “No, we just do not believe that!”
Abdul launched into teaching mode. He told us the entire Quranic story of Miriam and her son, Jesus. “You call her Mary, but her name is really Miriam.”
“Actually, Abdul, Miriam is her Hebrew name – did you know that? Her Greek name is Mary,” I answered.
He returned a surprised look with a slight grimace.
“Further more, let me ask you, is all you know about Jesus only from the Quran? Have you ever read any of the New Testament?”
He said he had not ever read any of it. I leaned forward a bit and then asked, “Then how do you know for sure that all there is of Jesus is what you have read in the Quran?” My husband added, “The Quran speaks well of the Injil (the gospels); have you ever read them?”
I went into my teacher mode and continued with a confident smile, “Let me explain. For example, the Book of Matthew was written to show us that Jesus is King; Mark was written to show that He is Servant, Luke was written to display that He is human – and like us – and then, John was written to show us that He is God — and not like us.”
As I said these words, I again felt the wonderful joy of boasting in Who the Lord Jesus really is, knowing that I am in Him, He is in me, and that I, by His grace, belong to Him.
I knew what I was about to hear, and I wasn’t disappointed.
“The Bible has been corrupted and changed and all your Bibles all around the world are different,” he said with an air of accusation.
“But Abdul, just how would you know that since you have said you’ve never even read any of the Bible? And could you please tell me just when the Bible was corrupted? Who changed everything and when was it done? Just how do you know for sure that it’s been corrupted? Have you examined all the evidence?”
Surely the conversation would end here, I thought. I was wrong.
He continued, “Well, you should read the Quran for yourself and see what it says about Jesus, peace be upon Him.”
I relayed to him that I had actually already Googled a list of all the Quranic references to Jesus, printed it out, read it and had discovered that it does not give very much information compared with what the Bible taught about all that Jesus said and did, and also that the Quran never explains what the implications are of what He said and what He did. He seemed rather surprised with this statement.
Again, I was not disappointed at his further response. “We believe that Jesus, peace be upon Him, was surrounded by evil men and was about to be killed but God spared Him and took Him up to Heaven and replaced Him with a man who looked exactly like Him. You see, Jesus, peace be upon Him, never said He was God.”
Under my breath I muttered, “Well, He surely did!” but I don’t think Abdul heard me. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is fairly easy to see that this man has circular reasoning.” So I asked him, “Abdul, if you have never read anything from the Bible about Jesus, how would you know that He never claimed to be God?”
To my great surprise, he said, “Well, maybe sometime I will read it.”
“May I ask you another question, Abdul? Can Allah do anything he wants to do?”
“But of course God can do whatever He wants to do!” he exclaimed.
“Well, if you believe that, why is it such a stretch to believe that if God wanted to, He could enter into His own creation?” I asked him in a quiet tone. His face said it all; he had never had this thought before. “Honestly, God the Creator actually did this, Abdul. He came, became a man, He died, He rose from the dead and proved He was God.”
Abdul did not respond.
Before we left, I asked him if I could take his picture with my husband. He warily asked why I wanted to take his picture.
The answer was an easy one.
“Because you’re a cool guy!” I smiled, and he – very unexpectedly – held out his hand to shake mine.