The Iranian man was in tears. In his flight from the war-torn country he had once called home, the U.N. divided his family, sending them to Australia and him to the U.S.—alone.
But in a land where many run for refuge, this man found none within his new community.
“I don’t want to be here,” he said through his tears. “I ran away from [being a prisoner] in my home country and ended up feeling like I’m in an even bigger jail.”
In 2017, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of Americans’ attitudes toward members of nine different religious groups, asking each participant to rate these groups on a “feelings thermometer” ranging from 0 (most negative) to 100 (most positive). The results were sobering.
“Overall, Americans gave Muslims an average rating of 48 degrees,” the report notes.
The negative view of Muslims and other internationals has decreased slightly in the last five years, according to Pew, but many North Americans are still hesitant to engage this vast and rapidly expanding population.
“Instead of embracing these people and realizing this is an opportunity to share the gospel, we can sometimes be resistant towards them,” said Doug Martin, Executive Director of ABWE North America. “We can forget to be Christians first, and Americans second.”
Fortunately, more North American churches are attempting to set aside bias and reach out.
“People say to me, ‘I don’t speak their language; I don’t know how to minister to them,’” explains Peter*, an ABWE teammate working with Arabic churches in Pennsylvania. “It’s actually very simple: Just think about what you can do for someone who has nothing.”
Peter would know. Several years before joining ABWE, he experienced his own displacement. He had come to the United States in 2010 from the Middle East to study at a Bible college in Ohio. But he had no intention of staying in the US long-term.
“The plan was to study here and then go back to help my father—a pastor—plant churches [back home].”
God had other plans.
In the infamous Arab Spring of 2011, Peter’s country went to war. Peter was required as a citizen to fight—but every time he attempted to submit his papers allowing him to return to his country, they were rejected.
He tried for three years. Eventually, the government blacklisted Peter with the threat of imprisonment if he ever attempts to go home.
Unable to return to his country after graduation, Peter reached out to a Middle Eastern-American pastor who was struggling to manage three new church plants in central Pennsylvania on his own.
Peter offered his services, helping to recruit and train more laborers to support the fledging churches.
During this time, the churches were working with the U.S. State Department and other local ministries to provide food, clothing, and other essentials to internationals—immigrants, refugees, and others who are seeking asylum or trying to establish themselves in a new country.
For many, “they’re completely starting over,” Peter said.
The profound loneliness of fleeing persecution in their homeland to seek refuge in a country, which then suspects them of trying to usurp its culture, can be unbearable, Peter said. “They say, ‘I am here running away from a war, looking for opportunities, and my own community is not welcoming me.’”
Peter’s ministry focuses on connecting these people with American churches and individuals—not only to help the international migrants, but also to encourage more churches to step out of their comfort zones.
“There aren’t a lot of people working with internationals, and those who are don’t always know how to most effectively minister to their needs,” Peter said.
Encouraging churches to intentionally reach out and connect with more internationals is a great starting point, he continued. From there, they can begin to build deeper relationships either through ministry, or by simply inviting their new guests to do life with them.
HEART, MIND AND SOUL
Recognizing the gap between desire and knowledge, ABWE created the Heart, Mind and Soul: Muslims seminar for North American churches.
The seminar helps participants understand the attitudes between Muslims and Christians (the heart), and explore shared truths (the mind) so that they can cultivate a relationship of love and humility (the soul) to open doors for gospel conversations.
“It’s all about grace-and-truth relationships,” said Doug Martin, who founded of the Heart, Mind Soul seminars.
ORIGINS OF HEART, MIND AND SOUL
As a youth pastor serving in Eastern Europe, Doug saw that the church wasn’t effective in reaching the variety of people groups around them.
“I joked about writing a book,” he said, “about churches reaching people groups who are geographically close, but culturally far away.”
Upon leaving the mission field to serve as ABWE’s Executive Director of North America, Doug started brainstorming—not a book, but a training to equip churches for more impactful ministry.
In 2013, the first Heart, Mind and Soul seminar was launched with a focus on teaching people how to engage in relational evangelism with those from a culture or mindset far different from their own.
“People have so many questions that it’s hard for them to respond to the gospel until they fully understand it,” Doug said. “And we’re often so focused on giving the entire gospel presentation that we’re not having gospel conversations, where we can dialogue and help them understand the message better.”
North American Christians especially have become so conditioned to present the gospel to unbelievers in a “one-and-done” manner, Doug said, that they have forgotten about the relational aspect of speaking truth into people’s lives.
Being relational, however, is exactly what the Christian community must focus on when reaching out to Muslims and other internationals—many of whom come from cultures centered around relationships and community, he explains.
“As those relationships mature and deepen, more opportunities to discuss deeper spiritual matters will surface. Questions will be asked—they will want clarity about certain aspects of the gospel that are hard to understand.”
WHAT CAN BELIEVERS DO?
So, what can a believer do? Both Peter and Doug agree on the first steps.
“Do not wait for them to come to you,” Peter said.
Jesus never waited for people to come to him, Doug said. “Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery—when everyone else avoided and condemned them, he went to them.”
“Donate household goods to them. Take them grocery shopping,” Peter suggests. “Talk to them—talking to them will help them learn English. Invite them to take part in your culture.”
Peter specifically recalled one couple who ministered to an international family by using Google translate to explain tasks like making doctor’s appointments. “What may seem like the simplest tasks to us may be much more difficult to a family who is here just starting out.”
That’s exactly what believers did for Peter when he found himself living alone in the US without his family.
“The believers [around me] adopted me and made me feel like I had a family here,” he said.
Having those “unofficial families” was huge in helping Peter adjust to his new home, and plays a vital role in helping families feel welcome in their new country.
In stepping out and intentionally reaching out to serve those who are from different cultures, churches can open the door for more gospel-centered conversations.
“When someone knows your heart, and that you genuinely care about them, then what you have to say about [their life or religion] is taken as an act of love, not criticism,” Doug said.
“Do not wait for them to come to you,” Peter urged again. “They are working hard to learn. Americans and believers should take the second step to reach out to them and bring them in.”
OVERCOMING OUR BARRIERS
Beyond reaching out to foreigners in our communities, other important ways to reach Muslims are to support those who are going to creative-access countries—and considering serving there yourself.
“We sometimes hear from North American Christians: ‘Why would you send people there? They are our enemies!’” said the ABWE Executive Director (name withheld) for the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA. “It is as if these people don’t deserve to hear the gospel.”
They believe this is mainly a result of the way U.S. media portrays the Middle East and focuses on only “the bad things.”
“It is a struggle to have family and friends freaking out and telling you to come home, when daily life can already be so challenging,” the director’s wife said. These struggles do not often look like violence or death threats—they can be as simple as living with the duplicity of integrity and protection.
The executive director’s wife recalls instances of teammates’ children standing in customs lines, confused by the question “Why are you here?”, turning back to mom and dad with a look that asks, “What do we say?” knowing that their purpose is “secret” but that they shouldn’t lie either.
Some teammates are very open about who they are and what they are doing, the executive director’s wife said, while others have gone as far as to use fake names on their application with ABWE. Once on the field, some serving in restricted-access locations will only meet in secret and will not even disclose the organization they serve with, because compromised information could mean serious physical persecution.
But with about 24 percent of the global population being Muslim, there is far greater reason to learn how to live and love these people—both abroad and at home.
“There are 35 cities with over 1 million Muslims that have no evangelical churches and no church planting teams in those locations,” the MENA executive director said. “I’ve heard it said that if every Christian shared the gospel with every unbeliever they knew, and all those people became Christians, there would still be 3 billion unreached people in the world.”
* Name withheld for security.