Guy Gray, from Oregon, USA, took a guided reading course at the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies in 2014. Here, he describes the impact of his time at CMCS on his Oregon community.
I was searching online for a way to study Islam during a time of Sabbatical leave from my pastoral ministry when I found the CMCS website. I was drawn to the “guided reading” aspect of the study program as I knew I needed a little guidance to dive into a study of Islam, of which I had a very limited understanding.
I had never heard of the Centre, but I liked what they had to say on their website, so I took a chance. I’m so glad I did!
Richard McCallum was my main reading advisor for the guided reading. He started with a set books that was perfect:
- A New Introduction to Islam, by Daniel Brown. A brilliant overview by a non-Muslim scholar.
- Islam: Beliefs and Teachings, by Ghulam Sarwar. A text book for school Muslim school children written by and for Muslims.
- Milestones, by Sayyid Qutb. A more radical voice.
The texts generated many questions and much discussion. In the following weeks, I studied key passages in the Qur'an and the Hadith; essential aspects of Islamic theology; its development in history; various expressions of Islamic faith and practice; and approaches to building relationships and sharing the Gospel with Muslim neighbours.
During my time of study, I met with each of the resident scholars at the CMCS. Their expertise, patience, and enthusiasm were a tremendous encouragement and motivation. These times allowed further dialogue and reading recommendations. These interactions were invaluable to me.
Two things stand out from the experience. Firstly, Richard was very kind to take me to the local mosque for an Iftar meal. He introduced me to the Imam and I was able to spend some time in conversation with him. This was a very important experience for me at the time.
Secondly, my conversations with Ida Glaser had a tremendous impact on me. Ida pushed me to go beyond my academic interest in Islam – to see the people. She challenged me to think as a Christ follower. I will never forget her words: “The most important question you can ask as a Christian is not, ‘what does God think about Islam?’ but rather, ‘what am I called to do right now as a Christ follower, with regard to my Muslim neighbours?’” She told me stories about her Muslim friends. She brought to life the many difficulties they face in Western settings. This had a major impact on me. It was the perfect counterpoint to my quest for intellectual understanding of Islam.
When I came to study at CMCS, ISIS was beginning to take territory in Syria. So many atrocities accompanied their reign of terror. That added a layer of intensity to my thought. During that time, Christians heard daily news that put Islam in the most negative light. In my own country and my own congregation, emotions were running high. The controversy about Islam was escalating. I was so thankful for the opportunity to learn more about Islam at that time.
In my study, I had to discipline myself. I wanted to push past the headlines and the emotions, to come to a more informed understanding of Islam. I needed to place the current events in a larger context -- to move past the rhetoric. My study at CMCS was exactly what I needed. Through the guided study I built a framework for my understanding.
I was also given a vocabulary to help me communicate with others in helpful ways. This was empowering for me. When I returned to my church, I had a confidence to speak to my congregation. I had a basic grasp on Islam and current events that I did not have before coming the CMCS.
When I returned to my church, I held a public meeting. I told the congregation I would share with them what I had learned about Islam and specifically what I had learned about ISIS. I asked them to invite their friends. About 300 people showed up for the meeting. The mention of ISIS is, no doubt, what created the stir. This was intentional. I had one aim in the meeting – and it wasn’t to talk about ISIS. I explained that I’m certainly no expert on Islam, but as a Christian pastor, I have something important to say to the Christian community. As followers of Christ, we need a biblical framework for our thinking, not just about Islam or ISIS, but about our Muslim neighbours.
I told them what I learned at the CMCS. “Islam is a religion; Islamism is an ideology; and a Muslim is a human being, made in the image of God just like you and me.” I went on to give a brief overview of the different expressions of Islam. Many Christians have no idea of how to separate Islamism – especially militant Islamism – from the larger community of Islam. This short presentation was helpful. But then I told them the real reason for the meeting – and I told them what Ida told me. There is one question that matters most. It's not, "what does God think of Islam?" It's not, "what do I think of Islam?" Here is the most important question we can ask. “What does God call me to do as a follower of Christ with regard to our Muslim neighbors right here, right now, in our own city?”
That was an important moment in our church. It was the first step in a larger strategy. I followed up by asking people to sign up for a “book club” with me. 100 people signed up to read: Nabeel Qureshi, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. We followed up with two meetings with these 100 people to discuss the book. As a result of those meetings, 30 people became a part of the core group for our ministry to our Muslim neighbors. These people formed the core for our partnership with the two ministries I describe below.
I immediately connected with a local couple doing ministry with Iraqi Muslim refugees. I began meeting together to see how our church could partner with them. We became sponsors of their work. Their ministry has now developed into a resource center – “The Friends of Refugees”. Volunteers from our church now work with them, to come alongside Muslim families. Building friendships is key. Services include: ESL, job training, networking and other kinds of personal and family support.
We also partnered with another local church to begin a ministry called “The Refugee Care Collective.” At this centre, we house six kinds of "refugee starter kits" which have been a huge help to refugee families. Through the Care Collective church members get involved at various levels:
- They can fill a box and bring it to the centre.
- They can work in the centre.
- They can build an on-going relationship with a refugee family, sharing meals and other activities.
These initiatives have not been without controversy. The current political climate in the U.S. is filled with conflict and suspicion around refugees in general and Muslims in particular. My time at the CMCS helped jump start our process of involvement in important ways.
Our goal has been to motivate and empower Christians to take action. Refugee ministry is something people can understand and get involved in, in simple material ways. But this is also a gateway to relationship building. It is a starting place. Our goal is to make people more aware. We want to see and connect with all our Muslim neighbours living in our midst, not just those who are refugees.