Increasing numbers of Muslim refugees are converting to Christianity. Katie Stock examines why it’s happening and what it means for churches in the UK
Deborah-Ruth Ferber explains what happened when she made friends with Karima
Upon becoming the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump quickly announced he would be banning immigration from several Muslim-majority nations. For many people, this so-called ‘anti-terrorist measure’ looks like Islamophobia under the guise of ensuring the safety of American citizens. The President’s attitude is identical to many in North America who suffer from a skewed view of Islam, because of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Many of us in the West watch terrorist atrocities on our television screens but don’t interact with Muslims, much less make friends with them. We end up with a skewed picture of an entire religion. It’s very difficult to understand the complexities of Islam if you don’t get to know any Muslims personally. It is too easy to give into media pressure and lazy stereotypes when you don’t have a face-to-face connection with a real person. I could have easily fallen into this trap myself, were it not for my Muslim friend.
How we met
The clock struck midnight at the group home where I was a live-in caregiver, and believe it or not, I was down in the basement doing my nightly prayers. Of all the things I could be asking the Almighty for, I was praying to make a new friend – and I had a very specific idea in my mind of what that friend would be like. I wanted someone I could talk to about deep matters. Casual coffee buddies are great, but I was after profound intellectual discussion. As I was praying, I heard some rattling around upstairs. A relief support worker was filling in because one of our clients wasn’t feeling well. I was curious – who was this person? I quickly said “amen” and ran upstairs. Standing right in front of me was a tan-skinned Indian woman with a bright smile. Instantly I recognised her from a few months back when we’d been paired up at a staff retreat and had got on well. But we hadn’t seen each other since. “Oh hey, Deborah!” Karima said as we made the obligatory small talk, before she jumped in with questions about my religious affiliation. I unashamedly told her I was a Christian and studying to be a minister. At this, Karima’s eyes lit up. “Oh, wow! I would totally come to your church and hear a sermon if you were ever preaching one!” I felt honoured, but realised I hardly knew anything about this young woman who was paying me such high compliments.
“And what about you?” I asked. “Do you attend a worship service anywhere?”
“Actually, I’m a Muslim,” she responded cheerfully. “And yes, I go to the mosque and participate in a Muslim youth choir.”
I glanced at her, trying to mask my curiosity. Didn’t all Muslim women wear the hijab?
I was at a loss of what to say, but I finally responded: “Oh wow. I’ve never had much of a discussion with a Muslim before.”
“Don’t worry,” she replied. “I also don’t know many people studying to be pastors!”
Sometimes our best conversations happen with those who are profoundly different
We sat ourselves down in front of a large bowl of ice cream (which we later discovered was our shared guilty pleasure) and indulged while talking about the weather, politics and our favourite sports teams.
A few days later, Karima was back at our house again and we continued to chat. For many people, religion is a difficult topic to discuss. 55 But not for us! As the days went on, religion kept resurfacing in our conversations. When some of the other staff members and I formed a Bible study group, Karima surprised us by asking to join. I was shocked. I thought only Christians joined groups like ours but Karima came regularly, engaged in the scriptures, asked questions, and wrestled with the texts. Finally, she boldly announced, “You know, this group is great, but what would make it even more exciting would be to have a Holy Book study.” This spawned a whole host of other questions concerning our shared characters of Adam, Moses, Noah, Jesus, and Mary and their role in both the Quran and the Bible.
Our unspoken agreement
When my co-worker and I were talking about how I’d been asked to preach at a local church, Karima again surprised me: “I’m definitely coming!” True to her word, she showed up and told me how much she enjoyed it.
As our friendship has grown over the years, so has our faith. One of the biggest blessings to me is that we both went into the friendship with an unspoken agreement that we were not out to convert the other person. At first, this caused some tension. The Christian faith is about evangelising and making disciples. It’s about convincing others of their need to follow a saviour and proving that Jesus is the only one who can fit that title. But as the weeks progressed, I began to see it as so much more than this. As I began to wrestle with my own questions, fears and doubts, I would bring them to Karima. In turn, she would bring me hers. We’d talk about all the wonderful things we love in our respective religions, and the things that cause division and hurt. We’d talk about how our faiths have potential to do so much good, and yet how unfortunately some people take it to the extreme so it doesn’t portray the real love and service that are at the heart of what we believe.
I’ve always loved that I can be myself with Karima. Whenever we’re together we have a shared understanding that although we’re so different, our friendship has a firm foundation of trust and mutual respect.
But it hasn’t always been easy. In every religion there are touchy subjects and massive differences of opinion. It can be hard to explain to someone who doesn’t share your core convictions what you believe and why. It can be confusing to navigate a cross-cultural and cross-religious experience and I have had to learn, sometimes slowly and painfully, not to make any assumptions. For example, I was puzzled when Karima told me she loved Christmas. Nevertheless, we got into my car, drove two hours outside the city, and went to a Christmas party at a Christian camp. They were serving ham, so I discreetly asked my friend if there was an alternative, and without any hesitation she produced a plate of chicken. That was one problem solved – but I was worried about the message, which was highly evangelical. I was sitting on my hands thinking, “Oh man, what did I get myself into? What will she make of this?” I wanted Karima to feel safe and valued with me. I didn’t want her to think I’d dragged her to this camp in an attempt to convert her.
We sang some songs, the service ended, and we got back in my car and drove home. “So that was a very nice evening,” Karima concluded before I even had the courage to open my mouth and ask her about it. “I loved how that young girl shared about her faith. That was really touching.”
I was waiting for the “but”. It never came. Instead Karima said, “You know, this evening has made me quite curious. I now want to read the Quran and find out what exactly Muslims believe about Jesus.” That was over two years ago. We haven’t talked much about that Christmas party since, but we most certainly have talked about who Jesus is, what he is about, why he came to earth and why he had to die.
Learning to be a better Christian
Having a Muslim friend has taught me so much. It’s taught me to appreciate the beauty in the vast diversity we see in Western culture. It’s taught me not to stereotype, and it’s ultimately taught me that we have more similarities than differences. Being with someone of a different religion in such a closeknit friendship has enabled me to see the world around me and my own faith in a fresh, new way. It’s helped me articulate more of what I believe and ultimately enabled me to be a better Christian. When I first met Karima, I assumed that someone of a different religion didn’t care about mine, but I’ve learned that’s not the case – sometimes our best conversations happen with those who are profoundly different to us.
I still believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Today, as a children’s pastor, I teach my kids to tell all their friends about God’s love. Having a Muslim friend does not make me feel any differently about reaching the world for God’s glory, but it has changed my approach to how I go about doing this. Whereas previously I may have preached the stereotypical Southern Baptist fireand-brimstone message, I now seek to share my faith through my actions as well as my words. I want my lifestyle to reflect a gospel of peace and love, and nowhere do I feel more energised doing this than when I am sitting on the back porch with a can of soda in hand, talking to a close Muslim friend. For me, the gospel no longer embodies a rigid, straight-cut way to live, but rather an all-encompassing ideal that accepts everyone just the way God made them.
I still believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation
I pray for Karima daily. I hope that she accomplishes all that she sets out to do. I hope that her life will also be a witness to many about the transformation inner peace and assurance can bring to one’s soul. I hope she never loses her curiosity or gets lost in her quest to question religion and what makes it so valuable for so many. But I also have learned to live in this dance – this inclusive embrace where friendship is more valued than simply being right.
Three years ago I made a very close non-Christian friend. A beautiful Muslim woman, deeply spiritual, and full of compassion for others. We’ve since spent our days eating snacks, discussing our religions and debating some of the intense happenings in our world. Even though most of my other friends were Christians, there was something special and unique about this young woman. Her vigour and passion for life, topped with her desire to love and serve others, instantly directed me to some of the deepest longings of her heart. This woman has a name and she has a title. Her name is Karima and I am honoured to call her my best friend.
Deborah-Ruth Ferbe is a graduate of Tyndale Theological Seminary in Toronto, Canada. Having recently returned to her native Canada after a year in Scotland, Deborah is in love with the idea of being a student forever and a life-long explorer and traveller.