LHF recently spoke with Rev. M.*, missionary-at-large for the Texas District who is called to reach out to Arabic-speaking people with the Good News of Jesus Christ. LHF will soon publish the Arabic edition of Luther’s Small Catechism, a resource Rev. M eagerly anticipates for his ministry.
LHF: If you were to poll your average American sitting in the pew on a Sunday, many would say there’s no real hope for sharing the Gospel with Muslims and would consider it a near-impossible task. How would you reply?
Rev. M.: Yes, you are right. There are many Americans who say, “I didn’t even know that Muslims could become Christian!” But why do we put that restriction on the Gospel?
Paul was the notorious Osama Bin Laden of the New Testament. He bragged about pulling children and mothers out of their homes, putting them before the Sanhedrin. But God can transform!
LHF: Have you seen examples of this kind of transformation in your churches?
Rev. M.: There was a woman who came to our church with her 7-year-old child, looking for work and food. After I got to know her, I introduced her to a member in our church, and they adopted her child to come to our Lutheran school here in Dallas. He is now on his third year.
His family has changed, just by opening the door for that kid to go to school! Now he’s coming home to his mom, saying, “Mom, have you heard about David and Goliath? What about Jonah?” This kid is ministering to his mom! She has been coming around and changing.
Then she started to come to Bible study. For 2 years, she came, and people would ask, “Why isn’t Susanna baptized yet?” But I had catechized her in the faith, in Arabic, and knew that she loves to hear God’s Word. Why wasn’t she baptized? Because, especially as a single mother, she’s afraid that her family and community will persecute her.
But then one day she was in a Bible class that the pastor of that church was leading. The pastor was talking about the book of John and said, “You know, the Bible in this verse is telling about how we become Christians, and how God changes our lives. What do you think God is saying in this verse?” Susanna raised her hand and said, “God changes people’s hearts by His Word, and the Holy Spirit works through the Word.”
Everybody in that class looked at her – Susanna never speaks! But now she spoke by the authority of the Holy Spirit about this faith that was in her through the Word. All the women came to me and said, “Oh, Pastor, you should have been in Bible study today! Susanna told how the Holy Spirit changed her.” I knew that, it was just a matter of time before others would hear it.
LHF: Do converts fear persecution, even here in America?
Rev. M.: Yes. They think, “Where will I go? All the people I know, these are my friends and my family.” They are new to this country, and they risk having to leave behind their community.
I must ask, what DOES happen when these people are embracing the Christian faith? Where do they go? Is the church willing to take them? Do we have a program where they can come and fill the places of the family?
I brought some Arabic friends to church one Sunday. I don’t think anyone spoke to them. It was a heart-breaking experience. I wanted my friends to come see my family – my Lutheran church – but people just walked by talking to each other, because these people looked different.
But there are some good, passionate friends who support our ministry. Our church is being awakened to a lot of things that God is doing. Lutherans are the closest to the Scripture of any of our Christians. WE have a great heritage!
We have such a beautiful doctrine, we are so confident about our faith. We have good books, good ways of teaching the faith and helping our children. But yet, we’re not excited about it. We’re not zealous about telling the world how sweet the Gospel is, and how our salvation has nothing to do with us, but it is all the work of God in Christ Jesus. When we open our mouths to speak, people run to Christ! We must trust the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and let God do what He does best and get out of his way sometimes.
LHF: You have unique insight into the journey from Islam to Lutheranism.
Rev. M.: I was born to a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. I was raised Muslim and was baptized when I was 26.
LHF: Pardon my bluntness, but how does that happen?
Rev. M.: I had always been very interested in theology, in studying the faith. I was asking questions about my religion that I just couldn’t find in Islam. There was no assurance of salvation in Islam, in the Quran. The term “love” was literally absent in the Quran.
LHF: So how do Muslims believe they are saved?
Rev. M.: As far as salvation, as a Muslim, I was born and raised to believe that man is not born a sinner; we are born good. We sin and make mistakes, but as long as we continue steadfast in our faith, and we pray and fast, our salvation is by works.
But then I went to a Bible group that friends invited me to. I read Ephesians: “By grace you have been saved, by faith, not by works…” That’s all I’ve done all my life! But yet, I’ve never experienced that peace that comes through faith in Christ Jesus. I read Scriptures, because I wanted to find fault in it.
As I read Scripture, I realized from Genesis that death came to us became sin. Jesus died for me, so that I would not have to die. I studied the doctrine of the crucifixion and asked questions. Then I was told to go to a confirmation class, and I loved it! A lot of my questions were answered, even though my curiosity got even stronger. I continued to study the Small Catechism whenever I had questions. I needed to know more about those verses. The catechism explained them, and the Holy Spirit worked through His Word. I was satisfied!
LHF: How did your family react when you converted?
Rev. M.: Persecution comes in different forms when Muslims convert to Christianity. For example, in my family, I have 6 brothers and 3 sisters, spread all over the world. My father passed about two years after my baptism, and my mother wasn’t too concerned, because like I said, she was born of a Jewish family when my father married her. But when I became Christian and began to share the Gospel with other Muslims, my brother, who lives closer to me, warned my brothers and parents against me. For three or four years, I wasn’t able to speak to them. And now, being a minister of the Gospel to the Muslim people, I cannot go back to my homeland of Morocco, or they will persecute me.
To me, that’s the worst challenge faced as a persecuted Christian. I miss my family home; I miss my other brothers and sisters, my nieces, but if I ever go back, I think they will get rid of me. That’s the just the cost of discipleship. Some are immediate, some are very quiet and discreet.
I tell Muslims that there are going to be challenges and life will be different, but there is a sense of security and rest in Christ that they will never find anywhere else. We do have an obligation to share the Gospel with our Muslim neighbors, and we have to be very honest with them and tell them that Christianity is not what some people make it to be: all our problems won’t be solved, might not be prosperous and great. Persecution makes the church strong, and it strengthens our faith in Christ Jesus.
LHF: So how do you go about reaching out to Muslims in your area?
Rev. M.: I’m part of a ministry called Disciples of the Way, headquartered in Dallas. Our ministry reaches out to north Texas. We’ve learned that almost 50,000 refugees have settled a mile and half from our church, and about 28,000 of them speak Arabic. My goodness, it’s like a Mecca!
So, we started an ESL (English as a second language) programs and 4-5 other programs to reach out to them. Our latest ministry that’s been just doing very well is the Women of the Way’s sewing program, called “Sewing the Seeds of Faith.” We just invited women to come to learn how to sew. The machines have been donated, and we have lots of free material that the churches donated.
Then, we developed a good problem: We ran out of space. So we decided to go into their community to rent apartments where they live and run the ministry from there.
Muslims do not want to associate themselves with a church if they can help it, because in the church there are a lot of icons and crosses and things that offend them and their Muslim faith. They don’t believe in Trinity or in the cross, so they’d rather not go there. But in their homes, it’s more neutral. It’s just a building. There, you can do a lot of work without forcing Christianity. You’re building relationships.
Then they ask, “Why are you doing this? Why do you come here? Why do you live here and rent these apartments?” So three or four days per week we hold Bible studies, invite people to bring their food, and do devotions.
LHF: What about the Christian faith appeals to them?
Rev. M.: Muslim and Jewish worship is about giving, about doing. People bring things to God; they bring their good works.
Going to a Lutheran church, it amazes me how much God gives! First we are reminded of baptism, where we became His children and enter the kingdom of Christ through baptism. Then comes the Confession and Absolution, where our sins are forgiven. There are no strings attached! It’s giving to us, through Christ.
For Muslims to hear that your sins are forgiven on behalf of Christ, it’s out of this world. “No, no – really?! How can God do that?” they ask. There’s a lot of good stuff we receive in our Lutheran worship that these people like to hear. God comes to us in His Word and the Sacraments, His body and blood. And He continues to do that! We don’t have to worry that salvation only happened 2,000 years ago when Jesus died on the cross. This is as good as it gets!
LHF: So how can Luther’s Small Catechism in the Arabic language help you in your ministry?
Rev. M.: The catechism is my favorite book, next to the Bible. That’s how I studied the faith, when I was a Muslim. That’s how I wanted to study Scripture even more. I read the Bible and there are things I don’t understand. And I’m not always able to call my pastor and say, “Hey, I’ve got a question.”
But the catechism has all the verses I needed to understand with explanation, when I’m by myself. It’s a very simple book. The basics are all there: the 10 commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the creed, the power of the keys – they’re the pillars of the faith! And it’s not just for the sake of memory work. It’s doing what it says in Deuteronomy 6: “Put them in their hearts, engrave them…” Repeat it, sing it – it stays!
LHF: How have you seen the catechism work in the lives of others?
Rev. M.: Before LHF began the project to publish the Arabic Small Catechism, I needed teaching materials for my ministry. I found a man who helped me to translate a book called The Book of Life, which is a theological book based on the catechism. This took us two years.
This man who did it has a master’s degree and is a Muslim scholar, a professor of theology who was himself Syrian Orthodox. A very knowledgeable man. Throughout our studies, he asked for more books to help figure out how to translate difficult concepts. So I sent him Walther’s Law and Gospel and the Book of Concord.
When he finished translating The Book of Life, he became a Lutheran pastor! So now he is the pastor of our first Arabic Lutheran congregation here in Texas.
LHF: There’s a lot of power in that little book!
Rev. M.: Of the catechism, Luther said to give it to the parents. We use catechisms to teach the faith to our children, which is first the parents’ responsibility. Make sure they know who they are in Christ Jesus.
But we are also given the command in the Great Commission, when Jesus says to go and make disciples of all nations, TEACHING them. Faith comes by hearing and by teaching, and we tell people that God is merciful, sent His one and only Son to die. But how did God do that?
That’s what the catechism teaches – what does this mean? The catechism brings about the beautiful question of why am I saved, how am I saved? How does God do that?
LHF: Can the catechism be particularly useful when witnessing to Muslims?
Rev. M.: You ask a Muslim, “Do you love God with all your heart and soul?” He says, “Of course I do!”
“Do you love your neighbor?”
“Well, I do my best.”
“Have you lied to your parents, to your spouse, to your children?”
Use the catechism – use the Law to cut their hearts and realize they’re not as good as they think they are! We are all slaves to sin. The Ten Commandments open the door to Christ – not given for us to master, but to convict us of our sin and point us to the One who did it for us.
We want to be sanctified in the likeness of Christ, but I don’t know how I can do that on my own. I tried that as a Muslim – fasting, praying five times a day, being kind . . . but always there was something missing inside.
Why does Islam ask me to only pray five times per day? Maybe I should do it seven times. Maybe ten? Shouldn’t I maybe get up at 6 a.m. instead of 7 a.m., and I did! You work and work, because you want to be sure, but there is no peace in Islam. In His Word and in the Small Catechism, we see God work salvation and breathe His peace.
*name omitted to protect the individual and ministry