In January of 2013, our family moved to Houston. It was cool and rainy as we arranged our belongings in our rented town home. The four of us had never shared such tight living quarters. Our kitchen could comfortably only hold one of us at a time. The majority of our furniture was relegated to a friend’s storage unit. And our neighbors were very close.
Our town home row shared a driveway of sorts, and the cramped indoor space lent itself to us spending extended time outside. The driveway served as the defacto community commons, whether hosting a barbecue, a birthday party, or neighbors enjoying the evening breeze while chatting in lawn chairs.
Mohammed was one of my next door neighbors. I had never lived so close to a Muslim. He and his family were exceptionally kind. We enjoyed learning their culture, engaging them in conversation, and smelling their spicy Pakistani dishes through the thin town home walls. I asked questions about his faith, but I had little context for how to proceed in those discussions.
In April 2013, just months after we moved to Houston, the Kinder Institute at Rice University released a study declaring Houston to be the nation’s most ethnically diverse city. I was raised in a small Texas town. There were—generally speaking—three races in that town, and Anglos were the clear majority. And there were—generally speaking—two languages spoken in that town, English being the clear majority. Our family had spent ten years serving a church in rural East Texas with a very similar demographic makeup.
I had come to Houston to pastor a predominantly Anglo congregation, but I was met with an arsenal of stark facts. I had never lived in a multiethnic city. Our church’s demographics looked nothing like those of our community. I had no idea what to do about it.
But I knew I had to learn.
Four and a half years later, I found myself at an iftar—the evening meal during the Muslim month of fasting known as Ramadan— in a local mosque. The mosque sits near our church’s campus, and our congregation were the guests of honor. Forty or so of us received the invitation, were given a tour of the mosque, listened to a presentation on the meaning of Ramadan, watched as the local Muslim community gathered to pray, and then shared a meal with them.
Afterwards, in the car, my wife made an astute observation: “They are exceptionally fervent.”
Make no mistake. Neither the local imam, nor myself, believes our faiths teach the same thing. We both hold firm convictions that the other (along with their faith communities) are destined for an eternal reckoning.
Yet, I know that Jesus commanded me to love my neighbors. And these Muslims are some of my neighbors. I want them to know the life-giving message of the gospel and they cannot know that message unless they know a Christian. And—as best I could tell—no other Christians were willing to cross that cultural barrier. So, I chose to do so. My church chose to join me in that journey. We see our loving our Muslim neighbors as our best bet to do what Jesus hoped we would do.
Will any of my Muslim neighbors ever choose to follow Jesus? I do not know. Should that stop me from continuing to build relationships and model Jesus for them? I do not think that is what Jesus taught. So, we are choosing to enter the uncomfortable spaces of awkward relationships as a church.
This is ministry in the most diverse city in the United States. The Creator of the universe spanned an unfathomable gulf through the gift of grace. He crossed space and time to become flesh in the person of Jesus. His Word tells us that we can now love because he first loved us. This exhortation from 1 John 4:19 reminds me that God’s desire to extend grace to humanity required him to enter a space that was not receptive to his presence. Once Jesus arrived, he was often criticized for his quick willingness to talk to members of other religious backgrounds (Samaritans), those with questionable patterns of behavior (tax collectors and the like), and members of the opposite sex.
Grace, as it presents itself in the Incarnation, is love intentionally crossing barriers.
The night after the iftar, our church joined Crossover Bible Fellowship for a night of worship. Crossover is a predominantly black church just a few minutes from our church’s campus. In my early days of striving to learn how to minister in an ethnically diverse city, I met Pastor Blake Wilson of Crossover after being introduced by Pastor Skeet Alderson of Tomball Bible Church.
Blake has fielded my often-awkward questions regarding race and ethnicity, because he values the movement of the Kingdom higher than anything. He has helped me understand dynamics at play within the African-American church, and he has taught me how to make our church more open to individuals who are not Anglo. (Sidenote: Our church’s non-Anglo population has exploded in the last four years and continues to increase.)
As our friendship deepened, Blake and I decided that our church needed to do more events together, so we have been enjoying a Night of Worship together regularly for the last two years. We have held joint congregation meals, preached in one another’s pulpits, held a joint elder meeting, and we have done ministry together. My friendship with Blake has been a tremendous blessing since arriving in Houston.
During our most recent Night of Worship, our church visited Crossover. We had a joint choir of sixty or so voices, incredible music, and the people of Crossover treated us to artistic expressions of worship we had never seen. Their praise dance troupe and their pantomime ministries left many of my church members both clamoring for more and wondering how we could do something similar in our own congregation.
At the conclusion of our worship, we sang a rendition of the twenty-third Psalm I had never heard. It had a tricky syncopated rhythm that took some time to master, but its crescendoed climax had both congregations literally shouting, “Surely I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!” at the top of their lungs in glorious repetition until it felt like we might all lose our voices. In the midst of that sweet, sweaty moment, I looked around the auditorium. I saw faces—African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Anglo, Arab—singing Scripture in unison with abandoned exuberance, and I sensed I was witnessing a preview of Heaven.
Our God saw fit for the gospel to be preached to all nations throughout the book of Acts. No national or racial barrier could stop the flow of the river of the gospel as it flowed from the headwaters of the apostles’ teaching. Nor can it be stopped today.
The grace of Scripture unifies all peoples under the banner of King Jesus.
One day I had lunch with one of my Muslim friends from the mosque. I asked him, “Can you know for sure that you will enter Heaven upon your death?”
“Oh no,” he said. “Even the prophet Mohammed himself—peace be upon him—said on his deathbed that he did not know if he had done enough to deserve entry into Paradise.”
I listened quietly, looking out of the windshield as he drove me back to the church office.
“What about you?” he asked. “Can you know?”
I took a deep breath and began to speak.
“Yes. The Bible says that, ‘but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ [John 20:31], and one of Jesus’ followers, Paul, said, ‘if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ [Romans 10:9] In short, we believe that we could never do enough to please God, but instead God did everything necessary for us to spend eternity with Him—this is why Jesus came.”
My friend was shocked at my reply and at my following explanation of the gospel. It did not make sense to him. He—along with many other religious individuals—has always believed that his eternal destination depends upon his earthly effort.
But it is grace—the glorious truth that our salvation is the gift given freely through Jesus apart from our merit and effort—that sets the church apart. All religions believe in earthly effort—all except Christianity. It is this news, this blissfully good news, that causes me to cross barriers—of both religion and race.
I want my church to drink deep from the river of grace, and so we strive to become more like the church described in the New Testament.
I want my neighbors to discover this flowing river of grace, so I do all in my power to speak it clearly.
I want to be known—like my Muslim neighbors—for my fervency.
However, I want to be known for my fervency for grace.
May it be so.