Jenkins Center takes gospel to Muslims in Dearborn

Communications Staff — March 16, 2017

Southern Seminary students visited Dearborn, Michigan, home of the largest concentration of Arab-Americans in the United States, to pray for and evangelize local Muslims, Feb. 24-26. Led by Ayman S. Ibrahim — Bill and Connie Jenkins Professor of Islamic Studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam — the team interacted with a few of the more than 100,000 Arab Americans who comprise at least 45 percent of Dearborn’s population.

Josh Hildebrand, center, reads from the Gospel of John with two Arab-American men, right, at a local bakery in Dearborn, Michigan.
M.Div. student Josh Hildebrand, center, reads from the Gospel of John with two Arab-American men, right, at a local bakery in Dearborn, Michigan.

The 13 students from Southern and Boyce College visited local Arab bakeries and restaurants, starting conversations with Muslims and discussing the Christian faith. The team also visited the Islamic Center of America, which was one of the largest mosques in the United States when it was built in 2005. Several students received the contact information for Dearborn residents they met during the trip with the intention to have follow-up conversations about the gospel.

“Evangelism is not impossible, beginning a conversation with Muslims is not impossible, and people are ready to listen,” said Ibrahim, regarding lessons the students learned from the trip. “It’s completely worth it when you see you’re opening eyes and changing minds.”

The team not only saw the religion of Islam close-up when they visited the mosque, but also spoke with practicing Muslims face-to-face, applying in real-time what many of them have learned in class with Ibrahim.

“To me, it’s really encouraging to have learned things in class about Islam and use that [in conversation],” said Josh Hildebrand, an M.Div. student in Islamic Studies who has studied Arabic at Southern. “Having the class definitely made me feel a lot more credible and a lot more respected.”

The trip gave students a more balanced perspective on Muslims, said Ashley Ulrich, a 2013 graduate of Southern Seminary with an M.A. in Education. Most Muslims know very little about Christianity and likely have never talked at length with a Christian. American Christians should not equate all Muslims with ISIS or other terrorist extremists, she said, but recognize them as fellow humans created in God’s image and in need of the gospel.

“Muslims are just people. We build relationships with them in the same exact way that we build relationships with anybody. You find out the superficial stuff first and then you go a little bit deeper,” Ulrich said. “That’s how I get to know every other nationality of people, why would I treat them any differently just because they come from a different religious context?”

Evangelizing Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan, gave many students the confidence to evangelize them anywhere in the world, said Lenny Hartono, who is pursuing her M.A. in biblical counseling at Southern. Hartono is from Indonesia, which has the largest number of Muslims by raw population of any country in the world, according to the Pew Research Center.

“From this trip, I feel the Lord has equipped me to be a better evangelist when I go back to my country,” Hartono said, saying she thought the originally Middle Eastern Muslims that populate the Dearborn area would be much harder to connect with than her fellow Indonesians. “I thought the Muslims from the Middle East would be violent, not as open, scared of Christians, and hate Christians. But they’re so open! My own people — whom I know so well — will be even more open. After this trip, I will be able to be more courageous to share with my own people.

The interactions in Dearborn required patience, Hartono said, since the students’ primary goal was to challenge Muslims to think about Christianity differently and begin to build relationships. She found that, contrary to how most Westerners perceive Middle Eastern Muslims, they were welcoming, friendly, and open to having deep conversations about religion. The trip has given Hartono more confidence to evangelize all non-Christians, not only Muslims, she said.

“This trip was a good springboard. Muslims are the people in my head that are the most difficult, the most resistant, the most unwelcoming,” Hartono said. “So if the people I thought would be resistant are actually open, this can give me confidence that the Lord can use this to equip me to evangelize anybody he wants me to share the good news with.”

The trip also underscored the importance of prayer in evangelism, said Ulrich. While visiting a restaurant, a member of Ulrich’s team reminded her she needed to pray for each conversation as it took place. She found herself praying for three different conversations going on simultaneously, even forgetting to eat her own dinner. Prayer is necessary in evangelism before, during, and after a conversation, and the necessity of praying during evangelism became clear to Ulrich during the trip.

“I’ve never thought about [prayer] that way before,” she said. “The reality is the Holy Spirit is going to do what he’s going to do regardless of whether I intercede or not. I don’t believe that he’s going to not work because I’m not faithful. But the fact that God allows me to be a part of that because of his love and he invites us into relationship with him … that’s kind of a big deal.”

The Jenkins Center exists to establish a scholarly Christian understanding of the many strands of Islam, and sponsored the trip. More information about the Jenkins Center is available at jenkins.sbts.edu.

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