Redemption Church (Gilbert, AZ)

Ten years ago I began engaging in intercultural relationships with people of different backgrounds and ethnicities. I attended seminary with intercultural studies as a focus. During that time I planned to move to Morocco to be a traditional missionary. I moved to Phoenix, AZ with my wife in 2010 to follow that vision. However, in that time I realized that the traditional approach that most mission agencies follow was not honest or wise for the 21st century Christian. So, I stepped back from that vision and since that time have been working with multi-faith communities here in Phoenix and around the world for the past five years.

A Peaceful Presence

A first-hand account from the pastor who helped organize the Love Your Neighbor Rally at the Phoenix Mosque last week.

As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed last Thursday, I saw a few articles that greatly discouraged me. They described a group of armed bikers who were planning to protest the Islamic Cultural Center of Phoenix by having a “Draw Mohammed” contest, burning Qurans, and yelling inflammatory things at the members of Muslim community as they entered for prayer.

They claimed this was in response to the shooting in Garland, Texas, in which two Muslim men opened fire at a “Draw Mohammed” cartoon contest. Those two men were shot and killed by police officers, but one security guard was injured by the shooters. The cartoon contest was incredibly disrespectful, and the violent response by those two men was unspeakably destructive. Those two self-proclaimed supporters of ISIS put many people in harm’s way, including the many peaceful Muslims in America who would have to deal with the backlash.

I posted one of the articles about this upcoming rally on Facebook. Then I closed my computer to pray. I was not praying bold prayers of faith, but wimpy prayers of a disheartened disciple. I had a sense that Jesus’ name was about get dragged through the mud (even though the protest was organized by atheists) and that violence was imminent.

I was especially concerned because I have friends who attend that mosque, and I didn’t want them to be harmed. I also imagined how horrible it would be if someone surrounded our church with guns, ripped up Bibles, and slandered Jesus. The thought was awful. I felt a sense of helplessness.

After logging back on to Facebook, I saw that several women from my church, Redemption Tempe, had commented and suggested that we do something to tangibly love our Muslim neighbors. This prompted me to reach out to Adam Estle, the Executive Director of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, and to our mutual friend, Usama Shami, the president of the ICCP mosque. Adam called Usama to ask if there was anything we could do. The three of us had dinner together the night before the protest, and Usama communicated that he welcomed our presence at the mosque during the protest as a presence of peace.

With only about 24 hours notice, Adam and I invited followers of Christ from around the city to join us at the mosque, not to protest, but to be a prayerful presence in a place of hostility. We called this the Love Your Neighbor Rally in contrast to the name of the protest, which was called the “Freedom of Speech Rally II.”

I would never protest the precious freedom of speech that we have in this country. Rather, we wanted to utilize it to say something better, to speak the words of Christ, which call us to love our neighbor, and to use our freedoms to that end.

Honestly, I didn’t expect many people to show up, maybe a few handfuls of people. However, as hours passed, tons of people from many different churches indicated that they would be there. I was skeptical that people would actually show up, mainly because of the violent images that were being displayed on TV, ISIS was apparently tweeting that there would be bloodshed, businesses in the area were closing down, and many organizations warned people to stay away from the scene.

A Strategy of Presence, Not Protest

We didn’t go to protest, or even “counter-protest,” as media reports suggested. Our aim was to create a physical barrier of protection with our bodies, and a spiritual wall of protection through our prayers. We committed to being a calming, quiet, friendly, peaceful and prayerful presence. We wanted our response to be marked with the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Based on the suggestion of Usama, our strategy was to arrive early so that we could fill the sidewalk in front of the mosque, thus forcing the hostile protesters to the other side of the street. Also, our bodies became a physical barrier of protection between the masked men with guns (a lot of guns) and our Muslim friends.

We didn’t organize the Love Your Neighbor Rally with heroic moxie, but with uncertain and nervous prayers for protection. There was a lot of fear, but somehow there was a greater measure of love, which casts out fear. Therefore, we resolved that if someone opened fire at the mosque, and upon our Muslim neighbors, the bullets would have to go through us first.

Our Posture

We asked people to avoid yelling, chanting, or bringing signs with antagonistic slogans. We only wanted people to hold up signs with scripture so that the protesters might be convicted of sin and repent. Protest signs and pickets don’t change hearts, but the Word of God does.

So, what did we do? We asked people to pray, tell stories of positive friendships with Muslims, calmly explain what we were doing, and explain how Jesus was our motivation. We also brought water to give out to people on both sides as a gesture of peace, and because it was the hottest day of the year so far. We wanted to be a peaceful presence that would contribute to de-escalating potential violence.

We also encouraged people to pray for and try to reach out to the bikers. They are also made in God’s image, and behind their masks and bulletproof vests, there’s genuine fear and pain. There were veterans on both sides, but many of those who were protesting the mosque said that they saw unimaginable things in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their rage was real, authentic, and tapped into aspects of reality in this sin-stained world that many of us aren’t honest enough to confront. The protesters were misguided and their error put a lot of people in danger, but they were honestly feeling the brokenness of the world.

Throughout the protest, we had a few people on the protesters’ side to pray for them, calmly listen to their fears, give them water, and to share the Good News with them. Before the protest, I tried to reach out to Jon Ritzheimer, the organizer of the protest, through private Facebook messagesI told him that we considered him, and the other protesters, as our neighbors as well. I explained that we would be praying for an absence of violence, and for their safety as well. Although he’s an atheist, I expressed that if he had a place of worship that was surrounded with armed people, I hoped that we would do the same things for him. Then I encouraged him to call off the protest so that we could all enjoy hamburgers together on a Friday night.

He never responded, and I never met him, but as soon as I arrived at the mosque, I went and introduced myself to the people who seemed – based on the size of their guns – like the leaders of their protest. I reiterated our intentions and let them know that we were there to pray for them as well. I engaged them in some playful banter about how my weekend plans would be ruined if they shot me, and how I’m a fat guy, sure to be shot because I’m a big target. They laughed. This seemed to cut the tension a bit.

A Bright Night for the Church

People started arriving around 5:00pm. It was hard to find parking because the police had blocked off the street for what seemed like miles. However, one of the most heroic groups that day was Orangewood Church, as they had a strategic parking lot right by the mosque. Over the years, Orangewood has built a great friendship with the leadership of the mosque and much of that is related to Adam Estle’s presence in the community. Because of that trust and relationship, Adam was the primary connection between our group and the leadership of the mosque.

The pastor of Orangewood Church, Bob Hake, made a very strategic decision that night. He opened their church’s parking lot for those who would participate in the Love Your Neighbor Rally, but not those who were coming to be hostile. Protesters had to park miles away, but we were able to park just a few hundred yards away from the mosque. This allowed us to get there first, and claim the sidewalk closest to the mosque for our group, which meant the protesters would have to set up across the street.

A few of us were there early, and we didn’t really know what to do. We were awkward, unaccustomed to being at a protest. There were just a few of us, and I was certain that the turnout would be pretty weak. People had plenty of reasons not to show up, such as rush hour traffic, 100 degree temperatures, big men with assault rifles, and threats from people claiming to be ISIS.

And then I saw one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. In groups of five or ten, people in blue shirts started showing up to the Love Your Neighbor Rally from churches all around the valley. They came from Missio Dei Communities, Roosevelt Community Church, Via Church, Redemption Church, Orangewood Church, The Spring, New Valley, New City, Central Church, Trinity Mennonite, and many other churches.

Substantially more Christians came out to the mosque to pray and be a peaceful presence than those who came to protest angrily! Yes, we actually outnumbered them! With about 24 hours notice, I’d estimate that 150-200 Christians from churches around the Valley came out to the Love Your Neighbor Rally. Not only that, but many people from other backgrounds – Jewish, Muslim, atheist, non-religious – came to join us. We wore blue shirts (a calming color) and spread out on the sidewalk, to stretch across the length of the front of the mosque. We stayed calm, prayed, sang some worship songs, and had great conversations. Some people held big signs with scripture and almost everyone else held up small signs that were made by Josh Harp, a pastor at Via Church, that said “love your neighbor” on one side, and explained our purpose on the back side.

On the other side of the street, there seemed to be about 250 protesters. Many of them were masked, had semi-automatic weapons, bulletproof vests, pistols, and knives. They came from many backgrounds – atheistic, Neo-Nazi, and a few claimed to be Christians. Their signs and chants said some of the most vulgar things you could imagine, and aren’t worth repeating here. They ripped and burned Qurans and held up vulgar pictures of Mohammed that they had drawn at the “Draw Mohammed” contest before the protest.

To add to the confusion, there was an anarchist group that showed and stood on our side of the barricade, as well as a tiny group of five angry Muslims with big muscles, a few other random groups. They yelled at the anti-Islamic group, matching their profanity and aggression. Their presence discouraged me, because it fueled the tension and clouded the message. While the media did a great job of telling the story, they sometimes failed to differentiate between our group and the minority of yellers on our side of the barricade, attributing some of their statements to our group, which was confusing.

Almost all of the Muslims who were present (with a handful of exceptions) were calm, winsome, and kind. They engaged the protesters in conversation, and even invited a few of them into the mosque to watch the prayers. A few protesters seemed to even strike up a friendship with some of the Muslim guys. Usama Shami and the Muslim community in the Valley must be commended for their display of kindness and restraint. There was even a young Muslim man who led the way in bringing cool cups of water over to the protesters. Throughout the night, I saw protesters walk away in a contemplative manner and some of them turned their “F*** Islam” shirts inside out. I was amazed to see some of the contrition of those protesters who seemed to have a change of heart throughout the night and befriend Muslims. By the end of the night, there wasn’t one shot fired, one punch thrown, or one single arrest. We called on the Prince of Peace for the welfare of the city, and he heard our prayers.

Even though we had no idea what we were doing, we were trying to pursue peace because we follow the God of Peace, who sent the Prince of Peace to reconcile us to himself, even when we were his enemies. This Gospel of Peace empowers us to obey the Bible’s many commands to seek peace, and participate in the ministry of reconciliation. In the beatitudes, Jesus called the peacemakers blessed, which is what experienced on Friday night.

This story has been adapted and abridged from a post that originally appeared on the Redemption Tempe blog. More information is available in the original post. It has been published here with permission of the author.

Flourish Phoenix