On my After School bus route there is boy who never gets on the church bus. He’s a teenage Somali boy in gym shorts, a Nike shirt, and a well-worn leather basketball under his arm. I make a point to wave at him as a dozen kids run out of their houses and into the bus. He waves back and if his sisters are out on the front step I can usually get them to wave to me as well. I’d say he was suited up for basketball practice, but he’s still standing there when I drop the kids off two hours later.
“Nathan stop trying to get him to come.” Jay, a spit fire 3rd grader, reminds me as he steps on the bus with a basketball of his own lodged under his arm. “Ahmed isn’t coming.”
It’s not that Jay doesn’t want to play basketball with Ahmed. They hang out all the time. But by 3rd grade Jay has realized that his Muslims friends can’t come to church.
The first time I saw Ahmed I called up my Somali friend and asked her to translate the After School flyer into Somali. “You know he’s not gonna come.” She told me. “Somali mom’s are kinda paranoid about sending their kids to a church.” I knew it was gonna be an uphill battle. I mean it’s not like Church mom’s would be lining up to send their kids to an After School program at the local mosque.
The next week I handed it to the Ahmed’s mother as he translated. “Tell her we provide homework help, free dinner, and we have a basketball court.”After a lengthy translation his mom shook her head no. “She says we can’t go because its at a church.” He said clearly disappointed that he wasn’t going to get to play basketball with the rest of the neighbor kids.
I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t trying to convert her kids. That we prayed before dinner but that we wouldn’t make him pray with us. That not all churches believe Muslims are going to hell.
But it was clear his mother wasn’t interested in hearing the nuances of my particular brand of Christianity.
And I can’t say I blamed her.
Christians have told every stripe of half-truth and flat out lies to get “non-believers” in the church doors.
I remember I was at a dinner party with an Evangelical pastor friend of mine. Across the table a young white couple was explaining that they had decided to become overseas missionaries. “Where are you going?” I asked politely. The husband rubbed his hands together with what appeared to be nervous excitement. “The Middle East.”
“Oh! What country” I asked hoping the conversation wasn’t going where I thought it was going.
“We actually aren’t allowed to tell you.” The wife said rolling a strand of her long blonde hair around her index finger. “It’s a Muslim country where they don’t allow Christian missionaries. So we got visas to start a school for disabled children. And then we hope to use that ministry to create in-roads for conversations about the Gospel.” My heart sank.
I had grown up hearing stories about this type of under-cover missionary work. I remember a middle aged man came to our suburban mega church after a long stint in China. He told a story of the time he hauled a trailer full of Bible’s hidden in secret compartments through a Chinese board patrol. How he had prayed that the armed guards wouldn’t discover the trap doors under the trailer containing thousands of tiny illegal Bibles.
I sat there quietly eating as the young couple explained how they were going to teach wheelchair bound kids “who don’t normally get to go to school” the woman made sure to emphasize several times. “And we will have Bibles and Christian books in our office, and if the students ask us about our faith, than the government says it is perfectly legal to share our beliefs.” I wanted to tell her that I was pretty sure the government’s caveat about sharing foreign faiths probably applied to foreign business leaders and diplomats practicing their religion in the private. Not so undercover missionaries could use religious paraphernalia as bait for disabled children.
But the problem with undercover missionaries is that the ends always justify the means. When you’re talking about saving souls from eternal damnation, international laws seem trivial at best. Everything has a way of seeming trivial when your convinced eternal souls are on the line.
As I listened to their detailed plan my mind drifted back to the night my church youth pastor showed us a made-for-church movie about four teenagers who died in a car crash. The driver was a Christian about my age who had never told his friends about Jesus. But after he dies he is sent on an elevator ride from heaven down to hell and sees his friends shouting at him. Why didn’t you tell us what would happen! Flames dancing behind them as their faces melted like plastic toys under a magnifying glass. I had heard about hell before. It was a regular topic of sermons, but it had always been in the abstract. Pain, weeping, nashing of teeth. But watching teenagers faces melt off was when hell became a real place. A fire prison where my non-Christian friends were going to get fire tortured.
I left church that night determined to save as many hell bound souls as I could. But at 16 year old my options were limited so I enlist as a Bible camp counselor in the North Woods of Minnesota the next summer.
I had brought along a paperback collection of martyr stories published by a Christian rock band.* It was meant to inspire young Christians and show the power of faith to non-believers.
Every night I would read the stories to my campers before bed. The young boys sat silently absorbed as I read about the Christian men that had braved the lions in the coliseum or succumbed to snake bites in the Amazon.
But there was one story I only read once. It was about a teenage girl who was attending an illegal Bible being held in a Communist country. When the Christian converts were discovered the soldiers forced them at gun point to spit on the Bible. And a few of them did. “Quiety, a young girl came forward. Overcome with love for her Lord, she knelt down and picked up the Bible. She wiped off the spit with her dress.” I read. Could hear my campers shifting anxiously in in their sleeping bags. “The Communist soldier put his pistol to her head. Then he pulled the trigger.” I looked from the book. The campers faces were wide eyed with horror. I paused for effect before smiling “But the good news is that now she’s in heaven.” My campers faces didn’t register any visible signs of relief.
I left the dinner party with a head full of things I should have said. I wanted to shout at the undercover missionary couple that they were recklessly endangering the lives of children. That those kids didn’t make the religious wars they were born into. That missionaries traveling under false pretenses was just one more reason for Ahmed’s mom not to let her son play basketball at my After School program.
But I didn’t say anything. I was too angry to have a discussion and shouting at people I barely know rarely ends up in life changing revelations. I wouldn’t have changed my mind if a stranger would have barged into my cabin and shouted at me for scaring those kids into believers.
It took years of learning about other religions, friendships, going and listening to people of other faiths before I was able to entertain the possibility that God was bigger than Christianity.
I still wave to Achmed and his sisters from the Church bus. And when a new Somali kids moves into the neighborhood I make a point to introduce myself and ask if they want to come to After School.
And after they say shake their heads no. I get back on the bus to a chorus of angry kids from the back of the bus shouting at me. “They can’t come! They’re Muslim!”
“I know I know!” I shout back. “But I just wanted to let them know they’re invited.”
*DC Talk Jesus Freak: Stories of Those who Stood with Jesus