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For Canary Islands Muslims, love is missing ingredient

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering supplements Cooperative Program giving to support more than 5,600 Southern Baptist missionaries as they share the Gospel overseas. This year’s offering goal is $175 million. The 2009 Lottie Moon offering theme is “Who’s Missing, Whose Mission?” It focuses on overcoming barriers to hearing and accepting the Gospel in various parts of the world and the mission that the Great Commission gives all Christians to “go and make disciples of all nations.” The 2009 Week of Prayer for International Missions is Nov. 29-Dec. 6. To find resources about the offering, go to imb.org/offering.

FUERTEVENTURA, Canary Islands (BP)—Passersby hardly notice the mosque on this active street corner on the Spanish island of Fuerteventura. No crescent moons, no Arabic writing, no minarets piercing the sky — only dust and exhaust-stained apartments.

But looks can be deceiving. Behind a black metal door, stairs descend to what appears to be an old three-bedroom apartment. At the foot of the stairs stands a floor-to-ceiling shoe shelf. To the left is a trough with two water spigots where followers wash their feet in preparation for Friday prayers.

The air is still and hot at the mosque in Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands. Arriving worshippers stir a small breeze, wafting the pungent smell of shoes and body odor. No one seems to notice. Barefoot, each man crosses the holy threshold lined with red prayer rugs. “Salaam alaykoom” (peace be with you), each says as he enters. Those already there echo the greeting in return.

This is the first time Southern Baptist missionary Pepe Lopez* has attended a service at this location. Omar, one of Pepe’s Muslim students, invited him. As it turns out, many of the students Pepe teaches Spanish to every week go to the mosque here.

Omar has not missed a Spanish lesson since classes started more than a year ago. Pepe began teaching the free class after a new law required anyone seeking permanent residency be able to read and write basic Spanish. This made it impossible for North Africans like Omar to delay learning the native language.

Pepe believes he has garnered respect from his class because he does not force his beliefs on them. This alone gives him kudos in the eyes of his students — Omar in particular.

“He knows I’m a Christian … he feels like he is trying to reach me. He doesn’t know I’m trying to reach him,” Pepe says with a boisterous laugh.

But there is more to Omar and Pepe’s friendship than who’s reaching whom. Omar has taken to Pepe because he’s proven himself truthful and trustworthy — important traits to Omar.

“Although in public Omar speaks highly of his parents, his faith, in private he has shared how his father, particularly, has been rough on him,” Pepe says. “He is a very lonely person … and has few friends” since he finds it difficult to trust people.

In order to build relationships with his students outside the classroom, Pepe says he first shows them he is a loving friend.

“That is practically an unknown in their culture or faith,” he says. “Love is a missing ingredient of their life. Just to love as a brother … goes beyond anything they have known.”

As the friendships blossom, Pepe finds opportunities to share the true reason he loves. “Jesus has loved me unconditionally,” he says. “He will always forgive me when I ask Him to, even when He doesn’t like what I do. That, too, is an unknown to them.”

In contrast, Omar’s faith requires him to make up for his faults. If he misses a prayer he must do something to get back in Allah’s good graces.

“To know that God just forgives us when we repent and ask for forgiveness is an eye-opener,” Pepe says of Christianity. “Where for them it is always ‘perhaps’ Allah will hear my prayer, ‘perhaps’ Allah will remember my good works, ‘perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.'”

There is no “perhaps” with Pepe’s God.

“I can speak with deep conviction of an assurance of forgiveness, of constant, steadfast love and conviction that at death I will dwell with God. That just blows [Omar’s] mind.”

On more than one occasion Omar has shared his admiration of Pepe’s strong faith and how he wants to be sure of his own life after death. “When I start seeing a wishful, wistful look,” Pepe says, “I know that I am getting through.”

That look makes it all worth it for Pepe. It’s all the payment he needs in return for teaching Spanish to young Muslims and cultivating relationships with them.

Pepe’s wife Shari also led a class for a short time, though not one she expected to teach. Her passion is leading children’s camps, but being new to the island, she knew relationship-building came first.

When Shari was given the opportunity to lead a Weight Watchers class she had doubts. She knew the program worked — she had lost 20 pounds on a recent stateside assignment — but she worried it would interfere with her new ministries.

After praying and talking with her husband, she reluctantly agreed to teach.

A bigger plan began to appear. “I felt what God wanted me to accomplish was to get to know people,” Shari says.

The friendships built during the Weight Watchers class allowed her to reach areas of the community that previously would have been nearly impossible. Several women in the class were schoolteachers from various parts of Fuerteventura. They helped spread the word across the island about the children’s camps Shari was starting.

Most campers don’t come from Christian homes. Though Shari’s camps are not overtly Christian-themed, many parents say they see a difference between these and others their children have attended.

Pepe and Shari know why the camps are successful. It’s not because of them, but because of Jesus. They hope their relationships with the children will develop into friendships with parents so they can share what really sets their camps apart from the others.

And they have plenty of time. Pepe and Shari are retiring to Fuerteventura. The island is starting to develop more work opportunities, infrastructure and tourism.

“What better place to start and continue ministry, to see it grow together with the rest of the development of the island?” Pepe says.

Mainland Spain has two ports with regular ferry transportation to and from Morocco. Because of its close proximity, Fuerteventura recently became the third ferry route to Morocco. This new port has brought significant increases in the number of visitors and new residents.

“I hope and pray that we can start an Arabic-speaking Baptist church in the Canary Islands before I go to be with the Lord,” Pepe says, “and that it may be a starting place where many Moroccan and Western Saharan brothers and sisters will carry the message to their families and friends on the mainland of northern Africa.”
*Names changed. Emilee Brandon covered this story for the International Mission Board.

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  • Emilee Brandon