EDITOR’S NOTE: For videos, stories and other resources exploring the legacy of 9/11 and how to reach Muslims, visit lovingmuslims.com.
RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–When the jets slammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field a decade ago, the life of Joseph Rose* began to change.
A Christian college student, he knew little about Islam. He didn’t know a single Muslim personally. His mother called and warned him to shave off his full beard, fearing “hate attacks” by angry people mistaking him for a Muslim.
“I left the beard. No one attacked me,” Rose recalled.
As the initial shock of 9/11 wore off, something inside him spurred Rose to understand the forces shaking the world. “I began to read about Islam,” he said. “I knew not all Muslims were terrorists, but I was casually driven to understand ‘my enemy.'”
Later, he got a job as a newspaper photographer in Ohio and moved into an apartment there. His next door neighbor was a young Muslim from the Middle East.
“He invited me over to his apartment for Arabic coffee and chat. We would talk for hours and watch music videos from his home country. I asked him questions about his country and his religion. He smoked. He bowled. He worked at a hospital and helped his brother open a coffee shop. He was not a terrorist. He didn’t even seem religious. Just an average guy.”
Over the next few years, Rose met more young Muslims who were “just like thousands of other young people in America” — just as spiritually hungry, just as in need of the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.
Today Rose works in communications for the International Mission Board. He covers stories about what God is doing among the nations and continues to nurture friendships with Muslims.
“Through these experiences and encounters, God has called me to dedicate my life to working with and around Muslims, sharing life and Truth with them,” Rose said. “If it weren’t for 9/11, I might not be where I am today. I might not have seven guys named Mohammed listed in my phone. I might not have traveled to nine Muslim countries before the age of 30. God used this tragic event to call me out of the darkness of apathy and ignorance toward Muslims into the light of service and presence among this vast people.”
That’s one “9/11 story.” There are countless others. Every person responded differently to the bloodiest attack on American ground since Pearl Harbor.
The historical forces that led to the Sept. 11 attacks are fairly clear: longstanding hatred of America and the West among radicalized Muslims, the rise of terrorism as a political weapon, the spread of al-Qaida and other jihadist groups, ongoing fallout from the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, reaction to U.S. involvement in the first Gulf War, American support for Israel. The list goes on.
The long-term spiritual impact of the event on international missions, however, is more difficult to discern. Christian workers have faced hostility since the beginning of the evangelical missions movement. They’ve often found themselves caught in the crossfire of wars and violent change. But 9/11 added a new layer of challenge.
Or, perhaps, a new awareness of global reality.
“People said the world changed after 9/11,” an IMB missions mobilizer noted. “I don’t believe that’s true. We as Americans were just forced to deal directly with what the rest of the world has dealt with for years. For the first time in a very long time the battle was on our turf, our doorstep, affecting our people in a way we couldn’t ignore by insulating ourselves from world events.”
AGE OF TERRORISM OR OPPORTUNITY?
The world may not have changed, but the way we respond to it surely has.
“It’s interesting that we have summed up this whole event in the expression ‘9/11,'” said Randy Rains, a former missionary in the Muslim world, now IMB associate vice president for spiritual life and formation. “It has become a part of our vocabulary and worldview, a milestone around which we look at life — pre-9/11 and post-9/11.
“9/11 was the event that brought us officially into the ‘age of terrorism’ in American culture. It has brought out both the best and the worst in us, which is usually the case with these cataclysmic events in history.”
The missions world has become much more attuned to the threat of terrorism, Rains added. Attacks against missionaries are nothing new. But many mission agencies now train personnel to handle the possibility of terrorist attacks and hostage situations.
There’s no “one size fits all” approach to security. What works depends on ministry, location and potential threats. Mission workers and churches on mission have become more cautious in their scheduling, travel and contacts. They exercise care in how (and with whom) they share names, ministry information and the peoples they serve. They use even greater care in communicating via email and the Internet, the great global megaphone.
The trade-off: Open, unfiltered communication with supporting churches and mission partners is more difficult. That makes effective mission mobilization a greater challenge.
Despite such realities, Rains believes the so-called “age of terrorism” has become a “vibrant opportunity” to engage the Muslim world with the Gospel — if Christians respond faithfully.
9/11 has made American evangelicals “more aware of Islam and more committed to try to reach Muslims,” said Clyde Meador, IMB executive vice president, who served for many years in areas heavily populated with Muslims. “It has opened doors for IMB work in places where we otherwise might not be, including parts of the world where reaching Muslims previously was an afterthought at best.”
Jim Haney, IMB director of global research, goes even further. “I do not believe that we are in an age of terrorism,” he said. “We are in an age of opportunity. Every Christian needs to decide how they will respond to Muslims. How would Jesus respond? Today the greatest response to the Gospel is among Muslims.”
A veteran worker among Muslim peoples agrees:
“In 19 years, I have not observed the openness we are seeing today,” he reported. “We’ve never had a problem talking to Muslims about Jesus, but we have definitely seen Muslims ask questions that were not asked pre-9/11…. Without a doubt, Muslims today are more open to other ideas, in particular the Gospel. Did 9/11 cause this? No. [But] in the greater wheel of world history, 9/11 was a cog that forced Muslims to consider the foundations of what they believe. The Internet also has been a major cog. Governments and the religious establishment can’t as easily control the flow of information.
“Today, the ‘Arab Spring’ [reform movement] is being fueled by a younger generation of Arabs that craves a change. More deeply, they crave hope. It is in this gap that the Gospel fits.”
To respond effectively to the emerging opportunity among more than 1 billion Muslims globally, we need to deal with a barrier within ourselves: fear.
The 9/11 attacks traumatized Americans, and churches were not immune. Many congregations initially pulled back from international involvement. Some called for missionaries to come home. Even today, there’s more pressure from families to pull missionaries out “if things get tough,” according to one Middle East worker.
The emotions unleashed by 9/11 have “fueled suspicion, fear and judgment in the hearts of many evangelicals,” said Mike Lopez, IMB director of student mobilization. “For others, it has created an urgency in the task of reaching followers of Islam. College students have not wavered in their response to the nations. If anything, they’re more passionate than ever before about reaching Muslims. There is also an increase in the number of those who have committed their lives to serve in the Muslim world.”
In the early days after the attacks, student volunteers remained eager to serve, but many of their parents and pastors refused to let them go overseas. The generational difference turned up repeatedly.
“The week after 9/11 we had [three new missionaries] scheduled to arrive on the field,” recalled an IMB worker then serving in the Middle East. One was a 20-something journeyman, the other two a middle-aged married couple.
“The journeyman came as scheduled and the couple cancelled. We were working with a lot of journeymen and the fear factor seemed to be big with their parents but not such a big deal with them.”
Another former missionary recalls the night she and her husband spoke at a U.S. church about their ministry to Muslims. “This informal time rapidly turned into angry voices demanding of us, ‘How can you love them? How can you trust them? How dare you?'” she said. “Thankfully, that was the exception, but I think it reflected the heart of the pastor and other ministry leaders. It was very sad to me.”
But she has heroes, too: the many mission workers who could have gone home after 9/11 or moved to “safer” locations.
“None wanted to,” she said. “They recognized 9/11 for its spiritual significance and stayed for the opportunities they would have to talk more openly with Muslim friends and neighbors. Their families in the U.S. are also my heroes, like my parents. Even when they didn’t understand why I didn’t want to come home, they trusted me and trusted the Lord.”
Among Southern Baptists, at least, missionary numbers didn’t go down because of 9/11. Many candidates came forward declaring God had called them to follow Him into a dangerous world. The only thing preventing some of them from going: the downturn in missions giving amid tough economic times.
Plenty of churches have stepped up, too.
Former missionary Phil Nelson, now an IMB church mobilizer, remembers joining the ministry staff of a church in Tennessee a year or so before 9/11.
“Our pastor had cast vision for the Great Commission and we were beginning to experience a missions revival,” Nelson recounted. “Then 9/11 occurred. In the midst of all our uncertainty as a country, [our pastor] said this was not the time for retreat. We went from having no Muslim-focused work prior to 9/11 to partnering with IMB to engage multiple Muslim peoples. By 2006, half of our 39 scheduled international trips were to Muslim areas.”
In West Africa, a major push to mobilize Southern Baptist churches to get the Gospel to unreached peoples continues to produce results. “Where Islam is more prevalent, churches have continued to come, embracing language, culture, physical hardships and potential dangers,” said an IMB missions leader. “There are so many great churches, of all sizes, who are fearlessly engaging Muslim people groups since 9/11 … from Mali to Nigeria.”
I’ll never forget Darrell O’Berry, a volunteer from my own church. A house painter, he signed up to go on a mission trip to a Muslim country scheduled for barely a month after 9/11. After the attacks, I asked him if he wanted to cancel. He looked at me, grinned and replied, “I’m good to go.”
That’s the spirit the church needs in the post-9/11 era. Security precautions are wise, but no one — least of all the Savior we follow — promises complete safety in His service.
“Following God’s will may not appear to many to be the safest thing to do. It is most certainly the right thing to do,” said one international worker. “And that is where I want to be.”
Eight Southern Baptist workers have died in terror-related attacks since 9/11. They all knew the risks of their work, yet chose to serve anyway. God’s call is unconditional; they answered it unconditionally.
One of them, Karen Watson, was killed by gunmen in Iraq in 2004. Before she left the United States, she wrote a now-famous letter to her pastors. She put it in a sealed envelope marked “Open in case of death.” It read in part:
“When God calls there are no regrets. I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations. I wasn’t called to a place; I was called to Him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory my reward….”
*Name changed. Erich Bridges is an International Mission Board global correspondent.