Islam no barrier to gospel, seminarian learns firsthand

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--Thirteen Muslim men sat in a circle, machetes at their side. Three of them were religious leaders, four of them village heads.

For years, Islam had been a part of their village, a part of their lives. Yet on this day in this Southeast Asian country, they sat quietly and listened as two Christian men patiently shared the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The two Christians had befriended the Muslims months earlier, meeting on a regular basis. But for some reason, this day seemed different.

The two Christian storytellers decided not to mince words. The pathway to heaven, they said, does not go through Muhammed or Allah. Jesus Christ, they emphasized, is the only way.

The 13 men remained quiet, nodding their heads. Finally, one of them spoke up.

"We know what you have said is truth," he said.

Mark, the leader of the Christian team and a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was a bit shocked. "Are these men ready to accept the gospel?" he thought to himself. "Do they truly understand the story of Christ?" Wanting to make certain the men had been listening, Mark got straight to the point.

"I went on to explain that there is no one else," he said. "Muhammed is not a way to heaven. Jesus is the only way. If you have not accepted him as your Lord and Savior, you will spend an eternity in hell. I was very blunt -- exactly what you're not supposed to do.

"They said, 'We understand. We know what you have shared with us is absolute truth.' That's the first time I had heard the word 'absolute truth' used."

The men understood the gospel presentation, but they did not go any further. Although the seeds had been planted that day, there were no decisions for Christ. Their village is a communal system, meaning that they don't make individual decisions. Before the men could become Christians, their entire village had to do the same.

So, when Mark left the village that day, the men were going back to their friends and families, telling them the story of Christ.

Such stories may seem unique, but they aren't. Mark -- whose real name and the country in which he serves are not used in this story for security reasons -- recently completed a stint in Southeast Asia as part of the International Mission Board's Two Plus Two program. The program allows students to spend the final two years of their education on the mission field.

For Mark, the time served as a confirmation that he and his family are called to fulltime missions overseas. Soon, they will return to that same Southeast Asian country. Some of the country is Catholic, but much of it is Muslim. It will be their first visit to the country since the tragic events of Sept. 11.

Is Mark scared? No.

"It could be dangerous, but if you have relationships with people, your people are going to take care of you," he said. "The most unsafe place for us to be is where God hasn't called us. The safest place we could be is where he has called us. As a family we feel very certain God has called us back there to the people."

By his estimate, more than 99 percent of the people he encounters are lost. However, the Spirit is moving, and the gospel is spreading.

Mark has dozens of stories attesting to the work of God.

There was the time when he was getting his hair cut, and the barber -- with whom Mark had built a relationship -- started talking about an interesting rock he had found. The man invited Mark to his house, supposedly to show him the rock.

"We get to his house, he closes the door and he calls his two sons and his wife and says, 'Share the gospel with my family.' He's from the people group that will cut your throat [for converting to Christianity]. His people group are part of the Jihad warriors and are hard to reach."

The day Mark left the country, the barber showed up at the airport, begging Mark to stay. Mark did not want to leave, but he had to. The relationship with the barber was passed on to another IMB missionary.

"When I got ready to leave, he [the barber] grabbed me and kissed me on both cheeks, which is a Muslim departure -- only to another Muslim and only to close family," Mark said. "But that's how he told me bye."

Mark's first few months in the country were just as amazing. Soon after arriving in Southeast Asia, he began working among a group of 25,000 refugees who had been chased off their land and were living in unsanitary conditions. The day Mark entered the refugee camp, two adults and five children had died the night before from drinking dirty water.

Thankfully, Mark had brought a water purification system. He set it up and trained a local refugee how to use it. Twelve days later, the police and local military leaders -- overcome with joy -- delivered some good news.

"Do you understand what you have done?" they asked Mark. "There were no deaths last night -- the first time ever -- and it's because you have been able to give them clear water."

But Mark refused to accept credit, and instead told the people that God had saved them from an unsanitary situation. Clean water, they soon learned, cannot compare to the living water found in Christ.

Mark said Southern Baptists -- known in the country as simply "Baptists" -- are held in high regard. In one instance, his Baptist background kept him out of harm's way. One day he and a translator were walking along when a native of the country -- who was a foot and a half taller than Mark -- threatened them with a machete. The man was angry, and he was letting them know it.

"Finally, he blurted out, 'If you were a Baptist, it would be different,'" Mark recalled. "The translator said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'The Baptists have come and they have been here since the beginning, but there's not a single agency that came here in the beginning that is still here. The Baptists have been here from day one, and they're still here. They're taking care of us and they're loving us.' That's when the translator said, 'He is with the Baptists.'"

The man fell to his knees, grabbed Mark's pants legs and asked for forgiveness for his threatening actions.

"I picked him up, hugged him and told him that he didn't need to ask for forgiveness, and that I understood," Mark said, adding that the man became one of his best supporters.

That man was not the only person affected by Southern Baptists' giving spirit. During Mark's stay in the country an earthquake flattened a predominantly Muslim region. The people were left with no homes, and their water wells were destroyed.

Having visited the region prior to the earthquake, Mark said he had "never felt so hated" in his life. But the earthquake opened the door for the gospel, and Mark and other Christians -- Southern Baptists as well as national Baptists -- swung into action.

The men requested money from Southern Baptist's disaster relief fund, and in two days they had it. The money provided the resources to rebuild some 660 homes and feed 3,366 families. The disaster relief project was so blessed that one-third of the money designated for rebuilding homes was returned to the IMB.

"The government fell apart because the government buildings were destroyed," Mark said. "They had no communication, but the Baptists' network was already there."

Each packet of rice had a gospel message.

"The bag of rice had the Scripture from Psalms that said, 'The mountains will fall into the sea. God will provide for his people,'" Mark said. "We passed the food out, and we also spent time with the people and began to develop relationships."

Two years ago, before Mark left America, some of his friends told him that the gospel could not be spread in such a hostile country. Mark, though, now knows different.


(BP) file photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: MUSLIMS INCLUDED.

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