MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (BP) -- Members of Grace Baptist Church have been well aware of the struggle in their community the last two years over the building of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro next door.
At times they didn't know what to do. At times, as the rhetoric -- often led by Christians -- grew strident, they became fearful and their numbers dwindled.
Interim pastor Dan Watts advised members of Grace Baptist to avoid the community and city council meetings, where the discussion usually turned negative about Muslims, their potential new neighbors. Watts came to the church just as the community's struggle over the new mosque's construction was developing into a local and eventually national news story. He learned later that Muslims had worshiped at a mosque at another location in Murfreesboro for 30 years.
Watts didn't want Grace members to be afraid of the Muslims who were planning to build next door. "I also wanted us to move from not being afraid of Muslims to loving Muslims," he said.
He and the other members of Grace may not know much about Muslims, but they are learning, he said. And he said they realized, as plans to build developed, that "God has placed [Muslims] here."
The fact that Muslims, about 200 it is reported, are now meeting next door to Grace Baptist doesn't "surprise God a bit," Watts said. "We can have a Christian witness right next door."
Even though he served as a trustee of the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board for eight years and witnessed to internationals over the years in different communities, Watts still had a lot to learn.
"I wasn't familiar with our neighbors," he said.
Now he and Grace members don't have to go anywhere to become missionaries. They can be missionaries at home, he said.
Last summer, when construction on the mosque was about to begin, a sign on the property announcing the new mosque was spray-painted with the phrase "Not Welcome." Then an arson fire destroyed excavating equipment at the site.
Understandably, the owners of the land posted a big "No Trespassing" sign several places on the property, including right next to Grace Baptist.
In response, Grace Baptist posted on their church sign -- "Trespassers Are Welcome."
Then as legal hurdles to construction of the mosque were resolved and construction began -- and possibly in response to the Trespassers Are Welcome sign -- two men in Arabic dress entered the Grace Baptist property near the road to pray one Saturday morning. Watts passed them on his way to a work day at the church.
Watts called his friend Raouf Ghattas for help. Ghattas is an Egyptian Christian and Baptist who speaks Arabic. Ghattas quickly joined Watts, and they approached the two men and had a short conversation.
Watts and Ghattas invited the men to worship the next day at Grace and they came. The Muslim men were warmly welcomed by church members and one of the two joined Watts and several other Grace members at the altar for a prayer time. One of the men put some money in the offering plate and one told Watts that he learned something about communication in marriage from Watts' sermon.
The experience was positive, Watts said, and an answer to prayer.
The church has continued to try to witness to its next-door neighbors. Last summer it held a tent revival, and it has posted 23 large crosses on its property.
Watts said he received some criticism from residents, even some Christian ministers, over posting the crosses, but he believes it was the right thing to do.
The church also has received support from the Christian community here. Every Friday morning a small group of Christians, mostly non-members, meet to pray for Grace Baptist.
Through it all, the church has grown in numbers, is baptizing new Christians and drawing about 75 to Sunday School each week, Watts said.
Ghattas and Watts learned quickly that they shared a vision from God for Grace Baptist.
One result of that shared vision is the Arabic Evangelical Church which has begun meeting at Grace.
Ghattas serves as pastor of the Arabic congregation, which has been meeting at Grace Baptist for just a few weeks and is already drawing about 15 people to its services.
Ghattas and his wife Carol served 20 years as missionaries with the International Mission Board and are retired. They now have a burden for the Arabic-speaking people in their area.
"We pray such little prayers," Raouf Ghattas said. "The Christian Arab community, they are not reaching for the Muslims as they should while they are the best people that can reach them."
The Christian Arabs and the Muslim Arabs speak the same language and understand each other's cultures, Ghattas said. But it is sometimes hard for the Christian Arab to love the Muslim Arab because often Christian Arabs were mistreated in their home countries.
But the members of Arabic Evangelical Church do not hate Muslims. They are looking for "the Paul-style of Muslim." In other words, just as the Apostle Paul was reached by the gospel, some Muslims can be reached, he said.
He and the Arabic church have already begun an outreach effort. The congregation identified local businesses owned by Arabic-speaking people. Then they visited the businesses and gave the workers a gift and information about the new congregation.
"We want to encourage other churches to do what the Lord is doing here," Ghattas said, and for the Baptist church to become involved rather than being "quiet about Muslims."
Connie Davis Bushey is news editor of the Baptist & Reflector (tnbaptist.org/BRNews.asp
), newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, where this story first appeared.