Reflecting on 9/11
Responding to the events of 9/11 in various ways over the past 20 years, our church and its ministries have grown and blossomed in many ways. And in the process we have learned important lessons. For instance, our present focus on barrier-crossing friendship is the result of this learning, experience, and the Spirit’s leading.
Personally, I have been deeply involved in this process. As such, I thank people in the CRC for their support for Resonate Global Mission, Salaam 2.0, and our newest missional network — Journeys into Friendship (J2F), which is both a global and local network focused on crossing barriers of race, ethnicity, culture, and religion through friendship. Being part of this network now prompted me to think through how my missional journey has changed over the past number of years and how God has led us and continues to lead us.
I first engaged in this ministry back in 2011, when it was called AMAM – Advancing Ministry among Muslims. This was a task force created to address a lack of ministry to Muslims by our church and by the church in general. It came out of the shock of 9/11, the anti-Muslim attitudes after this attack, and the recognition that very few missionaries work with unreached Muslim people groups. Most Western missionaries work with already established churches.
AMAM became the Salaam Project in 2012, and it developed into a multi-agency CRCNA effort to focus more ministry toward Muslims. Two years later, in 2014, another transition reshaped the project into Salaam 2.0, a ministry focused in Canada, supported through World Missions, and partnering with groups like the Canadian Network of Ministries to Muslims (now called Loving Muslims Together).
Then, when World Missions and Home Missions united as Resonate Global Mission, it became possible to focus on diaspora people groups, including migrants, immigrants, international students, and refugees, many of whom are Muslim. Many other religious and cultural groups are also included.
Now we have expanded our focus to barrier-crossing friendship, through the Journeys into Friendship Network. Our goal is to support and encourage early adopters of diaspora ministry and to help this new missional frontier adapt and grow. We are always learning and improving our missional work with God’s help and by his grace.
Looking at Scripture, we clearly see it is sin that keeps dividing us in so many ways and on so many fronts.
Sin leads to hate — hatred for others, hatred of the world for the followers of Christ, and hatred for people of other faiths and races, cultures, and ethnicities. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This includes all people of all ethnicities, cultures, and religions. It is a problem that has plagued us since we were expelled from the Garden of Eden. As a follower of Jesus today who is part of the Reformed tradition of the church, I have learned just how serious this problem of sin is.
Certainly, hatred is not something that we want, feel comfortable with, or want to encourage. We want our children to grow up in a world that is without hate. That is certainly something I want for my grandchildren. I want a world that is hate-free. However, we need to expand our vision and relationships.
For example, a few years ago when I was involved in leading Salaam Project seminars, I discovered that the participants who had a Muslim friend or some kind of relationship with a Muslim, maybe a co-worker, had more understanding and empathy toward Muslims than participants who had only gained their knowledge about Muslims or Islam from news media or social media. Relationships make a difference.
That is also true for ethnic, racial, and cultural differences — all of these tend to divide us rather than unite us.
I am convinced that these differences can only be overcome through Jesus Christ. But we can’t stop there.
I remember that when I was in missionary training, I heard a presentation by missionaries that were going to work in Rwanda. They showed us slides of churchgoers all dressed in white and worshiping on a green hillside. It looked so idyllic. That was around 1992. The missionaries who made that presentation were working in Rwanda again when the genocide broke out in 1994. They barely got out of the country alive. The shocking reality was that this happened in a country that had become very Christianized. Hatred rose up and took over an entire country.
That is why Jesus’ words are so important: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business” (John 15:13-15).
We must follow Jesus’ command to love each other even in the hard places and in places where it will demand much of us.
The Good News
The good news is that Jesus makes us his friends — and that allows us to be friends with many others — and that is when barriers start to come down.
We are rebellious when it comes to being friends with God — because sin gets in the way — sin is our default position that keeps us from thinking rightly about God and keeps us from a relationship with God.
But God is so holy that we can’t even begin to comprehend how to become friends with God. There is just too much unholiness in the way — that is a barrier we cannot overcome in our own strength.
Jesus had revealed all that his Father wanted his disciples to know — and that means he revealed to them God’s plan for the cosmos — that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The key to friendship, friendship that overcomes barriers of ethnicity, race, culture, and religion, is to first and most importantly abide in Jesus. Only then can we experience God’s love and grace so that our lives, our relationships, and our outreach efforts reflect this love. When we abide in Jesus, we also become friends with Jesus — Christ makes this possible. It is Jesus who calls us friends, and it is Jesus who chooses us.
Jesus has made us his friends — and that unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit to become friends with people all over the place — fellow believers and sinners. We must remember that while we were still sinners, God loved us — and so God sends us out to love all of our neighbors — to encourage everyone in the Lord and to be friends with people who have not yet come to faith, but who will become believers as God changes hearts through the witness of our lives and our church.
What does all of this mean for our lives today? What is the good news for these times of racial tension and the ongoing effects of COVID-19? What does this mean in the 20-year-long shadow of 9/11?
As simple as it can sound, I think it is that the virtue of friendship is grounded in the biblical virtue of love. There are three biblical virtues — faith, hope, and love — and I really think the virtue of friendship is grounded in love because Jesus tells us that the fruit of abiding in him will be love. Jesus says, “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17).
One picture we have of Jesus from the gospel writers is that of Jesus visiting and eating with “sinners” while the religious leaders of his day looked on in dismay.
Jesus showed by example that we are to be friends with people who are not yet part of the Christian community. We are called to welcome them in and become disciples of Jesus Christ. Individuals that follow Jesus are integrated into a community of disciples who are also friends. This is a call to befriend the marginalized, the outcast, the oppressed around us. In some cases, this will take the hard work of reconciliation, confession, prayer, forgiveness, embrace, and humility. This is all part of our work today, and God supplies his grace and mercy.
An example is the Farsi Fellowship that is part of Willowdale CRC in Toronto, Ont. — bringing together new Iranian believers in fellowship and learning together. Once per month we study the Christian tradition of the seven deadly sins and the way of virtue ethics as a practical way to live out our Christian faith. The new believers have such good questions and always want to learn more. I am learning a lot as well and am inspired by their faith. Being with them gives me hope for the future of the church.
I am so thankful for the way God continues to transform his church since the tragedy that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City, in Washington, D.C., and in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. God continues to pour out his grace on his people, and his mission continues in many good ways.