A number of weeks ago I boarded a plane in Toronto for Istanbul. It’s a long flight—more than nine hours—and I secretly hoped that the seat beside me would remain empty so I could stretch out and sleep. It wasn’t to be. A young man in his late 20s plopped down beside me. I did the polite thing and introduced myself. “I’m Armi,” he replied.
Armi was a very warm and fascinating travel companion. He is Iranian, doing Ph.D. studies in the Maritimes, and was on his way to meet his fiancé. We spent the next hour-and-a-half in rich, lively and humorous dialogue about the differences of life in our two countries. Sports, politics, family and religion came up. He is Muslim, of course, but freely admitted to eating pork and drinking alcohol, both taboos within Islam. He must have noticed that I was a little surprised by his consumption confessions.
“I’m a Muslim because I’m Iranian,” he clarified, “but I don’t believe and neither do any of my friends. I follow some practices to keep my mom happy. As long as I’m a good boy, that’s all that matters.”
If this sounds like the echo of a conversation you have with many twentysomethings who grew up in the church in North America, you would be right. Still, given what’s on the news and the stereotypes we assume, Armi’s Muslim agnosticism caught me off guard. We chatted further and I talked about the hope of Jesus in my life, and he was engaged and even curious, but I could sense that Armi represented a new challenge and opportunity in our times.
We live in an age of astounding and confounding people movements. The world is in upheaval, thousands upon thousands of displaced people—our brothers and sisters in Christ, Muslims and others—are running for their lives, seeking a safe place to live and make a living. That tragic image of an innocent toddler lifeless on a beach continues to both chill our bones and warm our hearts, and we must absolutely consider what we can do to welcome and show hospitality to the displaced.
And as those who confess hope in Jesus Christ, there is something else that cannot be ignored: In this moment of time people who previously could not be introduced to the truth of Jesus Christ are not only open to conversation, but openly questioning what they have been raised to believe. Some, like Armi, are open about it and are as secularized and indifferent as any shrugging North American. But, others—like the thousands of Muslims turning to follow Jesus in Germany, for instance (see bit.ly/1QKYHNR) —are hungry for grace, love and peace.
Church of Jesus Christ, embrace the stranger and love them unconditionally. But do not compromise on the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. Crucified, buried and alive, he is the hope of the nations who rage, and people are ready for him. He is both Saviour from sin and the Living Word who calls us to compassionate response. “Open your eyes and look at the fields,” said Jesus, “they are ripe for harvest” (John 4:35).
We Mennonites sometimes cringe at this kind of language. We like other things Jesus said a bit better. But we can’t take some words he said more seriously than others. This is an unprecedented time. Look at the fields. And then get busy in, and for, Jesus’ name.
Phil Wagler lives in Surrey, B.C., where his church is enriched by multicultural diversity and always learning to love the stranger in, and for, the glory of Jesus.