1 Year ago today: A Bright Night for the Church: Love Your Neighbor Rally

May 29, 2016  |  Benjamin Jensen

This blog is a repost from an event called the “Love Your Neighbor Rally,” which took place one year ago. It was an event that allowed many from Redemption Tempe to love our neighbors in the city, specifically our Muslim neighbors in N. Phoenix who were the targets of a nasty protest. The header photo is of one of those protesters.

By Jim Mullins

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22:37-39 ESV)

 

Over the past few days, many people in our church have heard about Redemption’s involvement in the Love Your Neighbor Rally. This was an event that included dozens of churches, mostly Evangelicals, who gathered outside of a Mosque in Phoenix that was being protested by armed bikers whose stated intention was to provoke a violent response from Muslims. Despite how some articles made it sound, Redemption wasn’t the only church to participate. It was an event that was organized by Adam Estle and me, under the organizational umbrella of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding and Peace Catalyst International, and was was attended by hundreds of Christians from throughout the valley. It was a truly amazing night, and I want to tell you the story (from my vantage point) and clarify some of things that were confused in the media. I also want to tell you of the ways we saw many churches in Phoenix demonstrate the peace of Christ through our prayers, and the sacrificial love of Christ by creating a human shield in front of the Mosque.

The Story

As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed this past Thursday, I saw a few articles that greatly discouraged me. They described a group of armed bikers who were planning to protest the Islamic Cultural Center of Phoenix by having a “Mohammed Cartoon Contest”, burning Qurans, and yelling inflammatory things at the members of Muslim community as they entered for prayer.

They claimed this was in response to the shooting in Garland, Texas in which two Muslim men opened fire at a “Mohammed Cartoon Contest”. Those two men were shot and killed by police officers, but one security guard was injured by the shooters. The cartoon contest was incredibly disrespectful, and the violent response by those two men was unspeakably destructive. Those two self-proclaimed supporters of ISIS put many people in harm’s way, including the many peaceful Muslims in America who would have to deal with the backlash.

I posted one of the articles about this upcoming rally on Facebook. Then I closed my computer to pray. I was not praying bold prayers of faith, but wimpy prayers of a disheartened disciple. I had a sense that Jesus’ name was about get dragged through the mud (even though it was organized by atheists) and that violence was imminent.

I was especially concerned because I have friends who attend that Mosque, and I didn’t want them to be harmed. I also imagined how horrible it would be if someone surrounded our church with guns and ripped up the Bible and slandered Jesus. The thought was awful. I felt a sense of helplessness.

After logging back onto Facebook, I saw that several women from Redemption Tempe had commented and suggested that we do something to tangibly love our Muslim neighbors. This prompted me to reach out to Adam Estle, the Executive Director of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, and to our mutual friend, Usama Shami, the president of the ICCP Mosque. We asked Usama if there was anything we could do, and he welcomed our presence at the Mosque during the protest.

With only about 24 hours notice, Adam and I invited followers of Christ from around the city to join us at the Mosque, not to protest, but to be a prayerful presence in a place of hostility. We called this the Love Your Neighbor Rally to contrast the name of the protest, which was called the “Freedom of Speech Rally II”. I would never protest the precious freedom of speech that we have in this country, but rather, we wanted to utilize it to say something better, to speak the words of Christ which call us to love our neighbor, and to use our freedoms to that end. Jesus said, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14 ESV)

Honestly, I didn’t expect many people to show up, maybe a few handfuls of people. However, as hours passed, tons of people from many different churches indicated that they would be there. I was sceptical that people would actually show up, mainly because of the violent that were being displayed on TV, ISIS was apparently Tweeting that there would be bloodshed, businesses in the area were closing down, and many organizations warned people to stay away from the scene.

A Strategy of Presence, Not Protest

We didn’t go to protest, or even “counter-protest”, as the media suggested. Our aim was to create a physical barrier of protection with our bodies, and a spiritual wall of protection through our prayers. We committed to being a calming, quiet, friendly, peaceful and prayerful presence. We wanted our response to be marker with the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23).

Based on the suggestion of Usama, our strategy was to arrive early so that we could fill the sidewalk in front of the Mosque, thus forcing the hostile protesters to the other side of the street. Also, our bodies became a physical barrier of protection between the masked men with guns (a lot of guns) and our Muslim friends. We wanted to demonstrate the pattern of the cross–being compelled by the love of Christ to put ourselves in harm’s way for the sake of the other (Phil 2:6-11, Col. 1:24). The distinctive love that flows from the Gospel is self-giving in nature. For Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13 ESV). This wasn’t just sentimental teaching, but this is what Jesus did for us when he was crushed on the cross for sinners like you and me, Muslims at the Mosque, bikers with guns, those watching the events on TV, and the whole world (John 3:16). The cross not only made a way for us to know God, but it’s also the path we must walk in this world as his disciples. As Robert Gelinas has said, “The death of Jesus is to be your path. When Christ took your place on the cross, he absorbed your pain, and now the church, as a cross-formed community, is to be a pain absorbing people.”

We didn’t organize the Love Your Neighbor Rally with heroic moxy, but with uncertain and nervous prayers for protection. There was a lot of fear, but somehow there was a greater measure of love, which casts out fear (1 John 4:18-21). Therefore, we resolved that if someone opened fire at the Mosque, and upon our Muslim neighbors, the bullets would have to go through us first.

Our Posture

We asked people to avoid yelling, chanting or bringing signs with antagonistic slogans. We only wanted people to hold up signs with scripture so that the protesters might be convicted of sin and repent. Protest signs and pickets don’t change hearts, but the Word of God does.

So, what did we do? We asked people to pray, tell stories of positive friendships with Muslims, calmly explain what we were doing, and explain how Jesus was our motivation. We also brought water to give out to people on both sides as a gesture of peace, and because it was the hottest day of the year. We wanted to be a peaceful presence that would contribute to de-escalating potential violence.

We also encouraged people to pray for, and try to reach out to the bikers. They are also made in God’s image, and behind their masks and bulletproof vests, there’s genuine fear and pain. There were veterans on both sides, but many of those who were protesting the Mosque said that they saw unimaginable things in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their rage was real, authentic, and tapped into a aspects of reality that many of us aren’t honest enough to confront. They were misguided and their error put a lot of people in danger, but they were honestly feeling the brokenness of the world. Their rage was misplaced. What they attributed to Muslims was actually the reality of sin, Satan and death. These things torment everyone in the world, and these are the things that Jesus came to overcome. That’s the message we all need to hear, and what we wanted to share with the bikers.

Throughout the protest, we had a few people on protesters side to pray for them, calmly listen to their fears, give them water, and to share the Good News with them. Before the protest, I tried to reach out to Jon Ritzheimer through some private Facebook messages. I told him that we considered him, and the other protesters, as our neighbors as well. I explained that we would be praying for an absence of violence, and for their safety as well. Although he’s an atheist, expressed that if he had a place of worship that was surrounded with armed people, I hoped that we would do the same things for him. Then I encouraged him to call of the protest so that we could all enjoy hamburgers together on a Friday night.

He never responded, and I never met him, but as soon as I arrived at the Mosque, I went and introduced myself to the people who seemed like the leaders of their protest (based on the size of their guns). I reiterated our intentions, let them know that we were there to pray for them as well, and engaged in some playful banter about how my weekend plans would be ruined if they shot me, and how I’m a fat guy that was sure to be shot because I’m a big target. They laughed.

This seemed to cut the tension a bit.

A Bright Night for the Church

People started arriving around 5:00pm. It was hard to find parking because the police had blocked off the street for what seemed like miles. However, one of the most heroic groups that day was Orangewood Church and they had a strategic parking lot right by the Mosque. Over the years, Orangewood has built a great friendship with the leadership of the Mosque and much of that is related to Adam Estle’s presence in the community. Because of that trust and relationship, Adam was the primary connection between our group and the leadership of the Mosque.

The pastor of Orangewood Church, Bob Hake, made a very strategic decision that night. He opened their church’s parking lot for those who would participate in the Love Your Neighbor Rally, but not those who were coming to be hostile. Protesters had to park miles away, but we were able to park just a few hundred yards away from the Mosque. This allowed us to get there first, and claim the sidewalk closest to the Mosque for our group, which meant the protesters would have to set up across the street.

A few of us were there early, and we didn’t really know what to do. We were awkward, not accustomed to being at a protest. There were just a few of us, and I was certain that the turnout would be pretty weak. People had plenty of reasons not to show up, such as rush hour traffic, 100 degree temperatures, armed people with PTSD, and threats from people claiming to be ISIS.

And then I saw one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. In groups of 5 or 10, people in blue shirts started showing up to the Love Your Neighbor Rally from churches all around the valley. They came from Missio Dei Communities, Roosevelt Community Church, Via Church, Redemption Church, Orangewood Church, The Spring, New Valley, New City, Central Church, Trinity Mennonite, and MANY other churches. Substantially more Christians came out to the Mosque to pray and be a peaceful presence than those that came to protest angrily! Yes, we actually outnumbered them! With about 24 hours notice, over 150-200 Christians (my estimate) from churches around the valley came out to the Love Your Neighbor Rally. Not only that, but MANY people from other backgrounds (Jewish, Muslim, atheist, non-religious) came to join us.

We wore blue shirts (a calming color) and spread out on the sidewalk, to stretch across the length of the front of the Mosque. We stayed calm, prayed, sang some worship songs, and had great conversations. Some people held big signs with scripture and almost everyone else held up small signs that were made by Josh Harp, a pastor at Via Church, that said “love your neighbor” on one side, and explained our purpose on the other side.

On the other side of the street, there seemed to be about 250 protesters. Many of them were masked, had semi-automatics weapons, bulletproof vests, pistols, knifes, etc. They came from many backgrounds (atheistic, Neo-Nazi, and a few claimed to be Christians). Their signs and chants said some of the most vulgar things you could imagine, and aren’t worth repeating here.

They ripped and burned Qurans and held up vulgar pictures of Mohammed that they had drawn at the “Draw Mohammed Contest” before the protest. To add to the confusion, there was an anarchist group that showed and stood on our side of the barricade. They yelled at the anti- Islamic group, matching their profanity and aggression. Their presence discouraged me, because it fueled the tension and clouded the message. While the media did a great job of telling the story, they sometimes failed to differentiate between our group and the anarchists, attributing some of their statements to our group, which was confusing.

Almost all of the Muslims who were present (except for a hand full of people) were calm, winsome, and kind. They engaged the protesters in conversation, and even invited a few of them into the Mosque to watch the prayers. They seemed to even strike up a friendship with some of the Muslim guys. Usama Shami and Muslim community in the valley must be commended for their display of kindness and restraint. There was even a young Muslim man who led the way in bringing cool cups of water over to the protesters. Throughout the night, I saw protesters walk away in a contemplative manner and some of them turned their F* Islam shirts inside out. I was amazed to see some of the courage of those protesters that seemed to have a change of heart throughout the night and befriend Muslims.

By the end of the night, there wasn’t one shot fired, one punch thrown, or one single arrest. We called on the Prince of Peace for the welfare of the city (Jer. 29:7), and he heard our prayers.

Things that Must Be Said:

Since bullets weren’t needed on Friday, let me leave you with a few bullet points about some important things that need to be said.

● The police were amazing – It seems like the only time we ever hear about the police is when there’s controversy, so let me highlight this positive story. The police were organized, calm, collected, respectful, and courageous. I can’t overstate how amazing they were.

● Are we naive? – Some people have said that we are naive about the danger of Muslims in America. What they didn’t know is that there were people at the Love Your Neighbor Rally who were running the Boston Marathon during the bombing and saw the tragedy first hand. I personally have received death threats from fringe Muslims in the past. However, I also have dozens of Muslim friends, some of my best friends, actually. I’ve hosted 7 different Arab international students in my home while they studied as ASU. A Muslim friend actually saved my wife’s life a few years. So, I think we have a sober, nuanced, view of the many types of people who claim to be Muslims.

● Not a Protest – Let me reiterate that this was not a protest, but a “presence.” We were not saying anything about the First Amendment or Second Amendment. Those freedoms were honored at the rally. We were just there to make sure people weren’t harmed.

● Common good, not common theology – This gathering was not based on a common theology, but on the pursuit of the common good. Muslims and Christians have many important theological differences that have eternal consequence. Those should be discussed and debated with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). There were even be theological differences between the Christians who were present, and there were many people who didn’t claim to be religious. We came with a common goal of the common good, and were clear that we believed different things. We asked people who attended to affirm the 7 Resolutions Against Prejudice, Hatred, and Discrimination that were drafted by local Christians, Muslim and Jewish leaders a few years ago.

Here is the link: http://www.peace-catalyst.net/initiatives/7-resolutions

● Many Churches – I’m a little disappointed that other churches weren’t mentioned very often in the articles that were written about this event. This wasn’t exclusively a “Redemption Event”, but an impromptu event that was organized by Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding and Peace Catalyst International that included dozens of churches, including people and leaders from Redemption.

● Courageous Women – I was amazed at how much faith-driven courage came from the women involved with this event. A handful of women insisted we respond (when I was content to just post on Facebook). I believe that women outnumbered men at the Love Your Neighbor Rally. My favorite image was seeing a calm, tiny, 120lbs girl in her twenties calmly pray as a vicious man with a rifle cussed her out.

● Volunteers – Some amazing people worked very hard, with one day’s notice, to pull this off. Thank you Adam, Craig, Erin, Will, Benjamin, Megan, and many others.

● Two Leaders – Adam Estle (Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding) and Usama Shami (ICCP) are incredible leaders, and this city is better off because of their presence. Their friendship was a bridge that made all of this possible.

● Muslims around the world – I’ve received 50-100 messages from Muslims around the world expressing their gratitude for the Love Your Neighbor Rally and the Christians that were a “human shield” for Muslims. To those who came, and to those who prayed from home, you should know that although the name of Christ is often dragged through the mud at these events, your work was used to clean some of that mud off.

● The Gospel – People have asked if I had opportunities to talk about Jesus. First of all, I should say that obedience to Jesus’ command to love our neighbors needs no qualification or justification other than the truth that Jesus is Lord. His commands to love our neighbor and seek peace are not suggestions or electives. They are commands.

Having said that, I can’t remember a night where I’ve had more opportunities to point to Jesus. Several others said the same thing. People were asking, and the conversations have continued. The Gospel of Peace is being heard by many!

● The Fall- I was deeply saddened to see the many ways our world is ruptured because of the Fall. There was much to mourn and lament from Friday. We all desperately need Jesus, and I’m looking forward to the day when he completely mends that which is broken, wipes away every tear, and makes all things new.

 

John Piper says, “God is a peace-loving God and a peacemaking God. The whole history of redemption, climaxing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, is God’s strategy to bring about a just and lasting peace between rebel man and Himself, and then between man and man. Therefore, God’s children are that way, too. They have the character of their Father. What he loves, they love. What he pursues, they pursue. You can know his children by whether they are willing to make sacrifices for peace the way God did.” – John Piper

Even though we had no idea what we were doing, we were trying to pursue peace because we follow the God of Peace (1 Thess. 5:25), who sent the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) to reconcile us to himself (Eph. 2:16), even when we were his enemies (Romans 5:6-11). This Gospel of Peace (Eph 6:15) empowers us to obey the Bible’s many commands to seek peace (Psalm 34:14, Jeremiah 29:7, Romans 12:14-21), and participate in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21). In the beatitudes, Jesus called the peacemakers blessed (Matt 5:9), which is what experienced on Friday night.