Some of the latest local efforts to build relationships between Muslims and Christians come from evangelical Christians, led, in particular, by 28-year-old Michael Ly.
Even in these days of increased vitriol toward Muslims, and heated rhetoric over whether a mosque should be built near Ground Zero, it’s not surprising to find people in the metropolitan Seattle area reaching out to Muslims.
This is the place, after all, where members of various churches stood guard outside a Northgate-area mosque in the days after Sept. 11, watching for any suspicious anti-Muslim activities.
It’s the area where, for years, Muslims, Jews and Christians on the Eastside have been building houses for low-income residents through Habitat for Humanity.
And it’s the city of The Interfaith Amigos — a pastor, a rabbi and a sheik (who calls himself a Sufi Muslim minister) — whose longtime friendship resulted in a book and a measure of fame. Most of the Christians involved in such efforts have been mainline Protestants or Catholics.
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What’s unusual about some of the latest efforts to build relationships with local Muslims is that it’s coming from evangelical Christians — and led, in particular, by Michael Ly, a young, self-described Chinese Cambodian American evangelical Christian.
Ly, 29, is a pastor at Soma — Renton, a nondenominational church formerly called Harambee Church. An accountant by day, his aim to build better understanding between evangelical Christians and Muslims is purely a grass-roots effort.
And it’s an effort he thinks is growing nationwide, especially among those his age and younger.
“There’s a part of the evangelical Christian church that believes the rhetoric out there about Muslims is ignorant,” he says. That part of the church “is saying: ‘This is not the way Jesus would want us to respond to the Muslim community.’ “
So far, Ly has organized a panel discussion on who Jesus is, attended by some 150 Muslims and 150 Christians from local evangelical churches. He’s led workshops on what Muslims and Christians believe.
At a recent iftar at Redmond’s Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS), Ly’s manner is open and friendly, talking easily with MAPS members about everything from sports to what Ramadan means to them.
Ly’s next big project is to work with the director of the local Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) to organize a dinner this fall, inviting 20 imams and other Muslim leaders, and 20 pastors and other Christian leaders mainly from conservative evangelical churches. He’s planning to send invitations to individuals at Mars Hill Church, Overlake Christian Church and Westminster Chapel, among others; and to mosques including those in Kent, Redmond and Olympia.
“It’s the more conservative churches, I’m finding, that tends to be the part [of the Christian community] that doesn’t interact with the Muslim community,” Ly said.
He’s faced some resistance.
There’s the theological barrier: Many evangelicals view Muslims as people who have rejected the teachings and messages of Jesus. Some also believe Muhammad was a false prophet and that Islam is therefore based on a false premise. Or they feel Islam is antagonistic toward Christianity.
There’s also suspicion about why Muslims would want to take part in such interfaith efforts, or simply fear that something bad might happen if Muslims came to their church, Ly said.
And some churches don’t want to be associated publicly with this sort of work.
Pastor Joseph Fuiten, of Cedar Park Assembly of God Church, in Bothell has been outspoken in his hard-line stance against Islam.
He says Ly’s efforts are noble. But “I wouldn’t personally find it terribly useful,” Fuiten said. “If dialogue is knowing more about the other, then it’s not the things I don’t know about Islam that trouble me. It’s the things I do know.”
None of that bothers Ly, who says he’s not looking for church endorsements but rather, individual changes of heart: to help evangelicals better understand who Muslims are, and to present to Muslims a face of evangelical Christianity that is representative of who Jesus is.
Ly was born in the U.S. to parents who fled Cambodia as refugees. His parents were Buddhists; his mother later converted to Christianity, and Ly grew up attending a big, mostly Caucasian evangelical church.
It’s this mix of cultures and identities that led him to explore what people from his own culture were doing in different faiths. He wanted to know more about Southeast Asian Muslims. But in Tempe, Ariz., where he lived, there weren’t many of them.
So three years ago, he and his wife, Shannon Ly, director of a faith-based dance company, moved to Seattle simply because he felt called to bring together evangelicals and Muslims.
Neighbors and friends
As it turned out, the first church the couple went to here — Soma — Renton — had been hoping to start doing that sort of work, since its neighborhood included a growing number of Muslims.
“Jesus said to love your enemy, and love your neighbor as yourself,” said Lead Pastor John Prince of Soma — Renton. “In this country, Muslims have become our neighbors.”
There’s definitely suspicion on both sides that each wants to convert the other, Prince said.
Prince says that’s not his goal. And Ly believes it’s up to God whether people change their faith.
But there’s a spectrum of views on conversion among those involved in the effort. Senior Pastor Harvey Drake Jr., of Seattle’s Emerald City Bible Fellowship, says he’s had conversations with Muslims where each person was absolutely clear he wanted to convert the other.
“We chuckle about it,” says Drake, who feels he has a mandate from Jesus to share who Christ is, and to try to get Muslims to see Jesus as he does. “I don’t apologize for that.”
At the same time, “even if we don’t come together on this religion thing, we’re still neighbors, still friends.”
Some local Muslims say Ly’s efforts — including the planned joint dinner this fall — yield concrete results.
“Instead of looking at something theoretical, you’re looking at the actual person,” said Kabir Jeddy, treasurer of MAPS. “That gives you a different perspective right there.
S. Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the state chapter of CAIR, says he’s been linking mosques CAIR works with and churches that Ly works with, resulting in social gatherings and tours of each other’s places of worship.
“Locally, we’ve seen more evangelical Christians interested in this [interfaith work] because of Michael’s efforts,” he said.
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org