Inside one Southern university, Christian missionaries are being trained to go undercover in the Muslim world and win converts for Jesus.
Originally published in Mother Jones.
AT 8 O’CLOCK ON A WARM MONDAY MORNING IN JANUARY, 20 students file into Rick Love’s classroom at Columbia International University in South Carolina. Eyes glassy from writing papers all weekend, they clutch Styrofoam cups of Folgers as they settle into their seats. In front, an overhead projector hums; it is hooked up to the instructor’s laptop, ready for a morning full of PowerPoint presentations.
Outside, CIU’s piney campus is quiet. Most of the student body has not yet returned from Christmas break. But these students, all evangelical Christians, have arrived two weeks early for an intensive course on how to win converts in Islamic countries. They’re learning from the master: Love is the international director of Frontiers, the largest Christian group in the world that focuses exclusively on proselytizing to Muslims. With 800 missionaries in 50 countries, Frontiers’ reach extends from the South Pacific to North Africa, with every major Islamic region in between.
Love is 49, a black-leather-jacket-wearing whirlwind of a man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a quick sense of humor. He’s a chronic multitasker, routinely praying aloud while drinking coffee and simultaneously reviewing his lecture notes. Little known outside the missionary world, he’s an icon within it—an evangelistic entrepreneur who wins admirers with what he calls his “middle linebacker” personality. His seminars are usually closed to the media and the public.
This morning’s lesson is about going undercover. Many of Love’s students are missionaries themselves, temporarily home from assignments in places ranging from Kazakhstan to Kenya. They know firsthand that evangelism is illegal in many Islamic nations, and they face expulsion if their true intentions become known. Love’s lesson for today is how to mask one’s identity while secretly working to convert Muslims. Evangelists, he explains, should always have a ready, nonreligious explanation for their presence in hostile areas.
Love fixes his gaze on a studious, spiky-haired missionary dressed in Patagonia clothing. “If people ask you, ‘Why are you here?'” he asks, “what do you say?” The young man, on leave from Southeast Asia, squirms in his chair. His jaw opens but nothing comes out. “Bingo!” Love says with a smile. “You bite your fingernails, and people go, ‘Of course he’s not hiding anything.'” Love notes that before he went to western Indonesia to proselytize among Sundanese Muslims, he went back to school and earned his credentials to become an English instructor. That way, he says, he had an excuse to be in the country. “I could look someone in the eye and say, ‘I am an English teacher,'” he explains. “‘I have a degree and I’m here to teach.'”
That, he says, is the model for winning converts in the Islamic world: Find another pretext to be in the country. Build friendships with the locals. Once you’ve developed trust, then it’s time to try to gain new believers. But don’t reveal your true purpose too early. “How did Jesus explain why he was there?” Love asks the class. “Indirectly,” volunteers a veteran missionary. “He’d say, ‘Why do you think I’m here?'”
“Did Jesus ever lie?” In unison, the class says, “No.”
“But did Jesus raise his hand and say, ‘I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?'” Again, 20 voices call out, “No!”
There are lots of ways to camouflage yourself, Love tells the students. In Indonesia, evangelists ran a quilt-making business to provide cover for Western missionaries, allowing them to employ—and proselytize—scores of Muslims.
The students nod thoughtfully; they agree that Muslims must be reached by whatever means possible. Their zeal is helping to fuel the biggest evangelical foray into the Muslim world since missionary pioneer Samuel Zwemer declared Islam a “dying religion” in 1916 and predicted that “when the crescent wanes, the Cross will prove dominant.” Over the past decade, evangelical leaders say, the number of missionaries trying to convert Muslims has jumped fourfold, from several hundred in the early 1990s to more than 3,000 today. Many are sent by the Southern Baptist Convention, with the rest coming from a network of church-supported groups with names like Christar and Arab World Ministries.
Missionaries work in remote villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan; former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; Middle Eastern hot spots like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; and African countries like Somalia and Algeria.
“We see Islam as the final frontier,” says David Cashin, a professor of Intercultural Studies at CIU who used to don Muslim clothing and pursue converts in the tea shops of Kaliakoir, Bangladesh. Like many of his fellow evangelicals, Cashin regards the Islamic world as a hinterland that must be penetrated before the Messiah can return. “History is coming to an end,” he says. “If you believe Christ is coming back, why has he delayed 2,000 years? We haven’t finished the task he set out to do.” That task, he says, is to win converts among all the world’s ethnic groups.
The growing movement to hunt souls in Muslim lands—by missionaries who often pass as aid workers, teachers, or business owners—has raised hackles outside the evangelical world. Missionaries themselves acknowledge that their work endangers the lives of converts, and critics charge that it disrupts the delivery of humanitarian aid and fuels resentment of Westerners during one of the most dangerous moments in recent history. But to those at the heart of the movement, including Rick Love’s students, any damage done by their work is outweighed by the importance of their mission: to wipe out Islam. “I believe it’s a false religion, and I’d like to see it be gone,” says Kim McHugh, a 36-year-old CIU student who is training to convert Iranian refugees in Turkey. Her husband Brent agrees. “If they don’t have a chance to experience Jesus,” he says, “they’re going to hell.”
FOR MOST AMERICANS, THE FIRST GLIMPSE into Muslim-world evangelism came last November, when the Taliban created heroes out of two fresh-faced missionaries named Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. Incarcerated for three months on charges of spreading Christianity, the women made headlines after U.S. Special Forces helicopters whisked them away from a prison outside Ghazni, Afghanistan. “They had a calling to serve the poorest of the poor,” President Bush said at a White House ceremony shortly after the Hollywood-style rescue. “Their faith was a source of hope that kept them from being discouraged.” But Curry and Mercer were doing more than relief work: Once home, they admitted to violating Afghan law by showing “part of a Jesus film” and giving a Christian storybook to a Muslim family. Another missionary, John Weaver, also garnered widespread media attention for his refusal to leave Afghanistan despite the growing anti-American tensions.
Like many missionaries in Islamic countries, Weaver trained at CIU, one of three schools in the United States with a degree program specifically devoted to converting Muslims. A campus of boxy brick buildings located at the end of a wooded boulevard in Columbia, South Carolina, CIU has the look of a second-tier state college. But rather than publicizing frat parties and rock concerts, the colorful posters on its walls and bulletin boards announce prayer services and opportunities for overseas missions. In the student center, next to a wide-screen TV, a book provides Christian reviews of Hollywood movies. (Harry Potter? Amistad? Billy Elliot? All rated “very offensive.”) Faculty and some 1,000 students eat together in the cafeteria, praying over smothered chicken and talking spiritedly about lessons from the New Testament.
During this two-week “winterim” session, it’s hard to find anyone of traditional college age. Many of the students are from the front lines of missionary work, men and women who have spent years in Muslim countries. Christian Dedrick is squeezing in some additional schooling before returning to the field next year. A lanky 33-year-old with thick blond sideburns, a pageboy haircut, and oval, horn-rimmed glasses, he has an easygoing style and an enthusiasm for challenging conversation. Pass him on the street, and the first impression would be tweedy intellectual.
For two years, Dedrick worked in a small port city in Kazakhstan, teaching English and living with a local family, sleeping on a cotton bedroll in a sparsely furnished room he shared with his host’s two sons. Although the family were devout Muslims—the father considered it a sin to leave the faith—Dedrick spent much of his time trying to persuade them to convert to Christianity. He read them the Bible and showed them a Kazakh translation of the “Jesus film,” a Campus Crusade for Christ movie that graphically depicts the crucifixion of a blue-eyed Jesus. “We wrestled over that a few times,” he remembers. “I’d say, ‘I have to tell you what changed my life. You don’t have to accept it, but I have to tell it.'” While the family didn’t convert, neither did it evict the American, whose $50 in rent represented a sizable chunk of the monthly household income.
Like the other missionaries who have come to CIU, Dedrick is constantly reevaluating his evangelical technique. He rejects his old attitude as “pretty paternalistic,” saying he’ll ask more questions before making judgments about what he sees when he returns to Central Asia next year. But he still believes Islam is the work of the devil. “People cheer at baseball games,” Dedrick says. “I cheer at worship services. And when I go to a culture 10,000 miles away and don’t see that righteousness, that holiness, reflected in that culture, I get sad. Satan has deceived them away from a relationship with their creator God.”
For all their work, Dedrick and his fellow missionaries win few new believers. That doesn’t seem to faze them. “My goal is not to convert a Muslim,” says Al Dobra, a 45-year-old with a gravelly voice and military haircut who befriends Muslim businessmen in Nairobi, Kenya, and then tries to convince them of Islam’s fallacies. “My goal is to plant a tiny seed that will fester and gnaw and grow, so that eventually they will begin to question their religion. My prayer is that they will become restless sleepers and troubled by what they hear. That’s a horrible thing to wish on someone.”
THAT ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY THAT CHRISTIANITY IS THE ONLY TRUTH—and that other religions are satanically inspired—runs throughout the two weeks of Rick Love’s course. One morning Tom Seckler, a dark-haired missionary with a thick black mustache, tacks the Cambodian flag to the classroom bulletin board and lays a map of the country on the overhead projector. Seckler’s mission agency, World Team, has targeted the Western Cham, an impoverished Muslim minority group in Cambodia that was massacred by the thousands by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Despite World Team’s efforts, Seckler estimates there are only about 25 Christian converts, some of whom meet Tuesday nights in Phnom Penh. “Please pray for the Cham people,” he asks his classmates. “There’s a degree of self-righteousness among the Cham. They think they’re OK. We don’t see a big spiritual hunger among them.”
The class begins to worship, eyes closed, each person offering a spontaneous request. “Lord, we come into your presence and we ask that you would give us a fresh sense of your burden and your love for Muslim people, especially the Cham,” says Love. He falls silent, and then Brent McHugh takes over: “I pray, Lord, that the Cham people do hunger, and realize what they’re missing in Christ.”
The prayers reflect CIU’s official attitude toward what it considers a competitor religion. Prominent on the university’s Web site is an essay posted shortly after September 11. “To claim that ‘Islam’ means ‘peace’ is just one more attempt to mislead the public,” it reads. “Muslim leaders have spoken of their goal to spread Islam in the West until Islam becomes a dominant, global power.” The essay was written by Warren Larson, who directs the university’s Muslim Studies program and served as a mentor to John Weaver, the Afghanistan missionary. A former missionary himself, Larson fears that Christianity might be losing the race for world domination. “Islam is biologically taking over the world,” he says. “They’re having babies faster than we are.”
Before coming to CIU, Larson worked for 23 years in Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan, trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. He and his wife hosted prayer meetings, Bible studies, and informal gatherings where Muslims came for tea and Coke. Many of their neighbors showed up—some to learn about their religion, but most for more practical reasons. “People had the idea that foreigners have money,” Larson says. “A lot of them would come because you might be able to help them get to America. Or they would come asking for help: ‘My father, he’s sick. Can you write a letter of introduction to the hospital?’ Some of them would be willing to talk about Christianity. Most would not.”
Larson was indeed rich by local standards. Not only did he hire Muslims for domestic help, but he also owned household luxuries like a refrigerator. And while the Larsons often engaged in community service—visiting widows, taking people to the doctor—they were still seen by some neighbors as the embodiment of the West. One morning, 200 armed Muslims stormed Larson’s home, throwing bricks at his ministry’s two Land Rovers, kicking down his door, and setting fire to religious literature. After that, Larson says, “whenever we would hear something that sounded like a riot, it would scare us.”
The attack on Larson’s home came in the midst of fierce anti-U.S. sentiment in the Muslim world, which culminated in the takeover of the American embassy in Iran in 1979. Now, in the wake of September 11, some critics say evangelists are again fueling distrust and resentment toward Westerners. Last October, Islamic militants opened fire on a church built by missionaries in Pakistan, killing 16 Christians, and Muslim rebels threatened to execute two missionaries kidnapped in the Philippines.
“The issue is the disproportional power relationship,” says Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that works to promote a positive image of Muslims. “They use their resources to coerce people to do what they want them to do.” Hooper remembers reviewing a proposal by a Christian agency to send veterinarians to help impoverished Fulani cattle herders in West Africa. But the plan had a caveat: “You don’t get the veterinarian unless you take the missionary,” he says. “When people are in desperate circumstances, they’ll do things they otherwise wouldn’t do.”
Robert Macpherson, security director for the aid group CARE, remembers serving as a U.S. Marine in Somalia during the early 1990s, when some 200 organizations were working to stave off famine in the war-ravaged country. “It was dangerous, dangerous, dangerous,” he recalls. Evangelicals only made matters worse, he says, by showing up at food-distribution sites and handing out Christian literature, giving the impression that food aid was contingent on conversion to Christianity. “The next thing we know, they got themselves in the middle of a riot,” Macpherson recalls. Angered by the missionaries, Somalis climbed over one another to steal food and set trucks on fire. “They were desperate,” he says. “They were dying. This was an emergency.”
AT CIU, MISSIONARIES-IN-TRAINING LEARN TO TRY TO AVOID SUCH HOSTILITY by blending into the cultures they visit. In class one morning, Rick Love opens his Bible to the book of Acts, in which the apostle Paul takes on a disciple named Timothy. Before the two men go out to proselytize among the Jews, Paul takes Timothy to have his foreskin cut. “He says, ‘Yo, Tim, you wanna join my team? You gotta get circumcised,'” Love tells his students. “How’s that for high standards? Wow!”
Love is hardly suggesting that his male students undergo the knife. He’s making a bigger point: To win converts in a foreign culture, you must take on the behaviors of that culture, even adopting the rituals of another religion. The practice is called “contextualization,” and it’s one of the hottest topics among missionaries. The idea is to get away from the old-fashioned practice of importing American-style Christianity, complete with wooden pews and Western hymns. Instead, missionaries today are more likely to take on Muslim names, dress in veils and other local clothing, prostrate themselves during prayer, and even fast during Ramadan. “We must become Muslims to reach Muslims,” says Cashin, the CIU professor.
If a first-century evangelist can undergo circumcision to win converts, how far can a 21st-century missionary go? At lunch, Christian Dedrick takes a spoonful of his wife’s homemade broccoli soup and ponders the question aloud. “Should we call ourselves Muslims?” he asks. “The old meaning of the word is ‘one who submits.’ In Jordan, the missionaries had ‘Jesus mosques.’ They called themselves ‘Muslims of the Messiah.’ We wrestled with that. We wanted to call God ‘Allah’ so we could be on that relational level with Muslims.”
Dedrick drew the line at appearing too Muslim—but others haven’t. “One team in the Middle East has a policy of not allowing missionaries to identify themselves as Christians,” reports the journal Evangelical Missions Quarterly. Another team “called themselves Jesus-ists” and presented themselves as “one of many Sufi or dervish mystical orders.” The journal Missiology says that missionaries urge Palestinian students to adopt Christian beliefs—but to still call themselves Muslim.
When pressed, evangelicals acknowledge that they often blur the distinctions between the two religions and fail to disclose their intentions. “The line between guile and withholding information is very, very thin,” says one missionary at CIU who asked not to be identified for security reasons. He admits that he rarely tells his Muslim neighbors why he’s living among them—demurely calling himself a “language student”—and that he’s been forced to terminate friendships with those who ask too many questions. “To have integrity in that is a challenge,” he says.
Many Islamic and Christian leaders alike believe that evangelical groups often fail the integrity challenge. “Once you have this kind of sneaky way, the respect for the holy is gone,” says Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America. Sacred rituals, such as prostration and the Ramadan fast, are used to lure people away from their own religion. “The missionary,” says Syeed, “is seen as someone who is stabbing you in the back.”
For Donna Derr, the honesty issue is not an abstract one. She’s the associate director of international emergency response for Church World Service, which provides aid in more than 80 countries while barring outright proselytizing. From her perspective, Christian evangelizing—particularly by missionaries who masquerade as humanitarian workers—makes it harder for legitimate aid organizations to relieve poverty, malnutrition, and disease. “Groups that have the need to proselytize color us all with the same brush,” says Derr. As a result, she says, it’s harder to win the trust of those communities her group is trying to serve. She recalls one Southeast Asian nation where rural families suffer from debilitating diseases. “It was difficult to get the local governments to allow us to come in,” Derr says, “because they had somebody in the past who tried to start a Christian church. They’d say, ‘Oh, your name is Church World Service. You’re going to do the same thing.'” In other cases, she adds, evangelicals provoked so much resentment “that the other groups doing aid had to pull out, simply because it was too dangerous.”
Derr and others note that there is another model for missionary work, one followed by many mainline Christians: serving those in need without actively recruiting new believers. For example, Catholic Relief Services delivers food and blankets to Afghanistan, builds drinking-water systems in Morocco, and promotes small-business development among Egyptian women—all without trying to recruit Muslims to Catholicism. “We reflect our beliefs in our actions, in our relations, in our respect for people,” says Ken Hackett, the agency’s director. “We don’t ask even our own staff to convert. If you’re a good Muslim, you’re a good Muslim.”
Rick Love admits that some evangelical groups “are unwise in how they share their faith.” But even if it takes some stretching of the truth, he adds, it would be wrong to ignore the call to share the Word. “That is what the Bible teaches,” he says, “so I could never be part of an organization that focuses on deed only.” As Love sees it, the lack of religious freedom in many Islamic countries forces missionaries to conceal their intentions. “I want the freedom to share my faith with you and not be persecuted,” he says, “and I want you to have the same with me. It should be a matter of persuasion, and not political power.”
ON THE LAST DAY OF THE “WINTERIM” SESSION, THINGS TURN DECIDEDLY SOMBER in Love’s classroom. It’s the lesson in which the instructor reminds his students that their work can have dire—even deadly—consequences for the people they try to convert. He refers to Curry and Mercer, the two Americans who were airlifted from a Taliban prison two months earlier. “What happened with Dayna and Heather is not typical,” he says. “We do have people imprisoned, but usually you’re asked to leave. We get a ticket out of the country—but the new believers, what do they face? Loss of job, children taken away, imprisonment, torture, even martyrdom.”
Of all the criticisms launched at Christian evangelists, this is the one that’s least disputed: Missionary work often puts local believers in serious danger. “It is common for mission agencies to be expelled from countries awash with persecution,” reports an internal study by the Southern Baptist Convention based on 300 interviews in 45 countries. “Virtually overnight, local believers are left destitute and exposed.” The study cites Indonesia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as particularly repressive. In one East African community, it reports, converts were “systematically hunted down and martyred by adherents to Islam. Other believers are displaced; they live in refugee camps; they reside in adjacent countries, or in the West.” The common thread among the victims? “All those martyred had a relationship to expatriate Christians that contributed to their deaths.” In another country unnamed in the report, “significant numbers of Muslim-background believers were arrested and tortured due to their relationship to the expatriate missionary.”
Tahir Lavi converted to Christianity during secret midnight Bible-study sessions at a madrassah in Kashmir where he was studying the Koran. His parents disowned him, and he was forced to flee after a group of men threatened to kill him. For the past 13 years, he has lived in exile in a small house at the end of a narrow lane in a north Delhi slum. But despite the risks, he continues to preach to other Muslims, exhorting them in the words of Jesus: “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Indeed, evangelical leaders encourage missionaries to continue proselytizing, even though converts might be tortured or killed. “Missionaries need maturity and spiritual toughness so that when the fruits of their witness are required to walk through the fire, the missionary does not automatically attempt to rescue them,” the Southern Baptist study urges. “Persecution is Biblically and historically normative for the emerging church; it cannot be avoided or eliminated…. To avoid persecution is to hamper the growth of the kingdom of God.”
In the end, say evangelicals, the earthly suffering of Christians pales before the eternal hell to which Muslims are sentenced. “It’s hard for me to say, ‘I have a passport out of here if things get out of hand, but you have to stay here and take it,'” says Raymond Weiss, a former missionary in Bahrain. “But that’s what Jesus says: Sometimes it will be fathers and mothers against each other for his sake. If Jesus is cosmically, ultimately true, then whatever cost in this world is nothing.”
With that shared assumption, Rick Love’s students are returning to the field, to share the New Testament in the places they’re least wanted. The class at CIU has inspired them to renew their efforts to save Muslims from what they consider a false religion. “Some Christians have said to us, ‘They have their own faith; why do you need to reach them?'” says Brent McHugh, the evangelist bound for Turkey. “But if you lean your ladder against the wrong wall and you spend your life climbing up that ladder, when you get to the top, you’ll find there’s nothing there.”