HARLEM, N.Y.-Four white men from Winnsboro, Texas, wearing their Texas Longhorn T-shirts and sturdy Carhartt coats, stood by a spindly table covered with an African print and filled with CDs. One wore an African tunic over his T-shirt. Another wore an African tunic beneath his Carhartt. They struck up conversations with passersby on one of Harlem's main streets.
"We live in a small town in East Texas. Three traffic signals, one grocery store," said David Rose, pastor of First Baptist Church Winnsboro. They came to New York to distribute Christian CDs and DVDs to West African Muslims. Thanks to the efforts of a Harlem missionary with Texas Southern Baptist roots, Rose said, "We can do West African evangelism without having to leave the United States."
One reason Rose and his friends headed to Harlem is because their church began praying for ways to reach out to West African Muslims-in particular, a people group called the Wolofs. They made contact with Chris Clayman, a Baptist missionary born in Winnsboro who reaches West Africa through the relationships he builds in New York City.
As a college student, Clayman planned to become a missionary to Japan. Then, at a missions conference, a man hoarse with malaria told Clayman about a country he had never heard of-Mali-and about ethnic groups that had no missionary presence. Soon after 9/11, Clayman went to Mali to live among the Wassulu people, learn the language, and plant churches.
A year later Clayman also had malaria. He came back to the United States malnourished, shaking uncontrollably, without strength in his legs, and barely able to talk or breathe. It was four months before he could walk without a limp and six before he started recruiting more missionaries to the Wassulu. Three missionaries moved to the village where he contracted malaria, but when Clayman tried to go back he had to return to the United States within a month, sick again. He put his ministry on hold to get a missions degree and to get married.
Clayman's health did not allow another return to Mali, so the North American Mission Board asked the Claymans to consider evangelizing West Africans in metropolitan New York City, which is home to 800,000 Muslims, 75 percent of them immigrants. That statistic surprises people, because-as Jesus for Muslims president Fred Farrokh says-Muslims remain "a neglected and a hidden mission field." Even in a country that protects religious freedom, Muslims fear showing an interest in Christianity.
Clayman and his family now live in the heart of Harlem.
The first Wassulu he met was Moussa, a Christian who fled Mali after his conversion. His family burned down his house, tried to wreck his motorcycle, shot at him, and beat him so brutally you can still see the marks 25 years later. When Moussa met Clayman he told him, "I've always felt called to be an evangelist to my people, but I've never known how because it's just been me. It's a miracle that you walked into my life today."
Moussa, who works as a security guard in Brooklyn, helps Clayman by opening doors for missionaries to his Mali village, where his family still lives and the young people respect him-so much that Clayman said the older Muslims complain, "All the young people in the village are going to become Christians."
Other missionaries have also seen the opportunity in New York for Muslim evangelism. Daniel and Gail (not their real names, because giving them would put their ministries and perhaps their lives in danger) were missionaries to Muslims in the Philippines; Daniel, raised in Pakistan, speaks Arabic and understands how hospitality, a practice woven into Muslim culture, leads to friendship. Now they help immigrants with material needs and invite neighbors for meals, including Thanksgiving dinner.
At meals they wait for people to ask questions such as "Who are you?" and "Why do you do this?" When they tell their Muslim friends it's because they love them, Gail said they have to define the term: "The word love to them is so foreign." They have to chip away at Muslims' preconceived ideas of Christianity. They assume Christmas is all about "drinking and dancing and merrying," Gail said-behaviors they consider immoral-and they're surprised to learn that Gail and Daniel spend Christmas praying.
Cultural barriers make their work difficult. Clayman said he has people involved in Bible studies and even in evangelism to other Muslims, but conversion is rare. Some African Muslims wait for a dream or miracle that will push them toward complete allegiance to Christ, but for most it's not an individual decision: They can't break their solidarity with the people back home. "The hostility comes toward them from their own family," said Clayman. "It's a shame thing. The biggest thing in their society is that they don't shame their families. That's why change is really hard."
Even in America, Muslims persecute Christian converts. In September 2007, Jesus for Muslims opened a refuge center for Muslim converts in danger and need. Before the center opened, Farrokh knew one Muslim convert who had to sleep in a car, and also an ex-Shiite whose father beat him and kicked him out of the house. This kind of community pressure makes Muslims hesitant to express any public interest in Christianity, so missionaries leave CDs and DVDs in phone booths, grocery stores, and anywhere else Muslims might find them. Those work well since Muslims can watch behind closed doors and on their own schedule, since some work up to 100 hours a week.
A lack of Christian workers also blocks Muslim evangelism, Farrokh said. Christians are intimidated by the stereotypes they see in the news, so Jesus for Muslims educates churches about Muslim beliefs and culture, taking Christians to mosques and showing them many Muslims are friendly, hospitable people. Farrokh sees more people stirred to evangelism. The Arab-American Friendship Center, a Brooklyn center that teaches English with the intent of building Muslim friendships, now has almost enough volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring.
But sometimes the dream or the miracle comes-that supernatural experience they can't explain, that sense of peace, or that illumination Farrokh felt when he read the Bible as a Muslim college student in 1983. Some Muslims have always hidden a curiosity about the Christian church, said Gail, and when they go "they have supernatural experience they cannot understand" but often describe as a sense of peace: "A lot of the times those who become Christians, they are already ready. They are just so ripe. All you have to do is tell them, OK, this is how you pray."
In their three days as missionaries to Muslims in Harlem, Rose and his men experienced their own moments of intimidation when a Muslim cleric heard their CD and reprimanded them for spreading lies. But the trip finally brought the four First Baptist Church volunteers into contact with the Wolof Muslims, and their next goal is to learn French or Wolof to communicate with them.
More than 10 each day-some who spoke limited English, some who spoke only Wolof-stopped to talk or listen to the Wolof CDs. One West African Muslim working at the nearby Red Cross facility brought a friend to their table, asking them to give the man Wolof CDs.
"He knew what we had and so he brought someone who had no English to us. . . . It was Muslims bringing Muslims to us," Rose said. "We knew at that point we stumbled onto something and God is at work."
And Clayman hopes his health will soon allow him to visit Mali and return there once or twice a year. His plan, though, is to live where there are many Muslims but fewer mosquitoes and less disease-in New York City.