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Quiet witness

Religion | Evangelism to Muslims is hard, but slow progress is coming in New York

Issue: "Millions cut down," Jan. 17, 2009

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.

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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."


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