Grace Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, welcomes Arabic Evangelical Church
MURFREESBORO — Members of Grace Baptist Church here certainly have been aware of the struggle in their community during the last two years over the building of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro next door.
At times they didn’t know what to do. At times as the rhetoric — often led by Christians — grew strident they became fearful and their numbers dwindled.
Several years ago their new interim pastor, Dan Watts, advised members of Grace Baptist to avoid the community and city council meetings. The discussion was usually negative about Muslims, potentially their new neighbors. Watts, who came to the church just as the struggle in the community was developing into a local and eventually national news item, learned later that Muslims had worshiped in a mosque in Murfreesboro for 30 years.
He didn’t think Grace members should be afraid of the Muslims who were planning to build next door. “I also wanted us to move from not being afraid of Muslims to loving Muslims,” said Watts.
He and the other members of Grace may not know much about Muslims, but they are learning, he said. And they realized, as plans to build developed, that “God has placed them [Muslims] here,” Watts added.
The fact that Muslims, about 200 it is reported, are now worshiping and meeting next door to Grace Baptist, doesn’t “surprise God a bit,” stated Watts, who served as pastor for 42 years in Mississippi. “We can have a Christian witness right next door,” he declared.
Watts explained that even though he served as a trustee of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board for eight years and witnessed to internationals over the years in different communities, “I wasn’t familiar with our neighbors.”
Now he and Grace members don’t have to do all that is required to become missionaries because they can be missionaries at home, he observed.
Last summer when construction on the mosque was about to begin, a sign on the property announcing the new mosque was spray-painted with the phrase “Not Welcome.” Then an arson fire destroyed excavating equipment at the site.
Understandably, the owners of the land posted a big “No Trespassing” sign several places on the property including right next to Grace Baptist.
In response, Grace Baptist posted on their church sign — “Trespassers Are Welcome.”
Then as legal hurdles to construction of the mosque were resolved by the courts and construction began — and possibly in response to the Trespassers Are Welcome sign — two men in Arabic dress entered the Grace Baptist property near the road to pray one day. Watts passed them on his way to the church on a Saturday morning to participate in a work day at the facility.
Watts called Raouf Ghattas for help. Ghattas, an Egyptian Christian and Baptist who speaks Arabic and lives in Murfreesboro, had become acquainted with Watts after a referral from David Pittman, director of missions, Concord Baptist Association, based in Murfreesboro. Ghattas quickly joined Watts. They approached the men and had a short conversation.
Watts and Ghattas invited the men to worship the next day at Grace and they came. The Muslim men were warmly welcomed by church members and one of the two joined Watts and several other Grace members at the altar for a prayer time. Other unusual experiences of the visit were that one of the Muslim men put some money in the offering plate and one told Watts that he learned something about communication in marriage from Watts’ sermon.
That was a good experience, said Watts, and an answer to prayer.
Watts said less fruitful were his experiences with the media during the two-year period. He was interviewed by the local media and asked for an interview by CNN.
Other interesting experiences of the church were the visits to worship services by a university professor in Ohio studying the relationship between Islam and Christianity.
The church has continued to try to witness to its next door neighbors, said Watts. Last summer it had a tent revival on its land and it has posted 23 large crosses on its property.
Watts said he received some criticism from residents, even some Christian ministers, over posting the crosses. It was the right thing to do, he stated.
The church also has received support from the Christian community here. Every Friday morning a small group of Christians, mostly non-members, meet to pray for Grace Baptist.
Through it all, the church has grown in numbers, is baptizing new Christians and now drawing about 75 to Sunday School each week, said Watts.
Raouf Ghattas and Watts learned quickly that they shared a vision from God for Grace Baptist.
One result of that shared vision is the Arabic Evangelical Church which meets here.
The Arabic congregation led by Ghattas who is pastor has just been meeting at Grace Baptist for about a month and already is drawing about 15 people to its services.
Raouf and his wife Carol were members of First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, where the Arabic congregation previously had met. The Ghattases are retired representatives of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board for which they served 20 years. Carol Ghattas is the former Carol Brown, who grew up at First Baptist.
The Ghattases first came to Grace to hold a six-week study on comparative religions. They are glad for the opportunities they have at Grace Baptist.
Raouf explained that “life is never boring in this ministry.
“We pray such little prayers,” he stated.
“The Christian Arab community, they are not reaching for the Muslims as they should while they are the best people that can reach them,” said Ghattas.
The Christian Arabs and the Muslim Arabs speak the same language, which is a big benefit, he explained. They also understand each other’s cultures.
Yet it is hard for the Christian Arab to love the Muslim Arab because often Christian Arabs were “abused back home,” said Ghattas.
Surprisingly, though, the members of the Arabic congregation do not hate Muslims, he stated. They are looking for “the Paul-style of Muslim.” In other words, just as the Apostle Paul was reached by the gospel, some Muslims can be reached, said Ghattas.
He and the Arabic congregation have already worked with First Baptist Church, Lebanon, in an outreach effort, said Ghattas. The Arabic congregation identified businesses owned by Arabic-speaking people in the area. The outreach participants visited them and gave the workers a gift and information about the new congregation.
“We want to encourage other churches to do what the Lord is doing here,” said Ghattas, and for the Baptist church to become involved rather than being “quiet about Muslims.”
For more information on reaching Muslims, contact Ghattas at firstname.lastname@example.org or (615) 427-5251.