Spiritual journeys of evangelist and imam show similarities, differences - Word&Way

Spiritual journeys of evangelist and imam show similarities, differences

Abraham Sarker, executive director of Gospel for Muslims, was brought up in a devout Muslim home but became a follower of Jesus Christ. Abdullah Smith, an imam in Houston, grew up in a nominal Christian home but eventually embraced Islam.

Each felt something lacking in the religious tradition of his family. Both believe their newfound faith fills a spiritual need.

And in Sarker’s case, he has devoted his life to helping other Muslims discover the same peace he found in Christ.

From Muslim to Christian

Sarker grew up in Bangladesh, the firstborn child of Sunni Muslim parents. At age 7, he began to pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan and receive mentoring from the imam in his village. By the time he turned 13, he was being trained to become a Muslim religious leader.

A series of disturbing dreams at age 15 caused a crisis of faith. Convinced that Allah was displeased with him, he spent all night praying in a mosque. A couple of weeks later, Sarker believes a voice instructed him to find a Bible. He searched in vain four years for a copy of the Christian Scriptures.

At age 19, an Islamic organization sent him to the United States to get his college education and share his Muslim faith with other students. While he was studying at the University of Central Florida, he visited the campus library in search of a Bible. The librarian on duty directed him to the Baptist Student Ministry, where he received a Bible in the Bengali language — a translation by pioneer missionary William Carey.

“I was living with other Muslim student missionaries, but I read the Bible whenever no one was watching — mostly at night or whenever I was alone,” he recalled.

Although he had been taught to believe Christians worshipped three gods, he was surprised to read Mark 12:29. In that passage, when asked to identify the greatest commandment, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy: “The Lord our God is one Lord.”

Filled with questions, Sarker sought out a Christian professor who, in turn, directed him to Peter Shadid, a Syrian who had been a Baptist missionary in the Middle East.

“Peter told me three things. ‘You can know God personally.’ I had not even dreamed that was possible. ‘God loves you unconditionally.’ I knew Allah might like me if I did good deeds to please him, but the idea that God unconditionally loves me was something I had never heard. Finally, he told me I could have assurance. ‘You can know for sure that when you die, you will go to heaven.’ I could never say that before,” he recalled.

Initially, Sarker expressed reluctance, recognizing the impact his decision would have on his relationship with his family. However, he eventually knelt and prayed to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
As he feared, his parents disowned him, cutting off all communication with him for several years. However, eight years after his conversion to Christianity, he led two of his brothers to faith in Christ. Eventually, his father also became a Christian.

He moved to Texas to attend the Christ for the Nations Institute and later Dallas Baptist University, where he now serves as an adjunct professor.

Eleven years ago, he and his wife, Amie, founded Gospel for Muslims, an international organization that seeks to train Christians to share their faith with Muslims and that engages in direct evangelism and humanitarian ministries in Muslim-majority countries.

From Christian to Muslim

Born to a Puerto Rican Catholic mother and an African-American Baptist father, Ronald Smith grew up in a tough Atlantic City, N.J., neighborhood attending churches — usually Baptist — on Christ-mas, Easter and other special occasions.

Smith described his early years as “troubled.” He began smoking marijuana in the first grade, and he routinely drank a beer for breakfast before school.

“I didn’t even like it. Beer tastes pretty nasty. But I felt lost, and it helped mellow me out to deal with the sadness in my life,” he recalled.

By the time he was in his early teens, Smith was part of a street gang and was arrested for possession of a deadly weapon — a nail-studded board he carried for protection.

“I was lost. I realized I needed some spiritual guidance. If figured if Christianity could make an impact on my life, it already would have done it. So, that’s when I began my quest for spirituality,” he said.
At age 14, he entered a mosque and discovered what he found lacking in the Christian churches he occasionally had attended.

“I don’t mean to suggest all churches are like this, but it was an unpleasant experience for me. The people seemed to have a holier-than-thou attitude and told me I’d never amount to anything. They seemed to look down on me because I didn’t own a suit. Nobody ever welcomed me. When some people saw me, they would walk away,” he recalled.

In contrast, he found in the mosque a community that welcomed him as he was and challenged him to become a better person.

“I was wild and off the hook. The daily regimen of Islam gave me the discipline I needed,” he said.
Smith adopted the name “Abdullah” as soon as he embraced Islam.

“I wanted to change my identity,” he said, noting Islam offered him the opportunity to begin a new life.
He graduated from high school and then studied at a university in Medina, Saudi Arabia. After completing his theological training, he returned to the United States to serve mosques in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Columbia, Mo., before moving to Houston in 2010.

Smith does not see himself as “particularly evangelistic” in terms of trying to persuade other people to accept the teachings of Islam, but he does feel passionate about promoting an understanding of Muslims.

“People are people. I’m an American. Muslims in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan don’t speak for me,” he said.
“I’m a regular person. I enjoy a good steak. I like football. My kids play baseball. My son’s a Boy Scout, and my daughter’s a Girl Scout. Ever since I moved to Texas, I’d consider myself a conservative Republican. I feel like I’m a pretty nice guy, and I don’t try to stuff my religion down other people’s throats.”

As a Christian, Sarker makes no apologies for sharing his faith or for his desire to persuade Muslims to accept Jesus Christ. But he agrees with Smith about the importance of treating Muslims with respect and loving them as people.

“There are some who claim to be Christians who have bitterness, anger and hatred toward Muslims. God cannot use a person who has hatred in his heart,” he said.

Sarker — author of Understand My Muslim People — emphasizes compassionate ministry and lifestyle evangelism. Gospel for Muslims periodically sponsors conferences for Muslim-background believers in Christ, as well as for pastors, missionaries and lay leaders who want to learn how to reach Muslims with the Christian gospel.

Sarker also operates a nongovernmental organization in Bangladesh focused on rural economic and social development. The organization sponsors schools, health clinics, clean-water projects, agricultural improvement initiatives and direct aid to villages.

“We want to show love. Acts of compassion touch hearts,” he said. “Any Christian who becomes argumentative in dealing with a Muslim is concentrating on the wrong areas. It’s not about trying to prove we are right and they are wrong. We believe Christ is the answer. We want them to see Jesus in us.”

Ken Camp is managing editor of the Baptist Standard.