Texas pastor Bob Roberts has traveled to Washington before for the National Prayer Breakfast, a Christian-organized networking event where evangelicals come to schmooze about topics including their shared goal of bringing people to Christ. That was Roberts’ focus in the past. This year, he’ll attend with one of his closest current collaborators: An 85-year-old Islamic scholar visiting from Abu Dhabi.
Roberts and Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah are attending the Thursday breakfast following an unusual gathering that was held during the previous three days: 400 faith leaders coming together to forge interreligious ties, work that has been common for many U.S. faith groups for decades but often has eluded one particular pair: Muslims and evangelicals. White evangelicals have the most anti-Muslim views of any American faith group, polls show, and the meeting - timed so Bayyah could attend the huge prayer breakfast in Northwest Washington - reflects the urgency an increasing number of imams and pastors feel at a time when the world seems especially tribal and explosive.
The sight of a massive hotel ballroom of evangelical pastors and imams - as well a smattering of Jews and Catholics - brainstorming on how to build ties showed how the stable of people doing such work is building in recent years. As they met downstairs, upstairs the Marriott Marquis lobby TVs reported new proposed restrictions from the White House on Muslim immigrants.
“Evangelicals are making it much worse,” Roberts said of the negative views many Americans have of Islam. The pastor, a tall man with Southern drawl, a dapper suit and a salt and pepper beard, spoke in a busy hallway at the conference. “And pastors are worse than the people in the pews.”
Roberts lost hundreds of congregants in the early 2010s after he began his outreach, including bringing Muslims - and Jews - up on stage at his nondenominational megachurch, NorthWood, in Keller, Texas. He’d been urged by a Saudi prince he met while doing traditional mission work in the Middle East to focus on outreach in America. When he reached out to his first American imam, he “was scared to death,” he said.
NorthWood was labeled “a Muslim church.” The Southern Baptist graduate of two seminaries was accused by critics of being a “closet Muslim,” Roberts said.
Less than a decade later, Roberts has produced over 100 church planters, and his church has nearly 3,000 members. In 2014, he launched a program called “My Neighbor’s Keeper” that pulls together small groups of rabbis, imams and pastors, puts them through intensive group training, then requires they commit to working with, visiting and publicly defending one another. The initial plan was to do small groups in 10 cities over a decade, and this year alone the program has trained 20 groups. Without major funders they get space donated by random people: A hockey player in Phoenix lent his ranch one year. Then a Turkish American organization provided its center in Washington.
“If I told evangelicals I have a plan to convert Muslims, they’d give me money, even if it was a bad plan. But if I say I just want to be friends with them - “ his voice trails off and he shakes his head. “And Muslims are afraid evangelicals want to convert them.”
Of course they want to bring others to Christ, said Roberts and other pastors who have been trained through his program. But among evangelicals there has been a mobilizing, a growing - if still relatively small - number of leaders who are investing in learning more about Islam, making personal relationships and working to bring their congregations together.
Some of the reason for what conference attendees described as this quiet shift is cultural, some political - and some theological. The idea that Christians shouldn’t wait for some future heavenly kingdom but instead view current life as the kingdom of God changes the willingness - and in fact eagerness - to work with a broader circle of humanity.
“Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer - ‘Thy kingdom come’ - and when Jesus is defining that kingdom - ‘on Earth as it is in heaven.’ The guiding principle for Christian life is: How would I live my life if this was heaven today? I’d love my Muslim neighbor, my Jewish neighbor,” said Steve Bezner, pastor of Houston NW megachurch in Houston. Bezner did a retreat with Roberts in Abu Dhabi last year and another one with local clergy this month. He was among the dozens of evangelical pastors at the D.C. conference this week.
Bezner and others said one reason evangelicals are becoming more comfortable with Muslim engagement is because this generation isn’t called “interfaith” - which makes evangelicals nervous because many are theologically conservative and don’t like the concept of watering down the differences between faiths. They call it “multifaith,” which to Bezner feels more frank about the goal: Different faiths standing side by side, not one big squishy group.
“The first time I met an imam in my neighborhood, we’re five minutes into the conversation and he said: ‘Do you think I’m going to hell?’ I said: ‘That’s what my tradition teaches, yes.’ He said: ‘Good, I think you’re going to hell, too, so now we can have an honest conversation.’ “
Ossama Bahloul, resident scholar of the Islamic Center of Nashville, was also at the conference. He was imam of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, during recent years when the center faced massive protests and legal challenges over trying to build a new building. Bahloul has been involved in interfaith work for many years.
“We’ve been working for years with Catholics, Jews, Methodists - the only one left is the evangelical,” Bahloul said in Washington. “That’s what makes this [conference] so unique.”
Notably absent or played down at the conference was talk about the Trump administration, rising anti-Islam rhetoric since his campaign and administration took off, and legal challenges such as the draft report published this week by the Department of Homeland Security urging authorities to conduct “long-term surveillance” of Muslim immigrants deemed to have “at risk demographic profiles,” as The Washington Post reported this week.
Bahloul said people didn’t talk a huge amount about U.S. politics despite the starkness of it because they didn’t want to get derailed. Most evangelical pastors “have never interacted in their entire life with any imam,” he said. “We’re just trying to know the other.”
A 2017 Pew survey found that 35 percent of white evangelicals say they know someone who is a Muslim - the lowest percentage any racial, political or religious group said about Muslims. Pew said their sample size of Muslims was too small to get a sense of how many Muslims know an evangelical.
Bahloul said the rising anti-Muslim sentiment and division overall seems to have made it easier for Muslims and evangelicals to meet - and it’s more urgent.
“I think what’s going on in the country makes it easier because it encourages everyone who cares about the country to step up - otherwise we’ll lose the country,” said Bahloul, who came from Egypt originally. “There is division and hatred, and most of these people care deeply about the country. Maybe what’s going on politically motivates many of them to move forward more vigorously.”
There’s also pragmatism here. More evangelical churches are coming into contact with immigrant and refugee communities as their communities diversify. To turn away or turn off newcomers is a bad business model.
Micah Fries, pastor of Brainerd Baptist in Chattanooga, said his church has 150 refugees doing ESL classes on Sunday nights and that when they wanted to send relief to northern Iraq - where there are many displaced Christians - the church did so through a nearby Kurdish mosque, not a Christian aid agency. Some of his two young daughters’ closest friends are Muslim.
“The national rhetoric is worse than ever but I’ve never been more hopeful at the local level,” he said.
The reality is there is major distance here. A 2015 survey by the Christian research firm LifeWay Research found the majority of evangelical pastors say Islam is spiritually evil, dangerous and promotes violence - all up 5 to 10 percentage points from 2010.
If a big part of the conference was aimed at soothing anti-Muslim sentiment, equally on the table was the treatment of religious minorities - especially Christians - in Muslim-majority countries. The meeting this week, called the Alliance of Virtue conference, was viewed as a follow-up. In 2016, Muslim scholars and leaders from dozens of Muslim-majority countries met in Morocco to sign the Marrakesh Declaration, which called the oppression of religious minorities contrary to Islam.
The meeting this week ended with the signing of a broader document, called the Washington Declaration, which is an overall call to freedom of speech, religious liberty and tolerance. It called for the provision of a billion meals.
The majority-Muslim event also kicked off with an intriguing honoree - Doug Coe, one of the longtime core organizers of the breakfast, a behind-the scenes D.C. power broker and spiritual mentor, named often to lists of America’s most influential evangelical leaders. Roberts and Bin Bayyah wanted to honor Coe, who died a year ago - just after the annual event - and was the person who pushed them harder to bring their communities together.
He also, Roberts said, told them just before he died that they better speed up their shared work. “We needed to because the world is so messed up.”