By Michael Ashcraft and Mark Ellis
Pastor Adrian Rodriguez has been preaching the gospel, translated by his wife, to about 30 people every Sunday in a church on the outskirts of Hartford, Connecticut, and not one of the congregants is Christian.
All of them are Muslim.
“We’re dealing with very hardcore Muslims,” he says of the immigrant refugees from the Middle East who are drawn to his church. “They’re very indoctrinated. But God is speaking to their hearts.”
Pastor Adrian’s response to America’s burgeoning Muslim enclaves is perhaps Christianity’s best model: View them with eyes of compassion, not with eyes of suspicion.
With 375 Muslims per 100,000 residents, Connecticut is the 14th most Muslim state in the nation, according to a Huffington Post article in 2012. The number of mosques has doubled to more than 2,100 nationwide since the year 2000, according to a survey.
While most Americans are not hostile towards Islam according to reports, there has been concern about radicalized youths. The Homeland Security Department estimates 100 U.S. citizens have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS.
Also there is worry the courts may allow certain Sharia law practices under the First Amendment.
Pastor Adrian, 47, knows all about this. His own wife made her way to America from Iraq in order to form a home in an arranged marriage when she was 16. Because she was beaten, she divorced after only two years, he says.
Years later, she met Adrian and they married in 1998. A certified translator on call for courts, hospitals and law enforcement agencies, Silvia now meets people suffering under the sometimes-heavy hand of foreign customs.
More often, she buys groceries for the destitute people she translates for on behalf of authorities.
The pastoral couple shares dinners with Muslim families, slowly becoming friends while exemplifying the love of Christ.
“You can’t just flat-out talk about religion,” Pastor Adrian says. “You have to gain their trust. That’s why they come to our church. It takes months of loving them and being a part of their lives.”
Pastor Adrian and his wife have been reaching out to Muslims in and around Hartford for six years – and still they don’t have a single convert.
“It’s hard for them to accept Christ because they have been told all their lives that he was just a prophet,” Pastor Adrian says. “Their religion is so much a part of their identity. They feel that if they give up their religion, they have nothing left.”
So Pastor Adrian preaches about God’s love. He shows Jesus’ teaching and ministry style in his sermons. The Muslims seemed to love the message. But when he recently broached the subject of Christ’s divinity, attendance dwindled, he says.
“It’s been wonderful planting this church,” Pastor Adrian says. “It’s been challenging. And it’s been discouraging because you want them to wake up and see what you see.”
One Muslim lady has had tears in her eyes as she listens to sermons. “She’s touched,” he says. “It’s something she’s never experienced before.” Still, she hasn’t accepted Jesus into her heart.
In a national context in which the governor of Louisiana and the president of the Family Research Council have alleged that America has Muslim “no-go zones” where law enforcement doesn’t enter, Pastor Adrian’s life and ministry seems to offer a more Christ-like response to Islam.
Show the love of Christ, don’t just rile emotions to shore up your constituency.
It’s also likely a viable counter-terrorism measure since it reaches out to the alienated and destitute families that research shows are prone to resorting to fanaticism.
Pastor Adrian is not so sure about the extent and impact of his church. To him, it’s simply a matter of leading people to Christ.
He also cautions against excessive alarm. He says he’s never encountered cases of threats against conversion, though both in American and from Iraq family members have pressured congregants to not convert.
“They see that we’re different,” Pastor Adrian says. And so they keep coming.