Attendance at the Southern Baptist church on Scenic Drive had dwindled to about 15 most Sundays. The potted plant by the pulpit was from yet another member’s funeral. There was $5,000 in the church bank account and $6,000 in bills when Larry Montgomery, a deacon, reached a conclusion once unthinkable in the heart of the Bible Belt.
“We’re just not going to make it,” he announced to the members of Scenic Drive Baptist, and then he told them he might have found a solution.
There was another congregation, he said, a small one that had been meeting in living rooms and whose pastor carried business cards that quoted from John 4:35: “Look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” Maybe they wanted to buy the church.
And so phone calls were placed, and a few days later, the prospective buyers held a prayer meeting about what to do.
“Abuna Semawi, nashkurak,” the pastor began in Arabic. “Heavenly Father, we thank you.”
Not long ago, none of this would be happening. There would be no dying traditional Southern Baptist church and no Arab Southern Baptist congregation to buy it. There would be none of that, because old-line Southern Baptist churches anchored practically every big city and little country town in the South, their oak pews filled with believers in eternal salvation through the blood of Jesus and the rest of what it meant to be good Christian Southerners: missionary training, handbells, casseroles for the homebound.
In particular, they have been the church of the conservative white South, the people the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to persuade in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and the people whom GOP operatives knew they must mobilize at election time. If a poll referred to “white evangelical Christians,” that largely meant Southern Baptists.
Except that for the past decade, the denomination has been in what its leaders describe as a “discouraging” retreat. Although Southern Baptists remain by far the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with an estimated 15 million members, a steady decline in overall numbers — of members, baptisms and churches — has led to much soul-searching and the realization that survival depends on becoming less insular and more diverse.
To that end, the Southern Baptists have apologized to African Americans for “racism of which we have been guilty,” expressed support for immigration reform, and in general sought to be less white, if not less conservative. A rising number of congregations are Latino, Asian and now Arab.
There are “church revitalization” conferences, too, almost every month, all over the South on topics such as “diagnosing the fears that limit church vitality.”
But all of that was coming too late for Larry Montgomery. He had seen Scenic Drive Baptist when its pews were full and watched it degenerate into petty fights over money and personalities. The membership had aged and remained white as the area was booming and becoming more diverse. The weekly offering had dwindled, and the finance committee had cut funds for salaries, Sunday school literature and paper plates, none of which was enough.
“We don’t have time to dillydally,” Larry had said when he addressed the congregation, explaining that selling to the Arab Baptists might be their best hope of keeping the church from closing.
They prayed and then took a vote, and now, a few miles away in a suburban living room, the members of the fledgling Arab congregation were considering an opportunity they never anticipated in a place that never quite anticipated them.
“Ashkurak kainak gamatina marra taniya inu agtimaa amamak,” continued the pastor, Raouf Ghattas, leading the prayers. “Thank you for bringing us together one more time to gather before you.”
“Nam,” whispered a member. “Yes.”
“We need our home Lord,” Ghattas continued. “Speak to our hearts.”
“The Lord made it clear,” he said. “No more drinking. No more girls. No more smoking. I slept like a baby. The next morning, I said, ‘I am a new creation in Christ.’ ”
As a new creation, Raouf decided to stop being a nuclear engineer and attend a Southern Baptist seminary to become a preacher. He was drawn to a denomination that embraced evangelism and, as he saw it, conservative values similar to those in the Arab world, where men headed the family, and homosexuality was against God’s order.
He was also drawn to his future wife, Carol, who grew up in Murfreesboro and was attending the same seminary. As a couple, Raouf said, the Lord gave them a mission: “Never rest until you tell every Arab about Jesus.”
Their view of Islam was simple: that all Muslims were in need of salvation, which, as good Southern Baptists, they understood could come only by following Jesus.
So they went abroad as missionaries, living in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. Raouf worked to convert Muslim men to Christianity, and Carol, who speaks fluent Arabic with a soft Southern pitch, wrote Christian-themed novels intended to appeal to Muslim women, such as “Lust Under the Veil.”
Meanwhile, the Muslim world was coming to Murfreesboro, a door first opened by a U.S. decision designating Nashville as a “gateway city” for Iraqi war refugees in 1992.
By the time the Ghattases moved back to Tennessee nearly two decades later, so many Iraqis, Egyptians, Saudis and Somalis had moved to Nashville and along Interstate 24 that Carol found herself saying something to her husband that she never imagined:
“My little town of Murfreesboro has a mosque.”
It was 2010, and the mosque was part of the 52,000-square-foot Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, whose construction was drawing national attention. A congressional candidate described it as an “Islamic training center” that was “designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee.” Hundreds of protesters waved signs that read “To embrace Islam is to embrace terrorism!” while counter-protesters yelled “Love thy neighbor!”
As it happened, the Islamic center was also being built in an open green field next to a Southern Baptist church — not the one on Scenic Drive but another of the 59 Southern Baptist churches in Murfreesboro — Grace Baptist, which had a deacon who greeted his new neighbors by installing 23 huge white crosses along the road leading to the mosque.
Seeing all of this unfold, Raouf, who had planned to retire to a life of woodworking, asked his wife, “What should we do?”
The answer was that they would do what they always had done: try to convert Muslims, only now they would do it in Murfreesboro.
To this end, they began holding seminars in churches around town, explaining Islam as they understood it. They also began gathering the few Arabic-speaking Christians they knew to worship in living rooms, believing that they would be best suited to tell Muslims about Jesus. “It was all about how to deal with and love Muslims,” Raouf said. “But a lot of churches did not welcome that. They did not want to talk about Islam, period.”
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