Voices were being raised and I knew something strange was going on. On this particular day I was sitting in my office at the bookstore working on paperwork when I heard the sounds. Concerned that an altercation of some sort was taking place, I quickly walked out to hear the words that I will never forget. “What part of Christian did you not understand about this bookstore?” Two women were speaking to another who was dressed from head to foot in a burka with only her eyes visible. I am not sure what I was surprised by more – the Muslim woman or how she was being treated by her Christian “sisters”. Unfortunately the damage already been done by the time I arrived on the scene and before I could intervene, this Muslim woman quickly left the store. I was heartbroken.
On the heels of this incident, I spent time training our team and preparing for the rare opportunity when another Muslim might enter our store. Given that we lived in a city with many who claimed Islam as their faith, I should not have been surprised that God would make that happen sooner that we had expected. Not long after, a self-identified Muslim couple came into the store looking for a gift for a friend and very curious about what a Christian bookstore was. Our team did an incredible job of making them feel welcome and two hours later, they were the last customers to leave our store that day. As they were checking out at the register, the husband looked asked, “Do you treat all your Muslim customers this well?” Not quite sure how to respond given how few Muslims ever shopped in our store, we quickly assured him that we did our best to treat all our customers with dignity and respect. What a turn of events.
Just a few years before this, I had had my own unfortunate incident in another part of the world. I was traveling with my wife to Central Asia to visit one of our teams that ministered in a predominantly Muslim country. After chatting with the local team about the city where they worked, I asked if they had any other bookstores nearby. They said that there was a Muslim bookstore, but gently suggested that I might want to think twice before visiting. Being a much younger person at that time and too naive to know any better, I quickly ignored their advice and went exploring. Sure enough, the store was right around the corner and I boldly crossed the threshold. It was not a particularly cold day outside, but it felt like I had entered an “ice box” when I walked in. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at me as if they had never seen a westerner before, or at least one foolish enough to come into their store. As I looked up, I noticed pictures of Islamic Mullahs all around the walls and some that looked like the menacing images of the Ayatollah Khomeini I had seen before. Not interested in creating an international incident, I quickly left and wondered if I was going to be “followed” for making such a poor decision. Clearly that bookstore was not a safe space for people like me.
Many year after both of these events, I was in Bangalore in India and saw something that was equally unforgettable. As I was chatting with the local CLC store manager, I noticed that a group of Muslim women, all wearing burkas, had just entered the store. Assuming they were lost or did not know what kind of store we had, I was surprised to see them walk around, browse and act as if they felt quite comfortable. Turning to the manager, I asked if this was an unusual occurrence and he said no, they had many Muslims who shopped in the store as they sold greeting cards and calendars that appealed to a wide audience. He was quick to add, “We welcome whomever God sends our way.” I was deeply convicted and realized what creating a safe space really looked like.
Somehow Jesus was a magnet for the wrong kind of people and those that made other people feel really uncomfortable. He created a safe space zone wherever he went. No matter what kind of life someone had lived, whether they were a dreaded tax collector or a reviled prostitute, he welcomed them and actually conferred his dignity on them while taking on their revulsion. This happened so much that the leaders of that time often asked how he could “hang out with those kinds of people”. He didn’t care what these “bad sorts” were doing to his reputation. In an age when sinners are becoming bolder and bolder about promoting and even flaunting their sinful lifestyles, we have a wonderful opportunity. Rather doing our best to let them know how unwelcome they are in our presence, we can create safe spaces for them by letting them see that we are just like them and that they are welcome to join us in God’s presence. The truth is that we Christians are simply sinners saved by grace.