Building Friendships with Muslims, Conversation Starters
by Darla Oksnevad, Permission is given to copy & reprint this article
Do You Have Muslim Neighbors in Your Community?
God is in the process of moving Muslims to places in the world where they can freely hear the Gospel of Christ. Perhaps you’ve noticed Muslims in your community. Have you ever met any Muslims and talked with them? Have you thought about building a friendship with them and sharing the Gospel? You can be God’s instrument.
If you have a fear of Muslims, I would encourage you to read/request my article on “Overcoming Fear of Muslims”, to gain God’s view of immigrants moving to your neighborhood, and how God’s Word can help you and other Christians overcome your fear.
Most Muslims are open to friendship and hospitality from their American neighbors. They want to be good neighbors, who care about their community. Consider that Americans are the hosts, so we should take the first steps in building friendship. As Christians, we are commanded to love our neighbors and to go into all the world to share the Gospel, including into our own neighborhoods.
It is a sad account that when we first moved into our suburban neighborhood and began building a friendship with an Indian Muslim family, that they told us, “We have lived in the U.S. for 20 years, and you are the first neighbors to invite us to your home.” It is disheartening that no other Christians had ever gotten to know this precious family in those 20 years, or shared the Gospel with them. Unfortunately, they moved to another region of the U.S. after a year of our befriending them; we tried to connect them with a church in their new city, but we have lost contact with them.
Meet Muslim Neighbors, Begin a Friendship
If God has burdened you to reach out to Muslims in your community, there are several ways and places you can go to meet them. Muslims often own or work at ethnic restaurants and shops, such as Indian, Pakistani, and Middle Eastern; and at gas stations, Subways, and Dunkin Donuts. They may work at Walmart, “big box stores”, and tech stores. Their children attend local schools and colleges. Adults, especially the women, may attend ESL classes, and their children may attend ESL and tutoring classes. Muslim mothers and their children can often be found at local libraries and parks; the children may play on local sports teams. Be observant and open your heart to friendship.
You can Google “Muslim-owned businesses and restaurants” and mosques in your area. Begin shopping in their shops and eating in their restaurants. Get to know the people who work there.
Most immigrants want American friends, for it often raises them to a higher status in their own ethnic community. Friends will help them integrate into the community and American culture. As we get to know them better, they learn to trust us, and we learn to trust them.
How to Begin a Conversation
Conversation is the first step in building a friendship. Show interest in the person and their life. How much you converse with them will depend on the situation and how much time they have to talk. One question can often lead to another. Do not try to cross gender lines, unless you are elderly and the person is much younger than you are; conversations and friendships should always be women with women and men with men.
These conversation starters and questions depend on if they are immigrants, or were born here, or are “Americanized”; on their life situation and on their language skills:
–Smile wherever you go; smiles are free and show that you are a joyful friendly person. Someone may even ask you why you are smiling or so happy, and you could share a word about the joy of knowing Christ and being a member of God’s family.
Introductory conversations: (use only a few questions each time; don’t drill them with too many questions)
–What is your name? What language is that?
–If they are wearing a name tag—That’s an interesting name; what does it mean? (i.e., a clerk in a store)
–That was my (aunt’s/uncle’s/cousin’s) name.
–Thank you for all your work here in this store/restaurant. (They’ll be encouraged that you’ve noticed them.)
–Where are you/your family from? How long have you been here? (If they give a general region of the world, don’t push for a specific country. Many are fearful that you won’t accept them if they come from a “controversial” or “enemy” country.)
–Do you have family back home? Do you hear from them often? How are they doing? (If they express problems, tell them you’ll remember to pray for their family.)
–Do you have children? How are your children adjusting here? Do they like school? Do they have many friends?
(Immigrant children are often bullied and made fun of; if they move often, they may have trouble in school.)
–Where do you live/what town? Do you live in this town? (I’ve lived here ____ years.)
–Do you know many Americans? Do you meet many Americans?
–I’ve been to your country! (or someone you know has been there) Talk about your trip & where you’ve been. This makes an instant connection and they will be happy to know that you’ve been there.
–I’ve lived in other countries/moved often; I know what it’s like to move to a new place & make new friends. (and learn a new language.)
–Do you attend mosque? Which one? I know there are several in the area. Yes, I know where that mosque is. (See if there is spiritual interest or if they are a nominal Muslim or turning away from Islam.)
–Do you like our city? Welcome! I hope things go well for you.
–Do you know of any good (Indian) (their country/region) restaurants? I’ve always wanted to try/I really like ______ food. (This shows appreciation and interest for their culture and food.)
If they don’t want to talk to you or answer your questions, just wish them a good day, thank them for their service, and move on. They may be a private person, or suspicious or fearful of you. You may be the first American who has had a conversation with them, and they wonder what your motive is.
Why might Muslims be suspicious or afraid of you? They may have been taught that all American women are like the women on TV shows and in movies, with no morals or with evil motives. Perhaps they have heard stories of how some Muslims have been mistreated by Americans. They may have been insulted or called names by rude Americans. It takes some immigrants awhile to trust other people, especially those who are not like them.
Don’t give up on your neighbors; pray for them and find ways to relate to them.
Develop & Deepen Your Friendship and Conversation; be a good listener!
These suggestions come later in the friendship, after the initial conversations:
–Tell me about your family. (here and back home)
–I’d like to hear more about your country; maybe we can meet for tea later?
–What brought you to the U.S./this region?
–Do you go to school? What are you studying? Do you attend an ESL class?
–Tell me your story; what’s happening in your life?
–How is the job/school/ESL working out? Is everything OK at work/school?
–How can I help you? (ESL, conversation, forms, utilities, citizenship) Giving them your phone number shows them you are interested in helping them and being a friend.
–Ask if you can pray in the name of Jesus if they express a need or problem—right then and later.
–When they ask you questions, give answers that will continue the conversation and not shut it off. Instead of saying “I’m a pastor/in ministry/work at a church”, say, “I help people find purpose in life/I teach children about God.” “I’ve never been to mosque, but I attend a church where we pray and learn more about God.”
–Talk about current news items or popular movies they may have seen—What do you think about…? Did you hear the news about ____? Be careful not to bring up politics; if you don’t agree with their view, don’t argue with them. You may need to explain how politics, laws, and government work in the U.S. In one conversation, immigrant women complained about the governor because he was cutting immigrant benefits; they thought it was the governor’s own money, like the leaders in their country give handouts to gain loyalty. When I explained the tax system in our state, and how we pay taxes to pay for all their benefits, they began to understand that their benefits were actually coming out of my pocket and the pockets of others.
–If there is a tragedy or disaster in their own country, express your concern: “I’m so sorry to hear about the earthquake/attack/crash in your country. Is that close to your hometown? Was anyone in your family hurt? Let me pray for them.” Several of my Syrian friends have recently lost family members in the war; they deeply appreciate my concern and prayers for their family.
–Listen to them; don’t hurry away; learn things about them by asking good questions about what’s important to them. Try to relate to them and their emotions, but don’t dominate the conversation.
–Don’t preach to them; instead show love and compassion; share principles from God’s Word as they apply.
–Research some things about their country or region of the world; don’t be a “dumb American” or pretend to know a lot about their country when you don’t.
–Learn a few words of their language; it will endear you to their hearts, to know you’re trying to connect with them. Learn phrases such as hello, how are you, I am fine, thanks, numbers 1-10. You can find basic languages online or use CDs from the library. Use those words when you talk with them. Don’t be offended if they laugh at you, because you may actually be saying something funny. In Farsi, “I am fine/good” is very close to “I am a camel”; a colleague often mixed them up, which triggered a few laughs from the Iranians. My few words of Farsi and Arabic have gone a long way to connect with my friends, especially with the children. You can ask them to help you learn phrases in their language, which raises them to the position of teacher.
–Be a friend, not a “salesman” of the Gospel; share Jesus as the center of your life. Patiently answer their questions about the Bible and your faith. But don’t be offended when they don’t believe you or argue with you. Many cultures “discuss” loudly and it sounds like an argument, but it’s really a discussion. (Think about how excited Italians and Greeks get in a discussion; Middle-Easterners tend to discuss in the same way.)
–Continue learning more about how to reach Muslims and internationals with the Gospel; read helpful books and articles, consult valid websites, such as www.commanetwork.com. Attend training conferences taught by knowledgeable and experienced people.
If you have a Muslim neighbor, try these suggestions to deepen the friendship:
–Invite him/her/them over for tea/lunch/dinner. Hospitality is a priority in most countries.
–Take them baked goods, fruit, holiday food and gifts. My elderly friend Clara has a ministry of baking; she takes baked goods to young Muslim mothers, then offers to teach them how to bake and help them with English. She has been able to share the Gospel with them, and they have “adopted” her as their “Auntie”.
–Find ways you can help them, such as with homework, English, shopping, answering questions about American culture, being a resource.
–Drop by often, ask how they are doing, but don’t be a pest or overbearing.
–Ask them to share their story—their family, why they located here, the hard things they’ve experienced in life.
If you are getting to know someone in a restaurant, shop, park, or library:
–Smile, greet them, ask questions, continue conversations and concern for their family.
–Invite them to an event, such as a holiday concert, a sports game, or a dinner at your church.
–Hand them the “Life of Jesus” DVD or “gift card” to download it; show them the list of languages and ask if they speak one of those languages. Most immigrants are thrilled to receive something in their own language.
–Visit their shop or restaurant often; be sure to buy something.
–Invite them to an ESL class or a children’s event, if they have children.
If your Muslim friend is a parent of children in your children’s school:
–Engage in conversation at the bus stop. Invite the mother over for tea after the children get on the bus.
–Invite their kids over to play and the mother to come for tea.
–Offer to baby sit a few times; but put a limit on your offer.
–Offer to help them with English or to tutor the parent or child if they need help with school.
–Invite them for tea, lunch, or dinner. Get to know the family.
–Share information about your local library or park district activities; go with them or help them register.
Cautions & Suggestions
—The friendship should always be women-to-women and men-to-men, or family-to-family.
–Build friendship, not dependence—teach them how to do things, where to find things and to shop, so they can gain independence.
—Never loan them money or pay bills for them; don’t get involved financially. You could help them organize and manage their money and credit cards, explain bills and payments, and teach them financial principles, but don’t loan them money. In many cultures, sharing resources is an expectation of friendship, but it builds dependence and can lead to many problems and entanglements.
–Don’t see your Muslim or MBB friends as a “target” or “project”. They want to be a friend, not a project. One MBB rejected spiritual counsel because she didn’t want to be “everyone’s project”. She hopped from church to church, looking for sincere friendship.
–Don’t talk about others in their community or share your friend’s information with others. They will consider it gossip, which is a hot issue in their communities. Even sharing prayer requests can become an item for gossip. Be careful when sharing prayer requests or concerns with your church; sometimes it gets back to them, and they will break off your relationship. Don’t give their names or specific information when requesting prayer.
–Introduce them to your Christian friends, so they can see Christians interacting and belonging, that you are part of a “religious” group. Community and belonging are very important to Muslim-background people.
–Talk about your faith and prayer, but don’t push it on them. Since Muslims believe that they should pray 5 times a day (whether they do or not), they appreciate that we also pray.
–Offer to pray with them about life concerns, always in Jesus’ name. We have never had a Muslim turn down prayer.
–If Muslims visit in your home, prepare your family for their visits. Learn about their cultural do’s and don’ts. (see/request my article on “Cultural Do’s and Don’ts”)
–Many Muslim refugees and their children suffer from PTSD or other emotional issues, caused by war, life in refugee camps, oppression, and instability. They may be inconsistent and fearful of friendship or react negatively at first. Try to find counseling for them, from World Relief, Christian ministries, and churches.
–Beware of people who only want to take advantage of you; learn not to be naïve. Ask for advice from others who have experience in cross-cultural ministry.
As you develop and deepen your friendships with Muslims, pray that God will open doors and conversations so you can clearly explain the Gospel in ways that they will understand. Take opportunities to share Scripture with them and pray for them. Continue to learn more about sharing Christ in culturally relevant ways.
Faces in the Crowd: Reaching Your International Neighbor for Christ, by Donna Thomas, New Hope Pub.
Woman to Woman: Sharing Jesus with a Muslim Friend, by Joy Loewen, Chosen/Baker Pub.
Muslims Next Door: Uncovering Myths and Creating Friendships, by Shirin Taber, Zondervan Pub.
www.commanetwork.com for resources, articles, training events, links to ministries and other resources
“Journey to Jesus” DVD curriculum, 6 lessons with teacher notes, handouts, dramas, available from Oksnevads
When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor.. . and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, Moody Publishers