Thabiti Anyabwile: Grace Across the Divide

“As a Muslim, I couldn’t hold together how God was the perfect judge and all-forgiving at the same time. How was that going to happen?”

We live in racially divided and frightening times when the path to justice, reconciliation and solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ is not always clear. This week, we are revisiting timeless comments from several of Outreach magazine’s contributors to help shine a light on the way forward. This interview with Thabiti Anyabwile explores his work bridging religious and ethnic divides. 

A few years after his conversion to Christianity from Islam, Thabiti Anyabwile stood in the balcony of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

Little did he understand then that this would become a place of mentoring, a church home that would launch him into roles as church planter, pastor and author of several books, including The Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ With Confidence; Captivated: Beholding the Mystery of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection; and The Life of God in the Soul of the Church: The Root and Fruit of Spiritual Fellowship.

Anyabwile was simply introducing himself to new friends during his first visit to Capitol Hills. After enjoying the service, a man dressed in a military uniform met him—posture upright, voice deep, he held out his hand: “I’m Jim.”

After polite discussion, they walked down the steps and Jim introduced Thabiti to another man, an older African American with a bright smile, who extended his hand and also said, “Hi, I’m Jim.”

The second Jim then turned around and introduced another man, an older white guy, and he extended his hand in introduction with the same words: “Hi, I’m Jim.”

Smiling at the coincidence, Anyabwile remembers thinking two things: What kind of a cult is this? and, I’m not changing my name.

He wasn’t kidding—about the name change, at least.

Born Ron Burns, Thabiti Anyabwile did not abandon the name he took at the time of his earlier conversion to Islam. He explains why:

“For me, it wasn’t as much a Muslim name as a cultural association. Thabiti has its roots in Africa, a Swahili word suggesting, ‘a true man and upright.’ Anyabwile is Arabic and means, ‘God has set me free.’”

Propelled into the role of a powerful Christian spokesman addressing religious and racial divides, by God’s stunning providence, the name has turned out to be true.

Can you tell me a little about your childhood?

I grew up the youngest of eight children; my mom never married. I was born in the barbecue capital of the world, Lexington, N.C. It’s the Bible Belt with lots of nominal Christianity and that was true in our family too. When my brothers got into trouble, they would go to church for a while before they would go back to the same trouble.

So did you follow in your brothers’ footsteps?

My junior year in high school, I got arrested for the first time. Long story short, I got caught stealing. I thought: I’m in trouble, Mom’s heart is broken, I better go to church for a while. That’s what I did for a few months. It was a pattern in our family. Church was like rehab.

You mentioned your mother, what about your father?

I came along late in life for Mom and Dad. They never married and I was the only child they had between them. My other siblings had a different father. My dad was never faithful to my mom. He was a kind man, in many respects. By the time I was 13, he left and I didn’t have much of a relationship after that. I’d see him around from time to time; he’d give me a couple dollars. That’s about the extent of it.

What impact did that distance have on you?

I resolved that I wasn’t going to be like my dad. Well into my late 20s, my mortal fear was that I’d wake up one day and be like my dad. I wouldn’t be true to my wife or kids.

Were you angry about that legacy as well as fearful?

I didn’t know it was anger until high school when my Jewish literature teacher started giving me the writings of ’60s radicals. It was her way of helping me process my anger. But that was like giving a match to a pyromaniac. I went off to college a very angry young man—my face twisted into a fairly permanent scowl.

So what happened in college?

My freshman year of college in 1988, I bumped into students of Islam. It was a casual friendship at first. During my sophomore year, one of my good friends converted to Sunni Islam. I was fascinated with Islam.

What was the appeal of that faith for you?

Two things. The first was the simplicity and discipline of the religion. They make very simple truth claims and had a disciplined structured approach to worship and piety. I knew I needed discipline. I had a sense that I was headed for a crash. I came to college with two suitcases of beer. I knew unless something changed, I would hit a wall soon.

Second, these were black men who were really trying to live clean lives. They talked about the importance of taking care of their wives and children, contributing to the community. They were scratching my itch—I had not seen any of that. In my life, I had seen two types of black males—the one in church who struck me as weak or the ones in pool halls hustling. When I finally saw guys who had bravado but were clean and upright and disciplined, I said that’s what I want to be. So I was drawn to Islam like a moth to a flame.

So where did Islam lead you?

I became the campus Saul. I felt like what the apostle Paul says about himself in Judaism—I excelled my peers in the faith. I led a number of other men into the religion.

Did your faith help with your anger?

The anger was being amplified and codified. Many African Americans are being drawn to Islam by a black nationalist ideology. So my anger was getting heightened, racialized and politicized. I was no less angry; I just had new categories in which to express it. I thought I’d be a Muslim the rest of my life and commit myself to black nationalist causes, the building of black businesses, the development of black communities, and would marry and have a family.

So did the dream come true?

On many external levels, I was living my dream. I was married to a beautiful and intelligent woman and I took a job working with a nonprofit that trained people with disabilities to be able to go out and work in the community.

What started to shake your Muslim faith?

One afternoon, I was standing around the office watercooler having a conversation. We were talking about world leaders we respect—Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King—when one of my co-workers says, “There’s nobody I respect more than Thabiti.” Traci was sweet—I had gone to college with her and we served on some of the same student organizations together—and she began to defend her position: “Of all the men I know I respect you—you don’t drink; you respect your wife; you don’t go out to clubs; you treat people well.”

The more she described those attributes, the more corrupt I felt. For the first time, I began to see how dark my heart really was. I knew that under my external behavior was a heart bent on self. During that conversation, I became aware of how hopelessly lost I really was. I was already struggling with some of the truth claims of Islam and that realization of my own sin further caused me to question what I believed.

Can you tell me about losing your first child?

That was about a year later in 1996. My wife is there for a checkup and her tummy is exposed and the doctor is searching for the heartbeat. After what seemed like an hour, she looked up and in the coldest human voice I have ever heard said, “I’m sorry, there’s no heartbeat,” and left the room.

How did you react to that?

I felt so small. I couldn’t console my wife, I couldn’t protect this thing we wanted, this baby, this life we were aspiring to. In some ways, the pregnancy was saving our marriage. We had begun to grow apart. On the way home, there were no words between us. When we pulled into our little townhome, which was ironically located on Seclusion Court, we felt about as alone as two people could. The house was empty and cold. It was God’s mercy ultimately, but it was a hard providence God used to humble us deeply.

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How did losing the baby affect your faith?

By that time, I had pretty much rejected Islam. A few years earlier, I was reading the Quran during Ramadan; I became aware suddenly that what I was reading could not be true. It didn’t have internal consistency. One of the greatest contradictions was its teaching on Jesus. On the one hand, there’s a chapter on Mary and it records the virgin birth of Christ, yet every Muslim rejects the unique sonship of Christ.

So, all these things came crashing into view and I spent time trying to get satisfactory answers. I was frustrated that the answers actually further unraveled the religion for me. By the time we lost our first child, I was waffling between agnosticism and atheism.

You said losing the baby was an act of God’s hard providence. What do you mean by that?

When we had the miscarriage, almost immediately notions of God were resurfacing. I’m at home one day when I should have been at work and I’m flipping through the channels and I see this televangelist. It was like the Bible had been rewritten and it was clear, compelling; it was hope-giving. God began to draw me by his Word.

It was weird, man. I’d drive around town and see this car on several occasions with personalized license plates that read: John 1:12. I had the sense to know it was from the Bible and after months of seeing it around town, I finally looked it up. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.”

At about the same time, the Lord brought into my life Derek, a friend of mine I had grown up with. He and his wife were vibrant Christians. We began to meet and study the Bible together. During that window of time, the Lord began to give me an appetite for spiritual things.

So when did you finally commit to follow Christ?

In July 1997, we decided to visit my wife’s sister in D.C. That weekend, we went to the church of the televangelist I had been watching. He preached Exodus 32 and I heard one of the most powerful sermons of my life. In God’s kindness, my wife and I heard the gospel, believed and were converted that Sunday morning.

Can you give me an idea of what appealed to you about Christianity over Islam?

I don’t think it was an issue of comparison necessarily. My experience was I found the Word of God alive and it began to draw me. I did find it appealing that the Scriptures reconciled things I couldn’t before. As a Muslim, I couldn’t hold together how God was the perfect judge and all-forgiving at the same time. How was that going to happen? It wasn’t until I understood the gospel that all the gears fell into place. I finally had the sense of how God’s attributes held together in the cross and in Christ. God used the Scriptures to help me understand the difference between contradiction and paradox.

How did you come to Capitol Hill Baptist?

We moved to D.C. in 2000 with a list of churches that had been recommended to us. Capitol Hill Baptist had been one on the list. I had been the one looking on the internet, but couldn’t find it. We went to one church with a similar name where the sermon was about seven ways to lose weight. I’m thinking, this just can’t be right. About a year later, frustrated because we couldn’t find a church consistent with our commitments, my wife sits down at the computer and does the search. She finds it right away. It turned out I had been misspelling Capitol.

What drew you into ministry?

I had preached before at our previous church and other places. I remember one time an old lady came up to me afterward and asked, “Where are you at in your walk?” I said, “OK, I guess.” She said, “No, no, I think you might be called to preach.” In my mind, I said, “No, thank you.” That was my attitude because I didn’t yet love the local church. While at Capitol Hill under the leadership of [Senior Pastor] Mark Dever, I began to understand the centrality of the local church in God’s plan. I felt that if I didn’t preach and pursue pastoral ministry, I wouldn’t know how to live anymore. That’s how strong the calling was.

You recently moved from being a senior pastor in Grand Cayman to planting a church in one of the most impoverished areas of D.C. What inspired that insanity?

[Laughing] When I moved to Grand Cayman, most people joked, “suffering for Jesus.” But the truth is, I don’t like beaches or sand too much; it was the people of First Baptist Church that drew me. When I went there, Hurricane Ivan had really devastated the island and the church. The Lord turned our hearts toward the people there. I think the same is true about our move back to D.C. The church we are planting is east of the Anacostia River and is 94% African American. It’s also in an area close to where my sister lived so we have a long-standing connection. The area lags behind in every social indicator from measures of poverty and income to issues like teen pregnancy, low-birth-weight babies, educational underperformance and drug addiction. Thank God neighborhoods are not defined by their problems but by the people in them.

Can you tell me the story of the guy who turned on your gas when you moved into your home in Anacostia.

He was a big guy, probably 6-foot-5-inches and pushing 300 pounds. He walked in the door and blocked out the sun. He was there about an hour, at the end of which I walked him to the door. He said to me, “You’re the reverend, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He turned and looked at me and said, “Pray for me, Rev.” There was this longing, lament in his voice. I asked how I could pray for him. He looked at me and said, “I buried my son on Father’s Day.”

When I asked what happened, he told me his son was in Baltimore and someone shot him in the head. He said, “I don’t sleep at night, I work all the time because I don’t want to be alone, my mind just keeps racing.” We prayed and he left. Well, our television was on and the next thing I heard was a report on Ferguson, and stories about Mike Brown and Darren Wilson. Before moving back to D.C., I remember discussing with the elders about what concerns I might have. I told them I had only one: How tough it could be for my African American son to grow up in the United States. Born in the Cayman Islands, he knew nothing about how to navigate difficult racial situations. After talking to the repairman and then watching the news, those fears just came rushing into my heart and nearly overwhelmed me.

So how do you—as well as your church—deal with those fears?

I’m convinced that God has given us all the best resources for addressing these issues in his Word. So, any church that wants to involve itself in Ferguson-like discussions needs to do it first and foremost in a gospel-centered theological way. We’re not going to be much help to the world arguing these issues as if there is no Christ, no heaven and hell, no Holy Spirit transformation.

But we also need to make certain we are not escapists hiding behind our theology. There’s a tendency among well-meaning Christians to look at problems outside the church and say, “Well, they need the gospel,” and that’s the end of the discussion. That’s problematic in two ways. First, it’s disingenuous to share the gospel without doing what Jesus calls us to do. That’s no answer at all. Second, the gospel is not the answer to every problem. For example, the answer to the mass incarceration of African Americans and Latinos isn’t the gospel. You need public policy; you need reform. You’ve got to make venues and forums for this.

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So how does your church start the conversation?

We had the joy of taking about 100 people to see Selma then coming back to the church having two hours of discussion. That doesn’t fix all the problems of the world, but that at least says to people this is a place where we are going to take reconciliation seriously enough to talk about the things that threaten our people. In the wake of Ferguson, I’m convinced this is perhaps one of the places where the church is most undiscipled. We are either afraid or paralyzed or angry or hurt and so we don’t really give attention to letting others process these issues.

Is it your experience as a former Muslim and an African American that a climate of fear creates both racial and religious divides?

I’m convinced one of the most helpful, practical things you can do is turn off the television news. When you are talking about racial groups or Muslim neighbors, television isn’t really our friend if we’re really looking to not be afraid. That’s the first thing you can do. Second, go talk to someone who is not like you—the African American, white, Hispanic, Muslim or Buddhist neighbor. Befriend them and have your views shaped by real relationships. Put yourselves in a place where you are the foreigner, and be OK with that. Part of what we’ve got to reject is the fear of rejection. Those are the fears that keep us from getting to know people.

Doesn’t the church’s approach to evangelism often hinge on the potential for conversion instead of just loving others unconditionally?

We need to rekindle the lost art of hospitality. We need to have people not like us into our homes and share a cup of coffee or tea. That’s particularly helpful with Islamic cultures where hospitality is prized quite highly. We’re being ineffective if we don’t engage and understand people culturally that way. It’s a shame that the overwhelming majority of international students, mainly Muslims, study in the United States for years and are never in an American home, much less a Christian one.

How can you build trust across such great divides?

The only people who make friends instantly are 3-year-olds on the playground. The rest of us have learned how to be untrusting. So, we’ve got to play the long game. We continue to love people even if they don’t come to church with us. The other thing is to continue to create spaces where connections can be made. So, whether that’s hosting a panel discussion at church or throwing a house party or going to an event sponsored by a mosque, we’ve got to intentionally build spaces that are not our spaces so we come in contact with one another in human kinds of ways. When we do so, we discover we’re not that different at all.

How important is it for us to understand we are all made in the image of God?

We can’t really have true compassion without the recognition that all people are made in God’s image. As C.S. Lewis put it, you never meet a mere human. People we see are exquisite creatures. That should beckon us to draw near, listen, spend time with them and rejoice at the privilege to do so. It’s proper for us to enjoy that and enjoy relationships even if it doesn’t lead to conversion, though we very much hope to get to the gospel. It would be the best of all worlds if we could have both healthy relationships and fruitful evangelism. It’s been my experience the two go together.

Just as important as sharing the image of God, how critical is it to understand how each one of us is deeply stained by the fall?

We all have examples where we’re stunned by depravity when it bares its full face. So when you see 21 persons decapitated or you see planes flying into business offices, we get this glimpse of a naked evil and it can be overwhelming. To make sense of it is difficult not because those persons are so unlike us. It’s difficult because sin distorts, makes paths of chaos, creates irrationality. Even when we look at ISIS, we have to be careful that we’re not all puffed up and we don’t think what’s happening there can’t happen with us, right? The ISIS rebels look at the United States and see Gitmo. They see people in the name of freedom interrogating and torturing Muslims and they say: What kind of evil is that?

The reason shows like Breaking Bad make good literature is because it captures something we all recognize as possible, as human, as real, and portrays it for us. Given the right set of circumstances, any one of us could be ISIS and sink to a level of depravity that seems unthinkable. Without the grace of God, there go I.

I heard it said that doubt is not the antonym of faith, fear is. Do you think that’s true?

Theologically what’s happening when we are given over to fear is that we have ceased to trust God. That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate fears—the fear impulse is a gift from God, given to us for our safety. But if it paralyzes us then fear is winning the battle against faith. What we want to have is such a deep sense of the sovereignty, goodness, presence and love of God that we become more than conquerors. We don’t have to give way to fear; he’s given us a spirit of power and a sound mind.

Drawing from your own experience, what’s the best way to share the gospel with Muslims?

The gospel itself brings my Muslim friends to saving faith. I want to immerse myself in the riches of the good news. I also want to express that there is an awful lot of common ground with our Muslim neighbors and friends. We can’t stop there, but it gives us a good place to start. We both believe in one God, the creator of all things, who is just and judges the world. Those shared realities create a common matrix to begin to discuss differences. I would also say that the central difference of the faiths revolves around the necessity of the cross of Jesus. And when we get to the cross, we have the opportunity to put forth the positive answers of Christianity.

How would you encourage your people to share the good news with people who are different from them?

The main problem with sharing the good news is not fear but confidence in the gospel. We really need to believe it’s the power of God for salvation to all who believe. When you see persons who have that confidence, they actually speak that message. They tell others of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ for sinners. They also understand that the gospel is meant to be embodied more and more so the glory we will share with him shapes how we live each day and the choices we make.

How would you encourage the local church to cross these great divides?

The effective local church will make the gospel its North Star. It will be what guides counseling or disciple making, and it will be the foundation on which people stand so we learn to serve God not for his acceptance but from his acceptance. We learn to engage the world in such a way that the gospel is home base. What Christ has done for us shapes us to engage the world with the same kind of love and grace we experience in him.

Read the 4-part Ken Wytsma series on race and the gospel here.

Read Efrem Smith on how Christians can seek transformation, reconciliation, justice and healing in these deeply divided times here.

Read Bryan Loritts on why diversity is not a fringe issue here.

Read Brenda Salter McNeil on why pursuing reconciliation is essential to the gospel here.

For more on the topic of racial reconciliation: