The Common Good
March 2008

Being There

by Jim Rice | March 2008

"God's Smuggler" Brother Andrew has an odd way of breaking down barriers between Christians and Muslims. But somehow it works.

Brother Andrew is anything but politically correct. The Dutch-born evangelist, in this age of carefully nuanced interfaith dialogue, unapologetically preaches the Christian gospel, especially to Muslims. And yet, despite what some might call his blunt approach—or maybe because of it—he has been warmly welcomed by many Muslims, with whom he has formed close friendships.

Brother Andrew first achieved international notoriety with his autobiographical best-seller God’s Smuggler, which has sold more than 12 million copies since its publication in 1967. The book told the story of how Brother Andrew “smuggled” Bibles and evangelistic materials behind the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War. Born in 1928 in the Netherlands as Anne van der Bijl (which translates as Andrew), he explained that “Brother” is a name given to all those who believe, and that he dislikes the “smuggler” label. “That term came from the publisher in the States—not from me,” Brother Andrew explained. “We weren’t ‘smuggling’—we were just taking things in without permission ... call it ‘unofficial delivery.’”

Today, since the fall of Soviet communism, Brother Andrew’s efforts are focused in large part on the Middle East and the broader Islamic world. “In the early 1970s,” Brother Andrew told Sojourners in a January conversation while attending a Muslim-Evangelical Christian dialogue in Tripoli, Libya, “I saw that Islam could one day be a bigger threat to the church than communism ever was.”

The language Brother Andrew uses often comes across as surprisingly undiplomatic—not many people who are trying to build bridges with Islam would use words like “threat” about the very people they’re trying to reach—and he has never fit neatly into ideological categories. For instance, despite the fact that he made his name in the heat of the Cold War, he is far from an apologist for U.S. or Western policies. Brother Andrew has often traveled to Vietnam, starting in 1965 as a war correspondent for Guideposts magazine, visiting areas “where you could not go as a missionary” and “witnessing to Americans”—despite the fact that “they knew my opposition to the war.”

Several factors convinced Brother Andrew to shift his evangelistic attention from communism to Islam, including the emergence of the OPEC cartel as a world power, the waning of communism as an ideology, and the resurgence and revival of Islam. All these added up to the inescapable conclusion that the “church movement was losing our grip on the world” to Islam. For Brother Andrew, the frame of reference is always the “church movement,” not any nation’s agenda.

THESE DAYS, Brother Andrew—who no longer officially represents Open Doors, the organization he founded in the 1950s—concentrates his work on the Middle East, particularly Lebanon and Palestine. His recent books include Light Force: A Stirring Ac­count of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire (2004) and Secret Believers: What Hap­pens When Muslims Believe in Christ (2007).

In the course of his work, Brother Andrew befriended the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ah­med Yassin, as well as former Palestine Libera­tion Organiza­tion leader Yasser Arafat. He preaches the gospel not only to Hamas leaders in Gaza, but also to members of the Taliban in western Pakistan, where he has taken Bibles and preached in madrassas (Islamic religious schools). “I’d love to sit down and have a cup of coffee with Osama bin Laden,” Brother Andrew said, “and tell him about Jesus.”

When asked about the dangers involved in such activities, he responds with a shrug and emphasizes the importance of his ministry of presence. “Being there is worth more than 10 of the best sermons,” he said. “Be there, with your Bible and open to the Spirit, and God can tell you what to do.” Some have questioned Brother And­ rew’s relationships with people the West considers “Islamic extremists,” but he responds forcefully, “They’ve forgotten Matthew 28:19 [‘So go and make followers of all people in the world.’]. You don’t wait for an invitation; you just go.”

Brother Andrew has provided doctors and medical equipment for a hospital in Gaza and supported the Baptist church there as well as Bethlehem Bible College. For such work, and in the wake of Light Force, “some Israeli friends hate me now.” But, he said, “just because I’m for the Palestinians doesn’t mean I’m against Israel—it’s not about taking sides.” His work in the occupied territories has made him a strong advocate for justice for Palestinians. “You try to be impartial,” he said, “but your emotions tell you otherwise because of the immense suffering.”

Other experts on the Middle East commend Brother Andrew’s outreach toward Muslims. “I think he sees what he is doing as ‘loving your neighbor’ and ‘loving your enemy,’” said Colin Chapman, author of Whose Promised Land? and Cross and Crescent: Responding to the Challenge of Islam. “He wants to build bridges and be a peacemaker.”

Chapman pointed in particular to Brother Andrew’s work in humanizing Islam. “Brother Andrew is aware that in the minds of many Christians and non-Christians in the West, Islam has taken the place of communism as ‘The Great Enemy,’” Chapman told Sojourners. “This kind of demonization of Muslims and Islam is particularly common among evangelical Christians. I believe he has been extremely courageous in encouraging Christians to address the challenges of the Muslim world and see Muslims as neighbors to be loved and people who need to hear the message of Jesus.”

But how to account for the warm reception he has received from many Mus­lims, when he so forthrightly preaches Jesus to them? “Muslims love him because he is a Christian who loves Jesus, loves the Bible, loves people and proves it by his works,” said Leonard Rodgers, executive director of Evangelicals for Middle East Under­standing (EMEU). “He also speaks his mind and he listens. He truly cares.”

It’s not just Brother Andrew’s charismatic personality that endears him to many Muslims. “Muslims respect any Christians who are passionate about their faith and want to share it,” Chapman said. “They also respect the fact that he is so obviously trying to be a disciple of Jesus, whom they regard as a prophet.”

In fact, it is exactly Brother Andrew’s strong faith and enthusiasm for the gospel that opens Islamic doors to him, according to Rodgers. “Muslims like holy people. They do not understand secular people,” Rodgers explained. “Many Muslims seek God more diligently than those who have grown up in a Christian culture. ... Most Christians fail to understand how much Muslims respect and honor Jesus. Brother Andrew has learned that. I don’t know how many times I have spoken to Muslims about Jesus only to have them say, ‘Oh, I love Jesus more than you.’ They mean it.” Even Sheikh Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, once told Brother Andrew, “We know Jesus better than you do, because he is one of us.”

Some Muslims, not surprisingly, ex­pressed skepticism about Brother Andrew’s approach. “His evangelical efforts would not be taken seriously by many Muslim leaders since they happen to be so sure of their religious beliefs,” said Dr. Ghada Hashem Talhami, D.K. Pearsons Professor of Politics at Lake Forest College in Illinois and author of Palestine in the Egyptian Press.

But Talhami acknowledged the positive side as well. “I feel that his approach to Islam, which is compassionate and non-threatening, is very helpful in taking the sting out of the anger of some of the Islamic fundamentalist types,” she said. “Treating them with respect, even by evangelicals like Brother Andrew, would certainly have a salutary effect upon them.”

Brother Andrew’s very honesty—his willingness to frankly criticize what he sees as failings in both the West and in Islam—earns him regard among many Muslims. Chawkat Moucarry, director of interfaith relations for World Vision International and author of The Prophet & the Messiah: An Arab Christ­ian’s Perspective on Islam & Christ­ianity, said, “When we as Christians make known our own criticisms of Western culture and politics, this encourages them to listen to us and to our message at least out of respect and curiosity.”

EMEU director Rodgers says such candid truth-telling goes a long way to explain Brother Andrew’s success. “Brother Andrew does not pander to Muslims; he tells them the truth even about their own culture and politics,” Rodgers said. “This gains respect and opens the doors for change.”

Not only that, according to Rodgers, Brother Andrew offers a model for all those who seek to change the world. “Justice is difficult to attain if you hate one of the peoples who are seen as those who ‘cause trouble,’” Rodgers said. “Somebody has to truly love them.”

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.

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