This month’s profile features Barbara Hampton.
Interviewer: Barbara, you have been leading Bible studies here at COS, haven’t you?
Barbara: Yes, I have.
Interviewer: Can you tell me about them?
Barbara: I sure can. But I want to acknowledge that Mary Loeks is the premier Bible study guru at this church. She has been doing this here for a lot longer than I have. But I have been doing Bible studies for a long time in my InterVarsity context, which is my life context from college on.
I lead three different kinds at the present time – my ESL Bible study for women has been going for six or seven years. That’s the highlight of my week. I lead a Bible study for BES folks before that service based on the text for the day. It has a limited goal – to get people whose English is the poorest – and they are the ones who come because they get a ride – familiar with the text the pastor is going to preach on so they can follow the sermon. We ask, “What does this tell you about God?” Without this opportunity, the service could just be a waterfall of words. Nola Galluch often provides the text in their own language. That helps too. The third is the most recent and that is the Healing the Wounds of the Heart group that grows out of Wycliffe experiences in central Africa. That is story-based. It takes the story of a refugee family – a true but composite story – and a Bible story that is comparable through an “arc of healing.” For example, when we talk about suffering and listening, the Bible story is on Job. We ask questions about the story like, “What did you like about this story? What was difficult for you in it?” This helps them open up about their own suffering.
Interviewer: A fair amount of this involves ministry with Muslims, doesn’t it?
Interviewer: You have been involved in this ministry for some time. How did you get involved in it?
Barbara: In the year 2000, I was teaching a first-year seminar at the College of Wooster in Ohio and the topic was Voices of Conscience in the Twentieth Century. The featured speaker at the fall forum was the president of Planned Parenthood. Chuck and I and a very few other people were known as pro-lifers on a very pro-choice, secular campus. I thought, I’m teaching a class about conscience. If I don’t respond to this event, I’ll be a hypocrite. So, I organized a silent prayer vigil of protest during the speech. This made the student newspaper! One person who read the article was a Muslim alum. She said, “Mrs. Hampton, you would make a good Muslim because you are pro-life. Can I tell you how to become a Muslim?” And I said, “Well of course you may, if I may share what I believe.” And that began my study and my interaction with Muslims. Subsequently, I wrote a Qur’an-Bible study guide we used on campus; I self-published it through Amazon. I have hundreds of books on Islam now. I’m self-taught. Islam is ideas, of course, but it is also people. So, in the past few years I have been less involved with the ideas and more with the people whom I love.
Interviewer: Let’s talk a bit about Islam. In some ways it is like Christianity and in some ways it is different. How do you compare them?
Barbara: Well, they are both religions in the sense that they have belief systems and they have rituals. They were born into a historical context. So, they are historic religions like Judaism. Their morality is very similar although Christianity falls more on the side of love, Islam more on the side of justice. Some Muslims may disagree with this dichotomy, but I think it is essentially valid. We both believe in prayer, in giving money, in fasting. We both believe in one God although we interpret that differently. It is at Jesus that everything divides. Muslims think he is an important prophet, but they don’t believe he is the son of God.
One thing that many people ask me is, “Is Islam inherently violent?” I say this to them: You can find verses in the Qur’an that are very violent, that urge it, and you can find verses in the Old Testament like that. I read something once from an Islamic scholar at UCLA. He said that if you are a good person you will interpret the Qur’an in a good way; if you are a bad person, you will interpret the Qur’an in a bad way. A very reader-response, post-modern answer there, right? But here is what I believe is the difference. Timothy Keller wrote that Mohammed rode out of a city on a horse to conquer; Jesus rode into a city on a donkey to die. In other words, while you can find violence in both, I don’t see anything in Islam that pushes back against violence, whereas in Christianity there is.
Let me add another thing about Islam’s understanding of God – this is from Kenneth Cragg. Because God is one in Islam, he is far from us. He is unique, singular, nothing is like him, nothing wrong can touch him. Therefore, it is hard to say that he is love because he doesn’t reach us in love and our suffering doesn’t reach him. He reaches us via the instructions in the Qur’an to “Do this, do that, do the next thing.” Cragg says, “We cannot say that God is love and also say that God is solitary. For in this solitary sense, God is one. Entire transcendence, which is Islam, is in the end, a blank agnosticism” – that is, we cannot know God. Now the average Muslim will not say that. He will say that he prays to God, that God helps him. But the idea of entire transcendence is inherent in Islam and is why there is such horror with Christians saying that Jesus is the son of God.
Interviewer: There are branches of the Reformed tradition that put a similarly strong emphasis on God’s transcendence, right? What’s the difference?
Barbara: Reformed thinkers would also say that God is love, that God is imminent, and that he revealed himself in Jesus. In Islam, they would say that God revealed himself in the Qur’an. So, we don’t compare the Bible and the Qur’an, Jesus and Mohammed. We compare Jesus and the Qur’an.
Interviewer: How do you introduce Muslims to the gospel?
Barbara: I think it needs the context of friendship; it is futile without friendship. When I was at the College of Wooster, the Muslim students were intellectuals and they loved bull sessions with their Christian friends. The comparative Bible and the Qur’an study worked because they loved to talk about ideas. With Muslims here, though, friendship must permeate everything. But without sharing the Gospel as we get chances, we aren’t being true friends. With a couple Muslim women I know best, I send them Scripture. I’m convinced by Eric Sarwar’s idea that the Psalms are the bridge. If a Muslim friend is grieving about the circumstances of her life, I send her verses of a lament. If she is happy, I send a verse that is more positive. Yesterday was Mother’s Day; I sent verses out of Proverbs 31. I don’t think being a good person and loving a Muslim is enough, in and of itself. My ESL Bible studies have had Muslim women in them, so we dig in. We have the text in front of us, we mark it up, pull thought questions from it, and discuss. For instance, Zara, who is now a member of this congregation, was in our ESL Bible study. She was on the road to Jesus, and we were studying John the Baptist. I asked, “How can we apply this?” And she said, “Well I guess I will have to be baptized.” You could have knocked me over with a feather! But it was the scripture that showed her next step. So, scripture has to play a role but not without the deep commitment of friendship.
Let me say more about the structure of the ESL Bible study.
Interviewer: Sure, say more.
Barbara: Many Bible studies are leader-based. There’s typically a short lecture followed by discussion groups. The structure I use is leader-based too but to a lesser extent. I would call it an empowering Bible study. It is communal and inductive in that it tells the women – and it could be done with men – that you can look at this text and you do not need to be told what it says, you can figure it out yourself. But, I want to emphasize that we do this in community. Many of the women come from cultures where they are not empowered – they would expect to ask their husband or pastor what the text means. So, it is empowering, and I don’t mean power in a bad sense, but in the sense that “I can do this – God gave me the ability to do it. Go gave me the power to understand this scripture, to apply it, to share it.” I really love the sense of empowerment that discovery Bible study gives them.
An interesting thing to see is that as our women get comfortable with each other, they begin to talk more freely. This past week we were discussing Joseph and I summed up our conclusions that he was like Jesus except in consolidating power to Pharaoh and helping Pharaoh create a slave state. And one of the women said, “No. He was using his gifts to do what had to be done for the people.” And we had an interesting discussion about that. I said to them later that I liked it that she had disagreed with me. And she responded, “Oh, I will never do that again. I will never challenge you again.” That comes out of her deep cultural background. And I replied, “No, no, no. I want everyone to hear that you are doing the right thing. How else can we understand? There are commentators who agree with you and commentators who agree with me. When we get to heaven, let’s ask Joseph.” There is that cultural feeling that they don’t have the right to understand on their own. What I gave her as a compliment, she took as a rebuke. So, we had to work that out. But I just love it, being able to do this kind of work with these friends.
Here’s another example. At Mark Fackler’s request, I told the Christmas story at the evening ESL Christmas party. I asked the Healing the Wounds of the Heart questions as I did – “What did you like? What was difficult?” One man’s hand shot up with this question: “Why didn’t God kill that wicked king (Herod)?” I’m still chewing on that and have asked him for a time soon to talk about it together.
Interviewer: Very interesting! Let’s go a different direction.
Interviewer: Globally, there has been a lot of conflict between Muslims and Christians. So, we live on Burton St. in Grand Rapids, Michigan. What do you see that we can do to make a positive contribution to this global situation?
Barbara: Certainly ESL is part of it. If you come here on a Tuesday or Wednesday morning or evening, you will see many women covered in their hijabs. We share hugs and kisses – and knowledge. We celebrate their citizenships and their children’s graduations. I think ESL totally clicks with them. I also think that the West Michigan Friendship Center is becoming very important to the Arabs among them. I went to their first anniversary party a few weeks ago and the room was jammed. There must have been 150 people there. Regularly they get over 100 for dinner. It is run by Christians; the program director is a Jordanian Christian. The African Cultural Center brought the dinner one night and did African dancing. I hear that it was one of their favorite nights. I’d like to see us get on the rotation to bring dinners. I’d also like to see us strengthen the relationship that we have with the Bosnian Mosque in East Paris. We haven’t interacted much in the past couple of years. But we need to remember that there are Islams, just as there are Christianities. The wonderful Imam there told me once that, ”My people aren’t very religious.” But they came out of forty years of atheism imposed by the Soviet Union. Their cultural reappropriation of Islam came out of a war. So, approaches to various people will need to be different.
Interviewer: I understand that they have put the brakes on a bit because there are so many groups that would like to connect with them.
Barbara: Well, we were the first ones. But I’m sure they get inundated.
Interviewer: What would it take for us to host some of the Friday dinners?
Barbara: I think if we just put it in the bulletin that we would like to commit to a Friday in July or August and see if we could get about a dozen people. It would really take that many to do it well. And then maybe have a little program.
Interviewer: OK. We’ve covered a lot of ground here, Barbara. Thank you. What you are doing here at COS is much appreciated!
This interview was conducted by Jim Bradley on Monday, May 13, 2019.