By Tobin Perry
CLARKSTON, Ga.–When Mickey Pate joined a small four-person team from the Pickens Baptist Association of Alabama on a vision trip last fall to engage the Muslim community of Clarkston, Ga., he didn’t do it to reach new people with the gospel.
Mickey joined the team to protect his wife, Susan, and the others on the trip from what he perceived as a potential Muslim threat. As a 25-year veteran sheriff’s deputy, he was concerned for the safety of those he cared about.
“I didn’t want to be their friend,” Mickey said. “I was going to eat their meal. I was going to do what the director told me to do. I was going to do what the people in Clarkston told me to do. And I was going to load up and come home. I wasn’t going to get involved with these people.”
But God had other plans. It only took one day in Clarkston to give Mickey a whole new perspective on Muslims—and a burden to reach them with the good news about Jesus.
The team from Pickens County, which included Susan, Mickey, the association’s director of missions and the associational WMU director, were visiting Clarkston Ministry Center to see if it would be a good fit for a future associational mission trip.
Clarkston, Georgia, sometimes called the “Ellis Island of the South,” has received more than 40,000 refugees in the past 25 years, from every corner of the world. Clarkston Ministry Center is a Send Relief hub for the North American Mission Board, where churches and associations can learn about Clarkston and the ministry center.
Events from nearly 40 years earlier had shaped Mickey’s perception of Muslims. He had been serving in the military in 1979 when Iranians took over the American embassy. Remembering vividly President Jimmy Carter’s failed raid on the embassy that led to multiple injuries and deaths of U.S. personnel, Mickey blamed both President Carter and the Muslim extremists for the casualties. 9/11 and two wars in Iraq only added to his distrust of Muslims.
“I basically saw all Muslims as the enemy,” Mickey said. “I saw them all as the same.”
But those views began to change while on the Clarkston trip. As part of the vision trip, the group had dinner with a family of Syrian refugees. During dinner, one of the refugees described how he couldn’t trust the police to protect them because they were “in the pocket of a corrupt government.” The man then recounted how the police would physically harm anyone who opposed the government.
“I couldn’t fathom that. So I guess I didn’t realize what a lot of those people had gone through,” Pate said. “As a law enforcement officer too, my job was to take care of people.”
In the middle of the day, the group met refugees who were selling crafts to help support themselves. At first, he was a bit suspicious, but his attitude quickly changed.
“They wanted to make their own living,” Mickey said. “They weren’t begging for help. They didn’t want money. They were looking for ways to support themselves. That impressed me.”
Susan also noted that the experience opened her eyes to the plight of refugees in the United States. She appreciated the way Southern Baptists had an opportunity to help the refugees assimilate into the country.
“While the refugees were here, they had a certain period of time to learn English, a certain period of time to get a job,” Susan noted. “That is what the ministry center is trying to help the refugees do as they get here. They help them to get into our culture and do what the government is requiring them to do to be able to stay in our country.”
Mickey says the experience has increased his desire to see Muslims come to faith in Christ. He knows it isn’t easy though. He believes it needs to start with Christians developing relationships with Muslims.
“I believe, if we don’t accept Jesus Christ as our Savior we’re going to die and go to hell,” Mickey said. “I don’t want these people to die and go to hell. I want them to learn the truth. I want them to hear the gospel and accept it.”
For more information about how you or your church can get involved in the work at the Clarkston Ministry Center, visit sendrelief.org/ministry-centers/clarkston-ministry-center.
Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board.