An Interview With Thabiti Anyabwile: Grace Across the Divide

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile

Interview by Rob Wilkins

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 ConfidenceCaptivated: 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 water-cooler 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 town home, 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.

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.

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SOURCE: Outreach Magazine – James P. Long

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