Review: Pillars

Pillars, Rachel Pieh Jones, Foreword by Abdi Nor Iftin. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2021.

Summary: An account about how the author’s attitudes both toward Islam and her Christian faith changed as she and her husband lived among Muslims in Somalia and Djibouti.

Rachel Pieh Jones grew up in a warm and thriving evangelical church in Minnesota. A lot of love–and some legalism. She didn’t know any Muslims but believed that they were “violent, backward, and just plain wrong.” Yet in Pillars, after a number of years in Somalia and Djibouti, she writes:

“I had a lot to learn about how to love my neighbors and practice my faith cross-culturally. I don’t identify with the label ‘missionary,’ with its attendant cultural, theological, and historical baggage, though I understand this is how many view me. I do love to talk about spirituality–and what fascinates me is that the more I discuss faith with Muslims, the more we both return to our roots and dig deeper. As we explore our own faith, in relationship with someone who thinks differently, each of us comes to experience God in richer, more intimate ways. In this manner, Muslims have helped me become a better Christian, though things didn’t start out that way” (p. 49).

How did she change? It began with some relationships with Somali refugees in their apartment complex in Minnesota while her husband completed doctoral studies. An opportunity opened up to teach in Somalia at Amoud University. This led to an immersion in Somali life, aided by their housekeeper and the guard assigned to them as foreign nationals–for ten months, when all their plans were interrupted when several foreign nationals were killed and they had to grab their evacuation bags and flee on a moment’s notice. The found refuge in neighboring Djibouti. Over the next years, Rachel and Tom grew close to a number of Muslims, entering into shared life, and observing their devotion to Islam

They didn’t become Muslims. They learned a lot about Islam. When urged to pray the shahada, she was able to say, “No, I love Jesus.” She answered a lot of questions about Jesus. She learned how to live among the people. She celebrated weddings and births and the breaking of fasts.

Jones organizes her account around the five pillars of Islam: creed, prayer, giving, fasting, and pilgrimage. Learning how her Muslim neighbors encountered God made her reflect more deeply on her own faith, and fall more deeply in love with Jesus. The shahada, a call to convert, to submit to God who is one is really a call to revert. It reminded her of Jesus and Nicodemus, the call to be born again. The prayers, which she sometimes was able to join some women in, led her to a renewal in her own prayer life–amid a pregnancy, ever present dangers, and the everyday challenges of life. The practices of almsgiving forced her to face how she also was conscious of reward in giving and recounts her experiences of helping a poor refugee establish an outdoor restaurant. She had rarely fasted but fasted along with others during Ramadan and joined in the joyous celebrations of Eid. Learning about the pilgrimage to Mecca brought her to a realization of her own lifelong pilgrimage.

I so appreciated this narrative. It was earthy and incarnational. Jones adopts an open and learning posture, both with her Muslim friends and toward what the Lord Jesus would teach her. She can recognize difference without “othering.” She’s as open about Jesus as she is to learning from her friends, like Amaal, her spirited maid. And over time she is able to distinguish what is American Christianity and what is the core of the gospel of Jesus.

This is not a book for those interested in polemics against Islam. Jones takes us into the lived experience of Muslims in the Horn of Africa and what a real engagement with them can be like with risk, affection, difference, and real learning. We also should remember her learning journey began with the Somali refugees in Minnesota. Many of us are near Muslim communities. We may have Muslim neighbors or work colleagues or health care providers. This is a valuable book both for its exploration of Islam, but also for its model of humble, open dialogue, willing to make mistakes and take risks, to welcome and be welcomed. And it points to what can happen as we engage those of another faith. We not only learn about their faith. We rediscover our own.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Crossing Cultures with Jesus

Crossing Cultures with Jesus

Crossing Cultures with JesusKatie J. Rawson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: An introduction to international student ministry that focuses on both entering into the world of international students, led by the Spirit of Jesus, and drawing those students lovingly into Christian community.

In 2017, 1,184,735 international students were enrolled in studies in US universities. Of these 362,368 came from China and 206,698 were from India. It might surprise you to know that over 15,000 of these students come from Nepal and 3,000 of those students are studying in Texas! (Source: “US: international students top 1.18 million”The PIE News).

For many, like myself, who work in collegiate ministry, these statistics point to an amazing opportunity. We literally have the world on our doorstep at many university campuses. The opportunity to welcome these students and to share the Christian message with those who are interested, sometimes from countries where this would not be permitted, is a great privilege. Many will return to their countries to occupy significant positions of national leadership in government, business, education, and other key fields. Yet sadly, there are many international students who are never welcomed into an American home during their academic studies in the States.

The challenge in this work is to pursue it with sensitivity and grace. Often, we mistake politeness for interest, or people will say “yes” so as not to offend when they are not truly ready to do so. When we cross the street to welcome these students we are crossing cultures, just as much as if we were to fly to their country. Katie Rawson writes this book out of over thirty years of experience with international students, offering not simply a set of “how to’s” but an incarnational mindset and a spirituality of international student ministry that I believe is much needed if we are to genuinely extend the love of Christ in ways that will connect across the different cultures these students represent. She writes:

“We are sent into the world by Jesus just as he was sent by the Father. With the Spirit of the Father and Jesus inside us, we display Jesus to the world, just as he embodied and displayed the Father. As Jesus entered our world and drew us into his world—the community of Father, Son and Spirit—we are to enter the worlds of those around us and draw them into the community of Jesus. God is already carrying out his mission in the world through the Spirit, and we are to go out as participants in his mission, led by the Spirit, just as Jesus was. And our motive is the same motive Jesus had: to display the glory of the Father to all the peoples of the world so that every people group might join in never-ending worship of the Trinity. . . .” (p. 13)

The two key words or phrases here are “entering” and “drawing in” and the book is organized in two parts around these. After introducing the book with some information around the challenge and opportunity of cross-cultural evangelism and the love of the good and beautiful God that is at the heart of the universe and hopefully fills our hearts, Rawson turns to entering in. But instead of giving us technique, she teaches us about keeping in step with the Spirit and the vital importance of prayer. Then she begins with the importance of building trust through acceptance and honor while being aware of cultural differences. She helps us understand how our reading of scripture may be colored by worldview lenses, as well as understanding the different worldviews of internationals, particularly from Asia and India. Particularly critical here is understanding different values systems around four key values: honor, innocence, joy, and power.

The second part of the book focuses on drawing people into community. First, and foundational, she focuses on the characteristics of welcoming communities. She applies research by Doug Schaupp and Don Everts on the Five Thresholds of Conversion (a good overview is offered in this video) to communities working with internationals, showing how important walking with internationals through these thresholds is vital to avoid superficial conversions with no lasting transformation. She offers very practical ideas on communication and the differences between direct and indirect styles, different learning styles (conceptual, images, and intuitional), and the value of story. She follows this with a way of sharing the gospel as a story about brokenness in the world (available here electronically). She concludes by discussing how communities are important in the making of disciples when people believe.

I would describe this book as both practical and wise. It includes lots of tips and ideas, but also reflects the wisdom and spiritual insight and stories of many years in international ministry where the outward journey of reaching students has been matched with an inward journey of knowing Christ more deeply and learning to walk in step with his Spirit. Each chapter includes both individual reflection questions and group discussion questions (written by good friend and ministry colleague Marc Papai) and recommended resources related to the chapter topics (including extensive online resources at It is great for collegiate ministers, ministry teams or anyone interested in welcoming and loving internationals students, entering their worlds and drawing them into community,


Where I Was Last Week

My view walking to breakfast each morning

My view walking to breakfast each morning

Some of you who follow this blog might be curious where I was this past week that led to taking a break from posting new material. I don’t always like posting about travel away from home before hand on social media. As it turns out, I was in Mexico for the past five days at an international conference of collegiate ministries that is held once every four years. I was invited to lead one of the workshops during the conference and also to give one of the plenary addresses. There were roughly 1100 delegates from approximately 159 nations present.

Slavic and Zina from Moldova

Slavic and Zina from Moldova

Needless to say, it was a new and humbling experience to be in such a global gathering of people who work in higher education. At one meal, I would be talking with a national leader of a student movement from Korea, at another, a leader from Malawi. I have been on a list serve with a number of people from around the world and had the opportunity to meet many of them face to face for the first time. I met a Peruvian who had written me some time back (I’d actually forgotten this!) about book recommendations for research he was doing. What a surprise to learn that my name appears in the acknowledgement page of his paper! I had the opportunity to meet the national leader and one of the staff leaders of the student movement of Moldova. We’ve helped their work in various ways over the years but had never personally met–a wonderful highlight!

It will take me a good while to sort out all the experiences of these days, which were packed morning to night–hence no time for blogging. But a few initial impressions:

One was an overwhelming sense of our common humanity, shared faith and calling. We are all people working in the world of higher education seeking to connect our faith with the lives and studies of students and faculty. But there is more. We all have families with the joys and concerns these bring. We all struggle with the exigencies of daily existence and in finding the resources to do what we dream.

Another impression was of the incredible mosaic of diversity reflected in music, languages, dress, and other cultural practices. For one thing, it was a joy to discover the hospitality of our Mexican hosts, the pride they have in their rich culture, and the beauty of their country. In the United States, there is a strong tendency simply to view Mexico as a problem. I came away finding myself thinking that until we can appreciate the richness of culture, of physical beauty, and among many, the faith, hard work, and pride of Mexico’s people, we will have much more difficulty resolving the problems that exist between our nations. Viva Mexico!

And this was true wherever I looked. I met people who, even though they had a clear eyed appreciation of the challenges their countries and their universities face, are people who love deeply their countries and their universities and the students and faculty with whom they work. I got a glimpse of the unique opportunities and challenges many face and also realized even more deeply how much I do not understand.

A final impression I will share here is what an impressive group of people this was, both spiritually and intellectually! In the track I helped co-lead (with a New Zealander and a Sri Lankan) we had gifted faculty from all over the world. One was the first female president of her university in Trinidad. I heard a student from New Zealand give a message that would put to shame many seminary-educated pastors in my country. I heard a Palestinian Christian speak about suffering and yet speak out against anti-Semitism. I was impressed afresh with how much we can learn from the rest of the world!

These are first impressions. As I said, the conversations and experiences of these days will be something I mull over for a long time.