Afshin Ziafat, a former Muslim who's now a Christian pastor, said at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's Leadership Summit on racial reconciliation that Christians must reach out to others with love, even when society is expected to hate them.
"Racial reconciliation is not just a good idea because racial equality is a politically correct idea, but it's because the message of the Gospel is at stake. The name of Jesus is at stake. And so the Gospel tells us that it's by grace alone that we can be restored to God," Ziafat, the pastor of Providence Church in Frisco, Texas, said on Friday.
The pastor shared his personal story of how he came to faith in Christ during the summit, which took place on March 26-27 in Nashville, Tennessee. He said that his story reflects the call for Christians to get out of their comfort zones and reach out to others.
Ziafat, who was born in Houston, revealed that when he was 2 years old, his family moved to Iran. After the Iranian Revolution hit the country four years later, they moved back to America to avoid the hostilities. They came face to face with racial discrimination in Houston, however, due to tensions between Iran and the U.S. at the time.
"It was not easy in 1979 to be from Iran living in America. A group of Americans were held hostage for over a year," he said, referring to the Iranian hostage crisis when 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage in Iran in the midst of the Iranian Revolution.
"We had rocks thrown at our window in Houston because people knew our family was from Iran. In high school, kids threatened to beat up my brother and I; my parents' car's tiers were slashed."
Ziafat revealed, however, that it was a "Christian lady," an English tutor, who in the second grade treated him with love and kindness and gave him his first Bible. The tutor had him promise that one day he would read the book when he was older. Ten years later when he was in his senior year of high school, Ziafat converted to Christianity.
"Had any other American given me that New Testament, I would have thrown it away. Because I didn't trust them. You want to win a Muslim for Christ? I believe you have to earn the right to be heard. And she did it by the way she was loving me," the pastor said.
"I am so thankful for this one Christian, when for everyone else it was totally right and natural to hate people from Iran, she went against what's natural and did the Gospel move."
Initially, Ziafat hid his faith from his father, who was the president of the Islamic Medical Society in Houston, and said that he used to sneak out to go to church on Sundays.
Eventually his father found out, and after Ziafat admitted that he was a Christian, his Muslim family disowned him. It was then that the pastor felt Christ's call to follow Him regardless of the cost.
He went on to receive an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Texas at Austin, where he said that God opened up many doors for him.
His father eventually offered to conditionally take him back and even pay for his entire study at medical school, but Ziafat found himself called to enter into ministry.
The pastor admitted it was one of the hardest things he had to do in his life to tell his father that he can't take up his offer for medical school, because he feels that God is calling him into ministry.
His father told him: "Son, not only will I never be proud of you, I will be ashamed of you for as long as I live."
Ziafat remained committed to his decision, however, and went on to receive his master of divinity with biblical languages from Southwestern Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas.
He says God has continued to open up doors for him, and besides his ministry at Providence Church, he also travels nationally and internationally to speaks at churches, retreats, camps, conferences and missions.
What is more, he has been able to preach to and help guide Iranian teachers in a neighboring country, who are then able to go back into Iran and set up underground churches for Christians.
"It all goes back to one lady who understood the Gospel, who said: 'I'm gonna love this Iranian kid when everyone hates people from Iran,'" Ziafat reflected.
"God is calling us to step out, especially at a time when it is expected of us to distrust and maybe even hate Muslims."
He reminded the audience at the ERLC summit that everyone was once distant from God, but Jesus has welcomed all who turn to Him.
"When we were enemies of God, Jesus loved us," he continued. "We are to go even to our political enemies, even to the people who we, in our human flesh, would lump with terrorism, and [those who live] across the streets from us and love them, when they are expecting us to treat them in a different way."
ERLC President Russell Moore said in a statement back in February that Christians can learn from Ziafat's story, especially in light of major world conflicts, such as the rise of terror group ISIS.
"In a time when the world is on fire with the threat of Islamic jihadist extremism and religious persecution, we must be the people who know how to engage our neighbors with the Gospel that reconciles," Moore said.
"Afshin Ziafat is the best person I know to help guide us, having been on both sides of the church's walls, as a Muslim child and as a Christian evangelist."