IN THEORY: Biggest spiritual impact

Every year, Time magazine awards the honor of Person of the Year to the individual who most impacted the news over the last 12 months. If you could name the person who did the most to advance the cause of God or spirituality in 2008, who would it be?

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At 31, Arsalan Iftikhar is a typical Gen-X American Muslim with an atypical profile as a media personality and peace activist in the U.S. and international press.

“I love reading the Quran and I love listening to Nirvana,” Iftikhar writes on his website “The Muslim Guy,” created on the seventh anniversary of 9/11 for the expressed intent of countering Islamic extremism.

His role as a public spokesman on Islam flourished in 2008. He advanced the cause of God in 2008 by working global peace like none other.

Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer and contributing editor for Islamica magazine, a contemporary global affairs magazine headquartered in Los Angeles.

In March, Iftikhar took part in the BBC Doha Debates in Qatar, arguing that “Muslims are failing to do enough to combat extremism” and calling for the end of every form of global bigotry in the world, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Iftikhar is an honest broker for the truth. I personally love hearing the hard-rock grunge of his courageous honesty.

The stereo boom of highly critical analysis for internal reform on the part of the Muslim community on one side along with the calls for justice and mutual understanding on Islamic issues from non-Muslims on the other side is a concert of enlightenment.

A prime example of this balance is Iftikhar's latest CNN commentary, “Both Sides Wrong in Gaza,” which defies today's status quo. The article does not attribute moral equivalency for the civilian casualties and the disproportional Israeli response while recognizing Hamas' complicity for its failure to govern responsibly and for irresponsible provocations.

Iftikhar models his spiritual message as a peace advocate after Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He deserves to be recognized in 2008 for his fierce defense of justice and truth, challenging both the West and Muslim world.

LEVENT AKBARUT

Islamic Congregation of La Cañada Flintridge

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Regarding impact on a national scale, I'm not too sure, but I'd probably choose Pastor Rick Warren for hosting a nationally broadcast discussion with presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama from his church. During this discussion, both candidates' views on faith and moral issues were clarified for millions of viewers. What Americans did as a people with our God-given privilege to vote is now one for the history books.

For me, personally, I was most impacted by the ministry of Charles Stanley through his “In Touch” ministry. I regularly download sermons from his website and listen to them while I work out at the YMCA. If you go to www.intouch.org and click on the “broadcasts” tab, you can benefit from his biblical and practical messages, too.

But the one most influential Person of 2008 was, and always will be, Jesus Christ. He said, “I will build My church” and He continues to do so, not just through spiritual “superstars” but through people like you and me. So fixing the eyes of our hearts on Him this year, let's make a difference and participate in the good things He will do for the glory of God, our Father in Heaven.

PASTOR JON BARTA

Valley Baptist Church

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If I may, allow me to include a couple of honorable mentions, or second- and third-place winners in this contest.

Billy Graham did nothing altogether new, but his lifelong contribution brought about many ministries that made a difference last year, and they'll continue. He turned 90 in November, and the evangelical world paused to reflect. Christians worldwide sent countless notes of appreciation to mark his milestone.

Second place should go to the Republican vice-presidential running mate. When conservatives began losing electoral excitement as candidates conceded, we were left with a good man, but less right-wing than hoped. When Sarah Palin entered the scene, an upsurge in interest for the party began. Her vocal affirmation of faith rang joyously in the ears of John McCain's constituents, and her balancing presence of exuberant belief put Christianity center stage. Liberals berated her and questioned her intelligence as a result, but those who venerate scripture and God's cause became her champions. I'm sorry to see her go.

If a No. 1 person of the year must be chosen, I nominate Rick Warren. Besides his and his wife's ongoing efforts to help global AIDS victims, it was his hosting of the presidential Faith Forum in 2008 that put Christianity smartly into the public square. The importance of spirituality was made clear by the positive RSVP of both candidates, and intelligent questions were posed by the pastor while everyone on the planet watched. The subsequent choosing of Warren to give the invocation to the upcoming inauguration also attests to his significance in 2008. From all of this, the Baptist preacher became a news-show attraction, and wherever he was interviewed, Christianity was well represented by his thoughtful answers and consistent Christ-like demeanor. He's got my vote.

THE REV. BRYAN GRIEM

Montrose Community Church

Conservative Congregational Christian Conference

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Within the Jewish world, there are actually two people who I think should share this award: Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah. Although their lives were tragically cut short by Islamic terrorists during the horrific Mumbai attacks, their deaths galvanized Jews across the globe and brought forth an incredible sense of unity. Hundreds of thousands of people committed to performing acts of goodness and kindness in their memory.

The story of the Holtzbergs' lives and their selfless dedication to others highlighted a vitally important aspect of spirituality and a true understanding of God. While many of us seek positions of honor and prestige in a comfortable environment, this couple chose to relocate to a Third World environment to spread love and benevolence. Serving at their local Chabad House, they welcomed and encouraged many people from all backgrounds — from traveling businesspeople and tourists to local residents and drug addicts — to take positive steps to improve their lives.

In death, as in life, Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg inspired numerous individuals to make meaningful personal commitments for the betterment of humanity. The positive example that they provide — one diametrically opposed to the death-loving, hate-filled and utterly destructive ideology of their murderers — has touched many hearts. The result will make our world a kinder and gentler place, and will help thwart the efforts of those who glorify terror and violence.

RABBI SIMCHA BACKMAN

Chabad Jewish Center

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Some years, a religious or spiritual leader is the obvious choice. However, for the year that just ended, I can think of no one whose name readily comes to mind.

An “honorable mention” might be Pastor Rick Warren, who brought together John McCain and Barack Obama on his church's stage (although not at the same time). Perhaps Warren deserves a pat on the back for having the liberal Obama in his conservative church. Perhaps the pastor even took some flak from part of his flock!

Another candidate might be the progressive Christian thinker John Shelby Spong, who brings a 21st-century vision to the age-old faith. And how about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright? Keep in mind that Time magazine's person of the year has sometimes been an arch-villain, such as Adolf Hitler; to be on Time's cover doesn't mean a nomination for sainthood, but a recognition of how that person affected humanity in that particular year, whether for good or for ill. Wright certainly brought the issue of race front and center, and his fame made the future president-elect face that issue head-on in a memorable speech in Philadelphia.

THE REV. C. L. “SKIP” LINDEMAN

La Cañada Congregational Church

United Church of Christ


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