Historical Background

Empowered by Christ, rooted in the lands and culture of the Bible and earliest Christianity, and sent to the world . . .

The origins of the Arab and Middle Eastern community within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) extend back many millennia to Mesopotamia, the land “between the rivers,” often considered the biblical garden of Eden and the cradle of human civilization. Passing through this land to Canaan was a man with roots in Ur in the northern Arabian peninsula: Abraham is the father through tradition and faith of Jews, Christians, and Muslims and the ethnic father of Jews and Arabs through his sons Isaac and Ishmael. Centuries later Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, gave his life for all humanity. His followers led the mid-first century Jewish movement that became universal Christianity. Even in the earliest days of the Christian community, the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was witnessed by Arabs and Middle Easterners along with others living during the Roman Empire in the multi-ethnic Palestine and Fertile Crescent. As this dramatic event unfolded, the observers asked, “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:8-11). Acts 2:41 tells us that “three thousand people” were added to the body of Christ that day a striking reminder of the long history of Christian presence in today’s Middle East.

Today’s ELCA members of Arab and Middle Eastern heritage, from such places as Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine, are the descendants of these earliest Christians. The Arabic language of their liturgy has close ties with the Hebrew and Aramaic of Bible times. The specifically Lutheran presence in the region dates back to the middle 19th century, when English and German Christians began to found schools, hospitals, and churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCJ) based in Palestine and Jordan became autonomous in 1959, and has been led by local Arab bishops since 1979 (1). Immigrants from Palestine are serving as pastors in the ELCA’s Arab language congregations in Brooklyn, N.Y., Chicago, Ill., and Dearborn, Mich. Throughout the ELCA, Lutherans from diverse Middle Eastern heritage are involved as pastors, lay leaders, and members of synodical committees and the boards of churchwide units.

Beyond those in the ELCA, other Arab and Middle Eastern Christians have been part of waves of immigration to the United States. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Christians came from the Mount Lebanon region of the Ottoman Turkish province of Greater Syria. During and after World War I, many more Christians and Muslims came from Arab countries to work in places such as Detroit with its automobile industry and Akron with its tire factories. Immigration has continued to the present day, including Palestinian Christians after the 1948 formation of the state of Israel and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war; Lebanese Christians during their country’s recent long civil war; and Christians from Iraq, thousands of whom now live in Dearborn, Mich. Although only a small percentage of these Middle Eastern Christians were Lutherans in their home countries, they and their descendants are often unable to find in the United States churches of any denomination with their language and cultural background. For this and other reasons, the existing ELCA Arab congregations include Copts, Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, and converts, as well as Lutherans from primarily Palestinian origins. There are many more such Middle Eastern Christians not currently served by any denomination or congregation in the United States.

 

Theological and Biblical Foundations

Seeking to serve and proclaim the Gospel among Arabs and people of the Middle East and to share our community’s gifts with the whole church. . . .

Just as the Holy Spirit enabled all to understand the preaching of Peter and the other disciples in their own languages at Pentecost, we also affirm that being the one body of Christ does not demand that Lutherans all worship in the same language and with the same cultural heritage. The seer John of Patmos describes his vision of those gathered in the presence of God in the end times as “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9–10). Similarly, the apostle Paul frequently adapted the style and content of his preaching to best reach the particular ethnic and cultural groups he was evangelizing: “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).

The Arab ministry strategy seeks ways to invite Arabs and Middle Easterners into the Lutheran expression of the body of Christ through biblical hospitality (Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2) and in the spirit of Jesus’ admonition that the neighbors we are called to love and serve are all our fellow human beings. As the United States deals with heightened tensions from the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Arab-Israeli and Iraqi conflicts, newcomers from the Middle East, whether Christian or Muslim, face increased suspicion, hostility, and even abuse. Some Lutheran church members, for example, have lost jobs or have been imprisoned without being charged. By contrast, Genesis 18 recounts how Abraham welcomed strangers into his tent. In the tradition of Abraham, American Lutheran churches have an impressive record of hospitality toward refugees, including resettling 57,000 after World War II and 50,000 at the end of the Vietnam War. (2) Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Catholic Relief Services continue to be the largest organizations involved with resettlement.

On behalf of Arab and Middle Eastern people among us, we feel called as a community of faith to be a “bridge over troubled waters for strangers in a strange land.”(3) The metaphors of building bridges and being bridge people portray both the potential role for Christians of Arab and Middle Eastern heritage in the ELCA and the specific recommendations in this ministry strategy.

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John (4) illustrates the value of bridge-building and of religious and cultural diversity as the Church shares the Good News. The Samaritan woman Jesus addresses is different from him in gender, ethnicity, religious practice, and perceived moral character. Yet after she has experienced first-hand the “living water” Jesus offers, she becomes the witness who bridges the cultural distance between Jesus the Jewish Messiah and her fellow Samaritans.

Journalist and novelist Amin Maalouf is Lebanese, French, Arab, and Christian. He explains that he and others like him live on the “frontier between opposed communities.” They can integrate the diverse elements that form their identity and be “a kind of mortar joining together and strengthening the societies in which they live.”4

The ELCA’s 1993 social statement on race and ethnicity urges us to move beyond “an ‘assimilation’ approach to culture” to benefit from “the plurality of cultures already present in our church” and society. (5) Similarly, this church’s 2003 Evangelism Strategy affirms the “rich diversity” of communal prayer and worship in the Lutheran tradition and calls for a renewal of worship among “people and congregations that represent a variety of perspectives and practices regarding worship.”(6) Evidence of this varied heritage is apparent even in the contrasting worship styles of Lutheran churches with members of European descent. Norwegian-background congregations in North Dakota may emphasize simple sanctuaries and a worship service marked primarily by preaching and hymns. In contrast, some German-background congregations in New York may stress weekly observance of Holy Communion with such liturgical accompaniments as incense and bells. An ELCA that can embrace diverse northern European customs can be enriched by the presence of Arab-language congregations and their use of icons, candles, incense, and the ancient melodies of the oldest Christian churches. Arab and Middle Eastern Christians bring many distinctive gifts to the ELCA:

1) A cultural insight into the Arab values of hospitality and celebration, two areas the ELCA has been seeking to enhance;

2) Access to a more passionate, poetic rhetorical style, more akin perhaps to African American Baptists than traditional Lutheranism;

3) A more experiential and direct sense of the world in which biblical material arose, not only from recent immigrants from Arab countries but also from second and third generation Arab Americans. In their work on the parables, biblical scholars Kenneth Bailey and Carol Schersten LaHurd (7) have demonstrated how such experience enriches understanding of the New Testament. Arab and Middle Eastern Lutherans have unique interpretive insights to share with the whole ELCA;

4) A cultural orientation toward appreciation of the mysterious, irrational, and mystical elements of religion and humanity. This is a good fit for Lutheranism. As Paul Tillich noted in his 1936 comparison of Calvinism and Lutheranism in America, “[Lutheranism] includes…an awareness of the irrational and demonic nature of existence, an appreciation of the mystical element of religion, and a rejection of Puritan legalism in private and corporate life”; (8)

5) An orientation toward valuing family and communal life more than individualism, which has reached problematic proportions in American life;

6) A stronger emphasis on religious practice in daily life—such as reciting family prayers before an icon in the home—than is true historically in the European stream of Lutheran Protestantism—which tends to focus mainly on religious doctrine. Thus, Arab Christians have something in common with Jews and Muslims, a connection that could be helpful in interfaith dialogue and shared ventures; and

7) An unusual perspective on living with prejudice. Unlike groups generally more easily recognizable as “persons of color,” Arab-Americans can often “hide” within the majority population. Thus, while anti-Arab prejudice and discrimination is extensive in the United States, many Arab Americans have the choice of escaping it by hiding or never calling attention to their Arab background. (9) All these gifts, including worship styles adapted from the Holy Land’s oldest Christian churches, can enrich the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as members of varied ethnic origins celebrate together the Reformation gift of freedom for diversity in both ceremonies and church structures. 10

  • (1) ”Brief History of the ELCJ,”  www.holyland-lutherans.org/history.htm
  • (2) “A Message on Immigration,” approved by the ELCA Board of the Division for Church in Society and adopted by the ELCA Church Council on November 16, 1998.
  • (3) Pr. Frederick E. N. Rajan, executive director, ELCA Commission for Multicultural Ministries, Oakland, Calif., meeting in January 2004.
  • (4) In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, trans. Barbara Bray (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000), p. 36. 
  • (5) “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture,” adopted by the Churchwide Assembly on August 31, 1993, pp. 3–4.
  • (6) “Sharing Faith in a New Century: A Vision for Evangelism in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” adopted by the Churchwide Assembly in August 2003.
  • (7) For example, see Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1976), and Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1992); and Carol Schersten LaHurd, “Re-Viewing Luke 15 with Arab Christian Women,” in A Feminist Companion to Luke, ed. Amy-Jill Levine with Marianne Blickenstaff (London and New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), pp. 246–268. 
  • (8) Paul Tillich, as quoted by James Luther Adams, “Paul Tillich on Luther,” in Interpreters of Luther: Essays in Honor of William Pauck, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), p. 306.
  • (9) Most of these points are taken from “Arab-American Lutherans, Diversity, and Inclusiveness in the ELCA,” an address by Ryan LaHurd on September 1, 1990, at an ELCA consultation.
  • (10) See Article VII, “The Church,” The Augsburg Confession.

 

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