Palestinian pastor meets local Lutherans, discusses synods, support
After living through 10 wars in his lifetime, Pastor Mitri Raheb believes now more than ever is the time to focus on hope.
Raheb, 52, is pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. He was in Salisbury last week to begin the North Carolina portion of Room for Hope, a Palestinian arts festival promoting food, music, film and dance.
Before a cooking demonstration and luncheon prepared by Palestinian chefs on Thursday at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Raheb met with Bishop Leonard Bolick of the North Carolina Synod.
The two spent time discussing their respective synods and ways that Lutherans in North Carolina can support Lutherans in Palestine.
It’s a small group.
The ELCA in Jordan and the Holy Land is unique in the Middle East. Six churches are part of this ELCA group, Raheb said. Its bishop is The Right Rev. Dr. Munib A. Younan.
“They have been there the last 40 years and they are eager to go out and start new churches,” he said.
The biggest concentration of these churches can be found around Bethlehem.
“Outreach wasn’t something in the mind of our church for some time,” Raheb said.
Now, Christmas Lutheran is involved in numerous outreach programs for the people of Bethlehem, “from the womb to the tomb,” as Raheb likes to say.
Bolick and the Rev. Beth Kearney, assistant to the bishop, are North Carolina hosts for a trip to the Holy Land in January, sponsored by Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and led by Dr. Monty Luker, a professor of Hebrew scriptures at the seminary.
The Rev. Rhodes Woolly, senior pastor of St. John’s, is also leading a trip to the region in January.
In an incredible coincidence, the two groups, about 45 total North Carolinians, will be worshipping together at Christmas Lutheran on Jan. 11.
During their conversation on Thursday, Raheb invited Bolick to preach that day.
“We would be honored,” he told Bolick. “Half of your congregation will be there anyhow.”
“I’d love it,” Bolick said. “I’ll do it!”
Bolick acknowledged that it is a difficult time to be a Christian in Palestine.
“This is why we need strong support,” Raheb said.
Raheb also asked Bolick about the North Carolina Synod.
“More than 200 years ago most of our churches were here in this part of the state,” Bolick said.
That’s why the synod is headquartered in Salisbury, he noted. “Now we have 200 churches scattered across North Carolina, with about 75,000 members, and this is still a good central location.”
Christmas Lutheran is one of St. John’s mission partners, and the Salisbury congregation has a Bethlehem ministry team, led by Michael Connor. Some of its members will be traveling to visit Christmas Lutheran in January. Connor has already made that trip once. The team will also host a simulcast in December of the joint prayer service between Christmas Lutheran and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Through this team’s efforts, the St. John’s congregation has become familiar with the ministries of Christmas Lutheran, Bolick pointed out. “It’s so important we have a ministry in that place. You have hope, and you help us see what is actually taking place.”
That is Raheb’s role. When he first came to the U.S. in 1991, he said, he found that most Americans knew nothing about the Middle East. That made him angry.
“But the more I started to come here,” he said, “I realized that they weren’t getting the whole perspective.”
Therefore, Raheb wants to help Americans understand the Palestinian narrative. He noted that viewing the region through a political lens can be “messy,” but that personal interactions are so much more effective.
For example, he said, the chefs connected immediately with their host families. They all brought small gifts with them for the families. One of the students, a Muslim, gave a cross to her host family. The family was moved, as they did not have a cross in their home, Raheb said.
“They said, ‘A Muslim comes from Bethlehem to bring us a cross,’” Raheb said. “We are sisters, we are brothers, we are humans, we are friends.”
The group discussed similarities between the Berlin Wall, which came down 25 years ago this year, and the wall surrounding Bethlehem, erected more than a decade ago.
“Is non-violent resistance realistic in your area?” Woolly asked.
“I don’t think it’s impossible,” Raheb replied.
He went on to say that President Reagan did not have a problem with asking Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. And Gorbachev did not kill the movement that took place to dismantle the USSR.
“I don’t see this combination right now in our part of the world,” Raheb said. “The ingredients are not there yet. I believe ultimately the wall will come down.”
To raise up leaders, Christmas Lutheran has a leadership program as part of its ministries. Students attend classes one day a week for a year. They come from all over the West Bank, and 97 percent of them are Muslims, according to Raheb.
“We want, basically, to create a pool of future leaders,” Raheb said, and some are already emerging.
Raheb noted that a graduate of this program was a member of the first female soccer team in Palestine, and now works as an ambassador for FIFA.
The leadership program, he added, has a strong commitment to community.
“You cannot be a leader if you abandon your community,” Raheb said.
Bolick will be meeting next week with Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the ELCA and offered to send greetings from Raheb. Eaton was to visit Bethlehem in August, but was unable to go because of the war there. Raheb said he hoped to see her soon, so the two of them could meet.
“What do you really need from the ELCA?” Woolly asked.
Raheb listed four things: prayer, pilgrimage to Bethlehem, political advocacy and support with projects.
“We have to create an infrastructure capable of giving wings to our theology,” Raheb said.
High on the list is the completion of the college, Dar Al-Kalima, which Raheb estimates will cost about $500,000. Churches and synods have the opportunity to sponsor rooms there at a cost of $25,000-$150,000 per room.
The need for scholarships is also pressing, he said. “Because of the recent war, more than 20 students cannot pay their second year of tuition.”
Tuition costs are $3,600 per year.
Raheb knows it is hard for families to stay in the region. In a single recent week, some 20 families emigrated, he said, mostly to Canada.
“My wife and I are staying, because we believe this is where we are most needed,” Raheb said.
To learn more about the ministries of Christmas Lutheran Church, visit www.brightstarsbethlehem.org.