January Series Speaker Recounts Need as Palestinian Pastor to ‘Cast a Bold Vision’

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Mitri Raheb235 Rev. Mitri Raheb: “I learned how to have the courage to go against the grain and to swim upstream.” Rev. Mitri Raheb lives and ministers in Bethlehem, Palestine, an area of the world that requires him to walk a cultural and religious tightrope.

He has witnessed his hometown reduced to rubble and shattered glass. Yet through it all, God had a plan, Raheb said recently at Calvin College’s January Series, which marked its 29th anniversary this year.

Raheb is a Lutheran minister, who is an Arab and the longtime pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church (ELCC) in Bethlehem, which is a short drive away from Jerusalem located in the West Bank, Palestine.

Raheb readily admits his background makes him an anomaly to many.

“I’m a Palestinian, Arab Christian,” Raheb said. “Many people don’t know we exist.”

Reminders of what Palestine is yesterday and today

Those who are unaware about people like him include some Americans, which Raheb humorously pointed out, forget that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Palestine, not Bethlehem, Penn.; that the Bible did not originate in the Bible Belt; and that there have been Christians in Palestine doing God’s work since the time of Jesus.

After earning a doctorate in theology at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany in 1988, Raheb returned to Bethlehem where his first and current pastorate in the ELCC in downtown Bethlehem

Then, starting in 1987 and continuing through 1993, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was unleashed. Violence was all around. A second uprising lasted from 2000 to 2005.

“I felt I was not prepared for this situation,” Raheb said, who also is president of Diyar Consortium and of Dar al-Kalima University College in Bethlehem and president of the Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.

Learning to listen

“There were times when I could not continue preaching because of the shooting from Israeli soldiers,” Raheb said. “I also learned people in Bethlehem have different questions. This is why I had to learn to listen. It took me seven years to learn what the needs of the people were.”

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Eventually, Raheb discerned God was calling his congregation to reach out to the community, at a time when his church was “dying” due to dwindling attendance.

“Ninety-five percent of members of Christmas Church left Palestine in the last 50 years and five percent who are left,” Raheb said, the author of 16 books including:I am a Palestinian Christian”and “Faith in the Face of Empire.”

“God was calling us to leave the walls of the church.”

The reception among many church members to this idea was lukewarm at best, Raheb said.

Courage against the grain

“Sometimes God works through the church and sometimes in spite of the church,” he said. “I learned how to have the courage to go against the grain and to swim upstream.”

So in September 1995, church members renovated the ground floor of the same building where ELCC’s services were held on the second floor and launched a community center for youth and women and the elderly.

But the uprising between Palestinians and Israelis heated up, particularly in 2000 in what is known as the second intifada, when Israeli gunfire, air attacks and tanks shelled the area around Raheb’s church, blowing up the entrance to his home as well as businesses homes and eventually using his community center as an Israeli headquarters.

At one point, glass was strewn throughout the street, conjuring a question within Raheb.

What’s our message?

“I looked at the shattered glass on the streets and cars and asked, ‘What is our message this time?’ We gathered all the pieces of shattered glass from the streets and made angels, crosses and butterflies, symbols of hope from shattered lives and broken hopes into the healing hand of Christ.

“Isn’t this the story of Jesus who brought new life? I learned as a pastor when everything seems to be falling apart, trust the Lord. He’ll lift you up to restore others.”

Still, by 2009, 86 percent of Bethlehem’s land was under Israeli control, Raheb said, a challenge compounded by the Israeli West Bank barrier, or wall. Unemployment and crime, the use of drugs became a “vicious circle.”

Then God moved in Raheb’s heart.

World needs ‘crazy people’

“When Bethlehem became a walled city at that time, I felt God calling us to start a Christian College. I was told ‘you’re crazy.’ A crazy world like ours needs crazy people like us.”

Today, Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture offers young people an opportunity to be peacemakers, not just peace talkers, Raheb said.

“Casting a bold vision is important,” said Raheb. “Vision requires the Lord to act. Leaving room for God to act is our plan. It is vital. There is lots of fear but immense hope.

“What keeps us going is God is with us and we are never alone. The prayers of people around the world keep us going. The smiles of the people we are serving keeps us going.”

Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
About:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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