TEL AVIV — After a nine-and-a-half-hour flight, the Covering Religion team landed in Tel Aviv at 10:30 a.m. local time. After getting through customs and obtaining international cell phone service, we met with our Columbia professor, Greg Khalil, and our local expert, Ophir Yarden of ADAShA, a Jerusalem-based organization that specializes in interreligious tour experiences.

Ophir led us to what he described as one of the rougher neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv, Neve Sha’anan. In past decades, the neighborhood was a place where Tel Avivans went to buy shoes. Now, it’s home to a diverse population of migrant peoples, including refugees, asylum seekers, and workers from places like Eritrea, Ecuador, the Philippines and Thailand. There we met Lisa Richlen, an Israeli-American Ph.D. candidate and an expert in working with Tel Aviv’s migrant communities. Many of these migrants are Christians, including West Africans from countries like Ghana and Nigeria. Churches serve as cultural as well as religious centers for these communities.

Tel Aviv’s largest Pentecostal church is somewhat hidden in Neve Sha’anan. But a lot of businesses in the area offer more than what they advertise out front. Ethiopian restaurants double as community centers. Bodegas line the streets selling knockoff sneakers and designer brands, but also sell Israeli SIM cards. Lift Up Your Head Church is located in an unremarkable beige apartment building, which it shares with an Escape Room franchise. After a short walk from the bus stop, we met two pastors serving the West African community in Tel Aviv.

“We come here to refuel, for God to empower us,” said Pastor Jeremiah Dairo of Lift Up Your Head. Dairo, who moved to Israel from Ghana in 1987, works with Christians from across African diaspora in Israel. Dairo’s church movement started in Jaffa, but has since spread across the country. He said that there are now over 40 associated Pentecostal churches in Israel, the largest of which can attract 100 to 200 churchgoers each weekend.

Sign leads the way to the Lift Your Head Church, Tel Aviv

Dairo insisted that his movement is “rewriting the bible,” saying “I’m not here to tell you what happened to Ezekiel. I am telling you what God has done through my life.” Pentecostal churches, one of the fastest growing Christian movements in Africa, heavily emphasize the individual’s connection with God. A typical service at Lift Up Your Head begins with an hour of Bible study, in which Dairo will pose a question for his congregants to ponder. They then “share testimonies” together, which is when Dairo asks his followers to “tell us what the Lord has done” for them personally. The next part of services involves worship music. Behind the pulpit on an elevated stage, a drum set, guitar and bass guitar are still out of their cases since the last service. Dairo said his churchgoers “enjoy and entertain themselves before God” and “dance our problems away.” They see this moment as a call to share the word of God. “By the time we leave here, somebody’s life has turned around,” he said.

The African churches also perform important social functions for their community. Lift Up Your Head supports homeless asylum seekers and migrants, even those that are not Christian. “They have nothing. Nothing. Nothing,” said Pastor Solomon Tetteh, a Nigerian Pentecostal minister. “We see them through this storm.” Tetteh’s church also does significant work with the disabled community, including paying visits to the homes of migrants with visual impairments.

The migrants in Israel need all the help they can get. In the last few years, Israel’s right-wing government has been trying to deport the migrant communities of South Tel Aviv, including the West Africans. The Likud government often refers to these people as “infiltrators” and threats to public health, as there are higher rate of prostitution and drug abuse in their neighborhoods. However, Dairo and Tetteh remain optimistic about their community’s long term success here. They answer the government’s apathy toward them with love. To them, Israel is the promised land. “God supernaturally positioned us in this country,” said Dairo. “Most of the time we depend on God because we don’t have outside support,” he said, adding that “once God has called you, you will make a way.” Both pastors also praised the opportunities they were afforded in the country. “Israel is a miracle. Staying here every day is a miracle,” said Dairo.

But mostly, West African Christians feel inspired by the history that surrounds them. Living next to the places where Jesus walked is awe-inspiring for Dairo. “Some of the things and places we have read in the Bible — we have seen it and know it’s real.” It’s enough to convince him that he has a home in this place, too.

(Image courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)