In Tel Aviv, Jews join with Muslims in vigil mourning New Zealand dead

Published in RNS

TEL AVIV — Dozens gathered outside the New Zealand embassy in Tel Aviv Sunday night for a somber candlelight vigil to commemorate the victims of Friday’s (March 15) mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“We are a small, bright light at the end of a dark tunnel,” Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Badr said of the event, which was organized by Tag Meir, an all-volunteer Jewish organization dedicated to ending extremist violence in Israel, in collaboration with local Muslim leaders and Israeli-Arab college students at Al-Qasemi Academy.

“We must eradicate this sort of behavior if we are going to live in peace. I hope one day we will be able to walk in the streets feeling safe and free of fear,” Sheikh Badr added.

Other local Muslim and Jewish leaders recited prayers of healing and solidarity in Hebrew and Arabic, while nine Muslim students from Al-Qasemi Academy in Haifa held placards in silence, letting photographs of the slain victims and messages reading “Stop Islamophobia” speak for themselves.

Men participate in a small vigil outside the New Zealand embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 17, 2019. Photo courtesy of Natacha Larnaud

The vigil was part of an overwhelming interfaith response to the attack during Friday prayers, which left at least 50 worshippers dead and dozens more injured. In New Zealand, several synagogues were closed on the Sabbath in solidarity with the Muslim community, and in Pittsburgh, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh set up a fund for the victims of the mosque attacks, similar to last October’s crowdfunding campaign “Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue,” which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for families affected by the Tree of Life massacre.

In a meeting with Muslim community leaders in Wellington, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed that Friday’s attack was the deadliest in the country’s history, adding that investigators were racing to identify the victims of the shooting spree so that they can be buried as quickly as possible, in accordance with Muslim burial tradition.

“When fanatics make the most noise, our voice is silenced,” warned Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, director of the Beit Tefilah Israeli community in Tel Aviv. Midway through his televised speech, Gottfried encouraged the crowd to sing an altered version of the popular song, “Oseh Shalom,” (“A Prayer for Peace”), adding Ishmael, a reference to the biblical patriarch in Muslim tradition and first son of Abraham, to Hu Ya’aseh shalom aleynu v’al kol Israel v’Ishmael (he will make peace for us and for all Israel and Ishmael).


Day #1: West African migrant churches in Tel Aviv

After a grueling 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

Ophir lead us to what he described as one of the rougher neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv, Neve Sha’anan. In past decades, the neighborhood used to be where Tel Avivans went to buy their 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. According to him 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 insists 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)


A church of many languages thrives in Brooklyn

The sounds of Arabic and Syriac could be heard at Our Lady of Lebanon, the Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn Heights on Sunday, Feb. 10, as the church celebrated the annual feast of St. Maron.

 

At the 11:30 a.m. Mass, the cathedral was brimming with worshipers, some who joined the Mass at different intervals after it had begun. They padded across the church’s red carpets, with grand chandeliers suspended from the arched blue ceiling overhead. Mother Mary, painted above the altar, is crested by the mountains of Lebanon.

 

Unlike Roman Catholic churches, which largely say Mass in English in the United States (some parishes offer other languages, like Spanish, according to their parish needs), Maronite churches such as Our Lady of Lebanon have a Mass (or “Qurbono”) that combines English, Arabic and Syriac. The readings, for example, are recited first in English and then in Arabic.

 

The Rev. Bishop Gregory Mansour’s Sunday homily was one of the only parts of the Mass that was solely in English. On Sunday he spoke on the gospel reading, John 12:23-30. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” Mansour quoted. The passage is often used by Christians to explain why Jesus died. Mansour used this scripture to address the feast day the cathedral was celebrating. “This could very easily apply to St. Maron,” Mansour said, given how the saint’s influence and following grew following his death.

 

In his homily, Mansour described how the legacy of St. Maron lives on. The saint, he said, was an “open air hermit” who travelled into the mountains to be closer to God, and went on to build a church there in the elements. But he said he wanted to highlight the lessons that can still be learned from the saint. He said there was something special about the “particular feeling” you “might be doing God’s work”—a feeling he suspected St. Maron had when he was building his community.

 

Mansour also drew attention to unique history of the Maronite Church. “We are the only church named after a person,” he said of the various Catholic churches, which also include the Roman, Chaldean and Melkite churches. He noted that the Maronite Church is unique because it has no Orthodox or protestant counterpart—Maronites say it has remained united since its founding, and has always been in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. (Some scholars are in disagreement on this latter point.)

 

Mansour said the Maronite church never had the “luxury” of the corruption of the Middle Ages, obliquely referring to the period in which European Catholic leaders sold indulgences, forgiving sins for money. Meanwhile in Lebanon, Maronites were not in positions of power, and instead faced waves of persecution. St. Maron himself was an ascetic who chose a life of poverty. “This great church,” he said, “grew up in simplicity.”

 

This isn’t to say the Maronite Church is in conflict with the Vatican or with Roman Catholics—the Maronite Church is considered  “in full communion” with Roman Catholic Church.

 

But the Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic church with its own customs. For example, Communion is taken by mouth only and is dipped in the wine that Catholics say has been transformed into the Blood of Christ. While in many Roman Catholic parishes, the Sign of Peace consists of greetings, handshakes and hugs shared by congregants at will, in the Qurbono the Sign of Peace is offered at each pew by an altar server, who clasps his hands over those of the person closest to him. That person brings their hands to their mouths and turns to cover the hands of their neighbors with their own, and the chain of peace offerings continue down the pew.

 

The Maronite church also has its own local jurisdiction. Our Lady of Lebanon cathedral, for example, does not fall under the diocese of the Rev. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, but rather under the eparchy (or province) of St. Maron. Bishop Mansour presides over this area, which covers about 45 Maronite parishes in a vast area that includes the states of New York, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Maine. Both DiMarzio and Mansour serve on the United States Council of Catholic Bishops which reports to the Vatican.

 

In addition to highlighting the distinctive legacy of the church, Mansour seemed to temper outsize devotion to St. Maron. “Some people say St. Maron founded the Maronite church, but that’s not true,” he said. “Jesus is our founder, St. Maron was the follower.”

 


Thanking God for the big things – and the little ones – at a Harlem church

At the Ephesus Seventh-Day Adventist Church on Lenox Avenue and 123rd Street, the ground was shaking as Pastor Lawrence Brown paced to the crimson-red podium on the stage, armed with his iPad and Bible app. The subway train passing underneath the church caused the rumble, but Alvaro Stewart, a Costa-Rican builder next to me, said that the ground-breaking sound effects made the service “more biblical.” Brown wore a black turtleneck sweater and blue jeans to complete the modern look. The elevated stage was lined with a stunning arrangement of nine oval pots of artificial flowers, alternating red and white, with a U.S. flag on each end.

Stewart had just eaten dinner with the pastor, a meal consistent with the Adventist belief of maintaining a healthy body, mind and spirit. Meat, alcohol and coffee were off the menu, which is why, combined with a day of rest on Saturdays, “we live on average five to 10 years longer than non-Adventists worldwide,” Stewart adds.

Thirteen members of the predominantly African-American community showed up to the Wednesday evening service, far from the 1,300 regulars who fill the spired, two-story Harlem church every Sabbath.

(Photo courtesy of Renee Nixon Simmons)

“Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go,” Brown began chanting, as a West African pianist to the left of the stage played a rendition of the eponymous hymn. “Anywhere with Jesus I am not alone,” everyone answered.

Following the song, Brown thanked the devoted dozen for attending the service in spite of the arctic cold and invited personal testimonies from the crowd. “Would anyone like to talk about the goodness of the Lord?” Brown asked. Customarily, congregants would in two or three minutes explore their relationship with the Almighty by offering examples of the ways God changed their life that day or week. They would thank the Lord for giving them the fortitude to overcome challenges threatening to distract or derail them.

The room was quiet.

Senses were heightened as an ambulance’s colorful, shrieking siren suddenly illuminated the stained-glass windows. The ground shook again, almost in frustration to the group’s momentary reticence. But in the far-right corner of the church, by a book-sized locked gold box inscribed with the words “offering,” an elderly woman aged 74 rose and shouted, “Thank you, Jesus.”

“I lost my wallet today,” she said.

Amen

“But I did not lose my soul. Peace, and bless the Lord.”

Amen, Amen

Then, a middle-aged, olive-skinned man from California, with a scarlet-red scarf draped over his white jumper, got up and thanked the Lord for his spiritual family at this church. “I’ve been away for a few months and it’s great to be home again,” he said.

Amen

Next, a young woman stood up in the front row by the wooden charity basket and thanked God for what he did to her that morning. “I was with my sister until late the night before, maybe 1:30 a.m.,” she said. “And our Savior woke me up at 6:00 a.m. this morning so that I could help my sister who had no heat or hot water in her apartment. My sister and I prayed together, and the Lord revived her water.”

Amen

And as Brown was about to gesture to the pianist to begin playing the hymn “When We All Get to Heaven,”  his personal favorite, an elderly man in a cream suit and tie gently got out of his seat with the help of his granddaughter. “I am happy to say that I just turned 90,” he said, his voice raspy. “But thanks to Jesus, I can walk and I can jump, and I hope we continue this fellowship.”

 


The power of music at a Protestant service in Greenwich Village

NEW YORK — The clock struck 5:00 p.m. when the Rev. John C. Lin stepped up to the wide, sand-colored, theatre stage at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village.

He placed the cream program guide on a black music sheet stand and welcomed parishioners as they hurriedly filled the red seats. He opened the guide, and read a quote from J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”:

 As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.”

He looked at the congregation and continued on with reflections. This time, with an ode to New York City.

“New York, you got money on your mind, and my words won’t make a dime’s worth a difference, so here’s to you New York.” 

He stopped reading, turning to an audience made-up of a racially-diverse set of young people huddled in winter coats. As they were settling in, Lin paused. Then, he started speaking on a subject all too familiar to New Yorkers: Success.

Success, he said, should not be the way people define themselves. Nor should one’s identity be based in his or her work.

They, he said, are defined by what Christ has done. He told the believers worship, through the singing of hymns, allows them to remember that truth.

Lin called on the congregation to stand. All stood, and flipped open their program guides to the hymnals.

Two women stepped up to the microphone. Four men on the back side of the stage began playing music. The bang of the drums became prominent, but soon enough, piano keys and guitar strums could be heard throughout the room.

The big-screen monitors hung on the right and left side of the stage flashed on. And as four lines of lyrics from the first song selection, Crown You with Praise by Natalie Grant, lit the screen, the congregation got ready to worship and act on the minister’s message.

As the drums thundered louder, the women began singing.

We crown you with glo-ry, we crown you with hon-or

Je-sus, we crown you with praise.

We crown you with song and dance,

We crown you with lift-ed hands,

Je-sus we crown you with praise!

Parishioners followed. Some reading the lyrics from their program guides, while others sung along looking at the screens.

The tempo picked up, and one word was repeatedly emphasized.

Singers: Wor-thy, wor-thy, wor-thy

Parishioners: Wor-thy, wor-thy, wor-thy

Singers: Je-sus, we crown you with praise

Parishioners: Je-sus, we crown you with praise!

The Protestant congregation praised Jesus. In the faith, he is the messiah, the savior for humanity where the believer’s identity is found.

The beat of the drums slowly died down. A transition was happening to a different song, and this one required a gentler touch. The piano keys picked up, and the lyrics on the screen changed.

The singer with the soprano voice began with the first line:

How lovel-ly is Your dwell-ing place, O Lord al-might-y,

For my soul longs and e-ven faints for you. For here

My heart is satisfied with your pres-ence.

With nearly half the congregation looking at their guides, and the other half looking at the screen, they sang the chorus for the song.

Singers & Parishioners: Bet-ter is one day in Your courts,

Bet-ter is one day in Your house, Bet-ter is one day in Your courts

Than thou-sands else-where.

Parishioners continued in unison, looking at the stage, the guides, the screen, and some, at others.

Those arriving late had to walk up the main aisle and approach an usher for program guides. The man smiled, briefly handing out pamphlets pre-made for the 5:00 pm service on February 3rd, 2019.

More people began filling in the seats, and the music once again transitioned to another song.

Rev. Lin looked on from the stage, also singing along.

(Top photo courtesy Redeemer Presbyterian Church of NYC)