Avdal Boktor and Hiba Murad were expecting their first child in Egypt. It should have been an exciting time, but instead it turned into a first-time parents’ nightmare. Hiba had converted to Christianity as a teenager in Iraq but never changed her papers — they still listed her as “Muslim.” Avdal’s identified him as “Christian.” If she were to deliver their son, Avdal would be jailed and the baby taken away and issued Muslim papers. The couple knew they had to leave the country. Eventually accepted for asylum in the United States, they made their way to Michigan, which has a large Middle Eastern population. Here they would be free of unjust government laws.
Meanwhile, Heritage Church, Sterling Heights, Michigan, had opened a food pantry to serve the area’s growing refugee population. Senior pastor Jeff Forester realized many people they served spoke only Arabic. Sharing the love of Christ was next to impossible with this substantial language barrier. Forester began to pray God would send Heritage an Arabic-speaking evangelist.
One Saturday morning a new couple with a small child came to Heritage. This isn’t unusual in a church of over 2000, but they were different — it was Avdal and Hiba, who spoke Arabic. Their English wasn’t perfect at the time, but they spoke it well enough. Jeff soon learned of their former ministry.
“It turns out Avdal had served over 120 different churches in Upper Egypt, was well-known on TV and is a world-class evangelist,” Jeff said. “I loved him. They went through a lot of paperwork in order to become permanent U.S. residents. Once this was done, I said, ‘Let’s plant a church.’”
Avdal and Hiba started a ministry called Hope for Arabs in 2013 by doing Saturday afternoon outreach — knocking on doors, handing out flyers, prayerfully reaching people with the love and hope of Jesus Christ. They began a small Bible study with two families in their 900-square-foot apartment every Saturday evening and soon had 62 people meeting in their living room.
Avdal was on the fence about planting his own church. Although Jeff and his team coached and encouraged him, he resisted and instead asked to become an Arabic-speaking campus of Heritage Church. “I’m an evangelist,” he told Jeff, “and I know we would be better together because I don’t understand all the American church things.’” Jeff agreed, then arranged for Avdal and Hiba to participate in a Converge Church Planting Assessment Center. Afterward, the couple hit the ground running. Their Arabic-speaking congregation, named Hope Church (Heritage doesn’t translate easily into Arabic), was launched on November 9, 2014.
Jeff expected some pushback from the congregation. He intentionally created diversity within Heritage and was prepared to defend it, if necessary. The first few months of the two congregations meeting together were awkward. Seeing Middle Eastern women bringing their children to child care and hearing men in the lobby speak Arabic while drinking their morning coffee had some Heritage people nervous.
“The Arabic language sounds angry to English ears,” Jeff said. “Some people couldn’t separate Arabic from Islam and left our church. A lot of the misunderstanding was because of ignorance, and we educated our congregation as best as we could.”
Heritage’s investment in the Arabic-speaking campus has grown exponentially. Hope’s attendance is about 150 on Sundays, and dozens have been baptized. Avdal has brought several Muslim families to Christ. A few families were baptized together. Jeff notes that many of the refugees aren’t Muslim. In the Middle East people are considered Muslim or Christian, though many classified as “Christian” don’t know Jesus.
The Arabic-speaking campus at Heritage would not have been possible without Converge MidAmerica. When Jeff came to Heritage 10 years ago, the church was independent. He had a vision to reach Michigan’s thumb, which now includes the growing refugee population. He began to look at starting a few church plants and learned about Converge. Through relationships, he met Norm Byers, Michigan director of Church Planting for Converge MidAmerica, and Gary Rohrmayer, Converge MidAmerica executive minister. After their first meeting Jeff knew Converge was for Heritage.
“Joining a movement for us was about acknowledging we would be better together than apart,” he said. “Being part of a healthy movement would maximize our investment in church planters and would partner us with others doing the same. It’s also a safety net. You don’t win every single time.”
The partnership has been fruitful — Heritage has planted seven churches in the past decade, and Converge MidAmerica helped Hope Church get off the ground financially. Reaching a refugee population is difficult because they don’t have the finances to help support a church. Together MidAmerica and Heritage were able to raise enough money to sustain Hope until it can sustain itself. Its people give, but the sacrificial giving per person is $6 a week. It’s not enough right now, but Jeff knows they will get where they need to be. He estimates it will take five to 10 years before Hope Church is totally free of the need for outside support.
Jeff is praying for the resources to move forward with his vision to acquire a school building for Hope near the refugee neighborhood. Refugees rarely drive very far, so having a church within walking distance is ideal. Many are nervous about venturing outside their neighborhoods and are afraid white people don’t like them. To bridge the gap, Jeff has preached about Jesus in a few mosques and meets with imams for multifaith gatherings. Jeff and Avdal have developed friendships with many of the Chaldean and Coptic church leaders in the area.
“I keep pushing Jesus. You can’t lead your enemies to him, only your friends,” Jeff said. “Jesus loved everybody. So we have to love everybody.” Hope Church launched a second campus October 22, 2016, with 109 in attendance, meeting in a local church close to the refugee community. Now a multisite, when Hope Church regularly reaches 200 in attendance, it may well be the largest all Arabic-speaking evangelical church in North America. What started as a prayer for an Arabic-speaking evangelist has led to a partnership that has multiplied and proves we are better together. White, black, Middle Eastern, Muslim or Christian — people are coming to Jesus in Michigan’s thumb.
Allison Hurtado, Writer
Allison Hurtado is assistant director of Marketing and Communications at the University of Central Florida.