Who Are Our Neighbors? Salam Church

Who are our neighbors?

“OUR CHURCHES NEED RIGHT NOW to look around their communities and get to know their neighbors,” said The Rev. Khader N. El-Yateem ’96, pastor of Salam Arabic Church in Brooklyn, New York. “We live in a fast-changing world. It is easy for congregations in changing places not to notice what is happening around them. But in these times, not knowing your neighbors can mean you will not be around for very long. It can mean imminent death.”

In these challenging times and places of changing context, El-Yateem said God ultimately decides what ministries survive. But he passionately reminds congregations willing to embrace change and see it as an opportunity will find that “Jesus is walking with them, filling them with hope.”

It would be hard to imagine a community anywhere more challenged by change than the Salam Church neighborhood. Once inhabited by Scandinavians, it is now a multicultural haven including people of many faiths from around the world. Salam (originally named Salem) church includes Palestinian Christians from eight Middle Eastern nations including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Jordan, along with African American and Chinese members. El-Yateem notes that 40 languages are commonly spoken in the neighborhood, and that at the nearby Lutheran Medical Center, records show 140 languages have been spoken in the hospital confines.

The ministry out of Salam Arabic is truly a family affair. El-Yateem’s nephew, The Rev. Khader S. Khalilia, has been part of the Salam ministry for several years, and said of his uncle, “He has been a true mentor and friend to me. He has taught me so much about community ministry and how to be sensitive to a wide variety of cultures, how we can best help our neighbors.” Khalilia has studied in the Theological Education for Emerging Ministries (TEEM) program at LTSP, an initiative that prepares talented prospec- tive leaders for service in distinctive contexts. Both Khalilia and his uncle are Palestinian Christians who’ve felt a genuine calling to serve in the U.S. Both agree that it is a considerable challenge to serve Palestinian immigrants who hail from different national Middle-Eastern cultures unfamiliar to them back home until they come together in the Brooklyn melting pot. “We have 60 core members here,” El-Yateem said, “but many more than that are involved in our ministry. It can be a kind of revolving door with people coming and going and on their way to another place.”

Because of the immigrant and transi- tional nature of the congregation, finances are more of a problem than for most churches. A strongly entrenched pre-school program paves the way for children to gain trust with different cultures at an early age and helps families to know each other. The school has interfaith enrollment, which bridges many community gaps. El-Yateem explains that the congregation has two platforms framing its ministry. “One is spiritual,” he said. “We conduct worship in two languages — English and Arabic. We lead Bible studies and conduct a Vacation Bible School. We have youth groups and home visits with prayer. The other platform is social. We conduct English as a Second Language classes. Ninety-five percent of the learners are Muslims. We have a food pantry, immigration counseling services, job training and health fairs, including free screenings for breast cancer. We also counsel people on housing needs.” Many individuals the uncle and nephew meet are unemployed or lack health insurance. Hence, the food pantry and health screening services prove invaluable. “These services,” El-Yateem said, “are not only for our members but also for the whole community. Unemployment is a widespread problem here.” El-Yateem is plainly excited and energized about the congregation’s ministry even after nearly 15 years of working at it. “It (the time) goes by so fast. It seems to me like only two days,” he said.

Khader El-Yateem recalls his grandmother reading him Bible stories under an olive tree in Palestine. She would always make sure to wake him and get him to church. Raised in a Greek Orthodox tradition in his homeland, El-Yateem said he wasn’t comfortable with it and fell under the influence of a Lutheran pastor in later years who helped him come to terms with his faith. In the early 1990s, he was visited by a Global Missions consultant from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who asked him to consider leading a ministry with Arabs in the U.S. “I was really having a good life in Palestine,” he said. “But I decided to pray about it, and I began to think there could be a role for me to serve as a prophet in exile in the U.S., sharing a perspective on the Middle East as I did ministry there.”

He attended seminary at LTSP “because it was conveniently located to our New York City ministry.” El-Yateem recalls the seminary “as a truly hospitable place with professors welcoming and supportive of me a I struggled with language, new ideas and val- ues. The students and staff were the same way.” He remembers a time when, expected to take an exam, he expressed reservations about the writing challenges a new language was presenting for him. “They suggested I record my answers. I was so grateful for that,” he recalled. Khalilia too felt welcomed and supported in the LTSP community, although at times, he admitted, “I felt like people expected me to be an authority on the Middle East. I was the only Palestinian Christian on campus, and I did not have all the answers.”

When El-Yateem began his ministry in Brooklyn in the mid-1990s, he started knocking on doors, he said. He visited area pastors, imams in mosques, rabbis in synagogues, and neighbors of all kinds, including the police. His message? “I would introduce myself as a Palestinian Lutheran Christian and say that if we are going to make an important difference in the community we are all going to have to find a way to work together. I had no hidden agenda. I suggested that we find ways to worship together and pray together.” As interfaith activities began at Salam and elsewhere, El-Yateem said some of his congregants were anxious. “Some back home had experienced persecution at the hands of Muslims,” El-Yateem said. But the interfaith collaboration has worked just fine in the new context and the preschool program. “Children are learning to play together and trust each other and that passes on to the adults,” he said. “They are learning they don’t have to fight each other.”

The door-to-door campaign and interfaith collaboration made all the difference when the events of 9/11 decimated the community. The police called El-Ya- teem and said, “Our advice is to close the church and go home.” They were genuinely concerned, he said, that the congregation could become a target of profiling in the aftermath of the attacks. “We went to our homes, but then I prayed and thought about it. I said to myself we are not going to live in fear at a time like this. We need to be working together in response to the tragedy.”

The next night, 160 spiritual and other leaders met at Salam Church to discuss the tragic events and their responses to it. They began a series of prayer marches that would start at Salam Church with about 60 persons, ending up in the park with 500 or more interfaith marchers who would pray together. “It turned out to be a powerful and inspirational witness in the face of of some community hate speeches,” El-Yateem said.

In the aftermath of 9/11, El-Yateem and Khalilia say interfaith dialogue in each community is an important and worthwhile initiative. “Knock on the door of your neighboring synagogue or mosque. Be sincere and open to challeng- ing others and being challenged yourself. You will find yourself being welcomed,” Khalilia said. “Dialogue is an important tool,” added El-Yateem. “But it is important to be genuine and serious. Dialogue is not some kind of trendy new toy. It is important to be open and willing to have your reality changed.” In Brooklyn, uncle and nephew agree walls and stereotypes have been removed thanks to such attitudes.

Both men encourage would-be profes- sional leaders to be open to a call and be willing to be challenged by today’s exciting contexts for ministry. “Being a pastor today is not easy,” El-Yateem said. “But the joy that comes with seeing how you can touch people’s lives and walk with them through their challenges and sorrows is truly rewarding. You can provide opportunities for people to have faith, to teach them about how Jesus walks with us to make us strong and able to sur- vive. We need people to serve as leaders who are open to the challenges within their communities, not only inside the church but in the world. Jesus is with us all of the time, and that gives us the hope we need even in the hardest of times.” 

The Rev. Khader Khalilia accepted a call to join the staff of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, San Mateo, CA, as Assistant Pastor after this interview was completed.