The Rev. Alex and Brenda Awad were “following an idea and a vision” when they went back to the West Bank 21 years ago to help Bethlehem Bible College prepare Palestinian-Christian leaders.
Last June, as preparations were beginning for their retirement as United Methodist missionaries, the Awads watched, somewhat in astonishment, as more than 50 students graduated with degrees in several areas, including mass media and tour guide leadership.
Now, the denomination’s Board of Global Ministries has assigned Michael Arteen, raised as a Christian in Egypt, to carry on the connection with the college and help nurture the dwindling Christian population in Palestine.
Awad said he had recommended Arteen — whose wife, Grace Al-Zoughbi, was Awad’s student at Bethlehem Bible College — for the placement. Arteen is the chaplain and director of spiritual life at the college and Al-Zoughbi teaches a variety of biblical study courses there.
Arteen, a U.S. citizen who immigrated as a young man and served as a pastoral assistant for Arabic churches in Florida and Texas, said he wants to be “a living example” of the teaching of Jesus to the students.
“I have faith and hope in the God of miracles who calls everything out of nothings, and who can bring healing and repair to any situation,” he told United Methodist News Service in an email.
Growing up Christian in Egypt
Living in the midst of political and religious turmoil is not unfamiliar to Michael Arteen, the new United Methodist missionary at Bethlehem Bible College.
Persecution against Christians in Egypt “really began heating up in the early 1980s,” he told UMNS. “Through the years, there were times when it eased up a little and times when it was worse.”
He recalled an especially dangerous period when he was about 17 after a massacre in a church in El Minya. Christians were scared and the government finally responded, he said, by stationing soldiers in front of every church.
The positive result of the persecution, Arteen explained, was that it built their faith and brought separated worshipping communities — Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical — together. “Long before the government came in with more protection, we had already learned that our true safety zone was found only in the Lord,” he said.
A Christian revival that began in 2011 in Egypt continues today, he added, with all-night prayer meetings, the emergence of new evangelists and leaders and a fresh wave of creativity in evangelism.
“Much of this is due to a huge change in the mentality of the leaders of the church; their willingness to break down the dividing walls,” Arteen said. “God has been pouring His blessing all over it.
“I very much desire to see the same thing happen in Bethlehem and Palestine.”
Awad expressed his confidence in the couple during a recent interview at General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon. “They are committed Christians and I think they can learn a lot from the United Methodist Church, as I did.”
The Baptist pastor and Palestinian-American credits the denomination’s “positive influence” as instrumental to his mission journey. His book detailing that journey, “Palestinian Memories: The Story of a Palestinian Mother and Her People,” was published in 2008.
The Awads, who met at Lee College in Calhoun, Georgia, first ventured to Bethlehem as independent missionaries in 1979, where they assisted at the bible college that his brother, the Rev. Bishara Awad, founded that year.
In 1987, the Awad family was forced to leave Israel when the government refused to renew their visas. Awad then enrolled at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, where a professor helped them make connections with The United Methodist Church and the board’s missionary program. With support from the mission agency and other United Methodists, they were granted new visas by Israel and returned in 1994.
By the time they arrived, Bethlehem Bible College, a Global Ministries mission partner since the 1980s, was in new buildings on Hebron Road. The college later expanded to Nazareth and to Gaza.
When they left last June, the college had 250 to 275 students.
“We left not only a strong ministry but also have trained so many people to take our place,” said Awad, who served as a professor and the college’s dean of students while pastoring an international congregation in East Jerusalem.
The school’s connection to the community is a priority as well. Community ministries on programs related to health, women and children’s rights and English language training have resulted in a “very positive reaction” to the college’s presence, Brenda Awad added. “Really, the media program is our social outreach for the community.”
Alex Awad was director of one of the college’s outreach programs, the Shepherd Society, for the last decade before he retired. “Now, the Shepherd Society has become one of the strongest humanitarian organizations in Bethlehem, helping the poorest of the poor, reaching out currently even to the refugees in north Jordan and southern Syria,” he said.
In a 2013 commentary posted by Global Ministries, he described the school’s ministry with Christian and Muslim refugees from Syria in Amman and Mafraq, Jordan.
“In every home we visited, the refugees were moved by the fact that we are from Palestine,” Awad wrote. “Frequently we heard the comment, ‘We used to cry when we heard of your conditions and now you have come to stand in solidarity with us!’ ”
Bethlehem Bible College also has become a center of advocacy, hosting a theology conference, “Christ at the Checkpoint,” every two years. “We try to help Christians, including evangelical Christians around the world, to have a greater compassion and greater understanding of the conditions in Palestine,” he explained.
“We have been influenced by the Methodist church when it comes to issues of peace, justice and reconciliation,” Awad added.
Uniting as a body of Christ
Arteen said it is “heartwarming” to see the college’s Christian diversity — Catholic, Orthodox, Syrian, Armenian, Evangelical. “We rejoice when we can be united as one body of Christ,” he said. “We want to be the light of Christ in what can be a very dark place.”
However, it is “heartbreaking,” he acknowledged, “to continue to see the vicious cycle of violence among the Palestinians and the Israelis.”
While that situation exerts pressure on the life of the students, it cannot distract them from “living out the testimony of Christ,” he noted. “Although it is hard, we must turn their hearts to Jesus, who helps to do all things.”
Another challenge, Arteen said, is that many people in the region “tend to be attached to religion and traditions rather than being in a living relationship with Jesus Christ.” He would like to promote an understanding of how to allow God to be a part of everyday life.
“It is not religion that we are promoting; it is a true Christian life that we are called to demonstrate,” he said.