A visionary for Christian mission in the Middle East.

Author:Vogelaar, Harold

I was sad when we heard of Mark's illness and subsequent death, but also full of joy and gratitude for the life he lived and the gifts he shared. He had an abundant and infectious faith in the goodness of God, in the wideness of God's mercy and love. I first met Markin 1981 and was eager to share the vision that I, and others from the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), had framed as the foundation of our work in the Middle East. We saw our mission as threefold: to work ecumenically, to encourage the work of existing Christian institutions so as not to establish new ones, and to build trust with local people. Through collaboration, confidence-building, and patience, we would be able to erect bridges across which the good news of the gospel could be shared.

Early LCA work in the Middle East

Working ecumenically was not part of my upbringing in Iowa, where the only diversity was between Reformed and Christian Reformed churches. Fortunately, when I left home and went off to college and then seminary at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Jersey, my horizons broadened and love for ecumenism developed. Before going overseas in 1963, we spent five months in training at Stony Point, N.Y., a thoroughly ecumenical venture. Once overseas in the Arabian Gulf, Catholics, Orthodox, many kinds of Protestants, Sunni and Shi'i Muslims entered my radar screen. I had no choice but to breathe the ecumenical and interfaith air all around us. This suited me perfectly for my new "Lutheran" assignment, which began in 1972. (1)

We had been told by David Vikner, Fred Neudoerffer, (2) and others that we were not to establish any new Lutheran program or institution in the Middle East. "The days for doing that are over," they said. They wanted us, first and foremost, to observe who was there, to meet the people and learn what they were doing, to study the how and why of "their" ministries, and if they had any needs they were willing to share with us. Most importantly, we were to look for signs of God at work in and through their lives and activities as they related to Muslims. Then and only then, were we to determine if there was a place or way for us to be of service, or rather to be with them in serving their communities.

Therefore, we set out visiting as many Christian and Muslim communities as we could, drinking lots of tea, and listening to many stories. Whenever possible we brought people together and encouraged them to share and listen to each other. Eventually our team, living in the occupied West Bank and in Egypt, found our way into positions of teaching in local schools and universities, engaging in archeological work, serving as nurse practitioners, pastors of expatriate churches, administrators of ministries, and refugee work. I personally taught for fifteen years in the Evangelical Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Synod of the Nile.

When Neudoerffer cautioned his colleagues at the LCA offices that this venture into sustained Christian-Muslim engagement in the Middle East would require patience, persistence, endurance, and even travail, he knew well their need for measurable markers to keep the venture alive and funded by American congregations. (3) This call to be persistent and patient while engaging Muslims was not seen by all in the LCA as a worthy venture at the time. Many were willing to support ongoing work in India, Indonesia, and parts of Africa but were skeptical about the Middle East. Historically Germans and Scandinavians had church connections there, and a few Missouri Synod personnel were in Lebanon, but none from the LCA. (4) This general reluctance was encouraged, if not brought on, by Christian Zionists, who loudly proclaimed their support for the state of Israel as a precursor for the second coming of Christ. It was easy for many western Christians, including some Lutherans, to fall into that mindset. The stunning victory of Israel over the Arab states in 1967 seemed to have set the stage not just for greater sympathy for Jews but antipathy towards Arab Muslims. Many thought it was not the time for patient love towards such people.

Undaunted, Neudoerffer arranged for teams of twelve to fifteen, mostly Lutherans, living in majority Muslim countries to come to Cairo for month-long seminars. For several years in the 1970s we hosted church leaders from Africa and Asia, as far away as the Philippines and Indonesia. With the help of Coptic scholars the seminars focused on Egypt and the Bible for two weeks, and then on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations for two weeks. For several of these...

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