July 5, 2016
BEIRUT: How do you begin to gauge the transformation that can take place over the course of three years? For a group of leaders of the Church in the Arab World, men and women who left their families, cultures, and ministries for a season of equipping far from home, it can seem like a lifetime of invaluable education and experience has been squeezed into a span of thirty-six months. This time of preparation has woven together new opportunities and unexpected challenges, long hours of research and hands-on ministry experience. It has been characterized by relationships with faculty, fellow students, and local churches that shaped and impacted each student deeply, and three years of enduring investment have born more fruit than graduates of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) could have imagined when they began their journeys.
Twenty-one of these graduates dispersed last week to serve five countries across the Arab World. You’re invited to glimpse the hearts and hear the stories of four of them.
Benyamin, Magi, and their youngest son Jason after graduation. (Photo: Wissam al-Saliby)
Magi and Benyamin
Benyamin and Magi, earning Bachelor of Theology and Master of Divinity degrees, respectively, traveled to Lebanon from Egypt three years ago with their two small boys to begin a seminary journey that would prove to be characterized by the unexpected. They were surprised by the challenges they faced as they sought to balance their roles as students and parents, and were discouraged enough early on to often consider returning home. They now encourage new students to endure and not give up, because of the value of the seminary experience. They were also surprised by some of the fruit of the education process in their lives. Both husband and wife expressed that their time at ABTS shaped them in unexpected ways. “We didn’t only receive new knowledge,” Magi explained. “It was our perspective and way of thinking that changed. That surprised me.” The curriculum, recently renovated to become more intentionally holistic, formed their critical thinking skills as well as broadening their ability to perceive other people through the eyes of God.
Before coming to Lebanon, Benyamin worked in the public sector and Magi had a career as a physiotherapist. They had both served faithfully in youth ministry, and had also spent a year ministering in Sudan. This ministry experience fulfilled an important criterion for acceptance to ABTS, which only admits students who are already active in ministry and come at the recommendation of their sending church.
Magi was chosen to speak at graduation. Described by other students as intelligent, diligent, and a peacemaker, she exhorted her fellow graduates to remember that they are called to be co-workers with God in the ministries to which they embark. (Photo: Wissam al-Saliby)
As in any rich and truly transformative educational environment, relationships and interactions with faculty members at ABTS were crucial in Magi and Benyamin’s growth process. The seminary’s faculty, all of whom have achieved doctoral degrees or are candidates in doctoral programs, bring not only extensive academic, biblical, and theological knowledge, but vast ministry and leadership experience in the Arab World. Dr. Perry Shaw, who also serves as the seminary’s academic dean, taught a class on “Leadership Across Cultures” which Benyamin says helped him to see reality through the lens of Scripture. The class also equipped him to understand and communicate with different types of people in ways he had been unable to before. Magi remembered a class on discipleship by Professor Mike Kuhn as particularly impactful. “I am both a follower and a leader at all times,” she said, reflecting on the class.
Magi and Benyamin ask for prayer for their family as they re-enter life in Egypt, which will be a different culture for their boys, now 7 and 3 ½, who have grown up in Lebanon. “Our main purpose is to serve God, whatever His will is,” they shared. Will you pray for their hearts’ desire, which is “to work for the Kingdom of God,” to be fulfilled as they begin this new chapter of life and ministry?
Another well-loved student who walked across the graduation stage last week, Botros*, is recently engaged to another ABTS graduate and eager to return to his home country and apply the equipping that he received during his seminary journey. Having spent three years in Lebanon accomplishing the Bachelor of Theology degree, Botros dreams of being instrumental in establishing a fruitful home group ministry and engaging in church planting. Although home groups for the purpose of discipleship are uncommon in his home country, he had the opportunity to lead in this ministry in the local Beirut church where he served during his seminary journey. Having come to ABTS because of his experience in and passion for leading worship, he didn’t expect to find God broadening his calling to include this type of ministry.
Botros holding his diploma after graduating from the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. (Photo: Wissam al-Saliby)
An especially formative class that prepared him for future ministry was one on theology taught by Dr. Hikmat Kashouh, who graduated from ABTS in 2001. This course taught him to respect God’s Word, he said, and to value the importance of the “history and cultural background” of the biblical authors. He learned the importance of studying Scripture with an emphasis on context, and that “you can’t interpret a verse without studying the background.” This is different from the way he had handled Scripture before studying at ABTS. Dr. Perry Shaw, Botros shared, also “disciplined” him and the other students throughout their time of study. The students, having completed their education, now appreciate the method that so challenged them in the process because it has “made them who they are.” “We’re not only receiving a theological education,” he explained. Echoing the perspective expressed by Magi and Benyamin, he said, “we were given goggles through which to see the world.”
As a new graduate, Botros wants to encourage other students to intentionally cultivate their private time with God in the midst of the pressures of academic life. “Theology might give you new horizons of thinking,” he exhorted, “but only your personal relationship with God will allow you to intimately understand His Word.”
As he returns to his home country, Botros will face challenges because of increasing government restrictions that limit pastors and ministry leaders in significant ways. He asks for prayer for wisdom from God, because he desires to respect the governing authorities and also to fulfill the ministry vision that God has given him. He plans to serve under the radar, not because he fears persecution, but because the church in his home country has recently lost so many leaders.
This year the Institute for Middle East Studies at ABTS recognized its first four graduates from the Master of Religion (MRel) in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Brent Hamoud, an American who grew up in Minnesota, has spent the last nine years living in Lebanon and serving at Dar el Awlad (Kids Alive Lebanon), a ministry that serves at-risk children through residential, educational, and care center programs. When asked to reflect on his ministry there, he shared, “my vision is to model the gospel by being a place that nurtures the marginalized, forges relationships across social and cultural lines, delivers practical services, shares the hope of Christ’s love and provides onlookers with a glimpse of God’s kingdom.” Brent’s father comes from a Bedouin tribe that spans territories in Lebanon and Syria, and spent part of his childhood at the boys home where Brent now serves.
Brent with his wife Ruth and daughter Yasmine. (Photo: Wissam al-Saliby)
Having completed his bachelor’s degree in International Studies (with minors in Middle East Studies and History) at Baylor University, Brent shared that the MRel program at ABTS “deepened the understanding of my ministry context by examining the complexities of the MENA region within the dimensions of God’s kingdom.” The degree was a “long journey,” he explained, which “exercised my mind and heart; the road consisted of considerable amounts of research, reading, and writing.” Offering a carefully balanced dual emphasis on theory and application, Brent hopes that the MRel degree has equipped him to “serve as a resource to those less familiar with the MENA region.” During his graduation speech, Brent quoted a fellow MRel student whose statement summarizes the purpose of the degree, in his perspective: “I realize that everything we have learned is so we can better love people.”
The MRel degree culminates in a final project that engages students in a year of research and practical application on a specific topic relevant to life and ministry in the region. Brent’s final project focused on a significant but little-known human rights crisis: statelessness. “Shortly after moving to Lebanon my eyes were opened to many cases of people that, for a variety of reasons, have no citizenship or legal identification of any kind,” he explained. “It’s a problem observed affecting individuals across different segments of my life, from children in the ministry to friends from church to Bedouin relatives. I saw how drastic the personal impact is for those that have been denied their right to nationality, and initial reading on the topic opened my eyes to the national and global dynamics of the crisis. Relationships with stateless individuals have been both inspiring as I see how gracefully they face an injustice and convicting as I observe how little concern is extended to them. I realized there is a gap in research that explores the problem of statelessness through the lens of theology, and I was eager to examine these dimensions with the hopes of encouraging greater understanding and engagement by the Church with this serious issue. My thesis on a statelessness and theology was very rewarding and led me to significant theological reflection on dilemmas facing our world, particularly the crises of displacement and non-belonging within the global community of nation-states. The project has opened doors to continue researching, writing and sharing about statelessness, and I hope to continue examine the topic by raising awareness of the problem and ministering to those that are stateless or a risk of statelessness.”
You can find out more about the MRel program at ABTS, which is designed to accommodate distance learners who will visit Lebanon twice a year to complete the degree, here. If you’d like to explore the ministry of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, you can do so here.
*Name changed for security purposes.