St. John’s to Sign Formal Partnership with Christmas Lutheran Church, Bethlehem
By Susan Shinn Turner
The Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, will be the guest preacher at St. John’s on Sunday, Sept. 22, at which time a historic covenant will be signed between the two congregations.
In 2012, St. John’s developed a relationship with The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, who was serving as pastor of Christmas Lutheran and spoke at St. John’s on two different occasions. Raheb was a widely-known advocate for Palestinian Christians, receiving Sweden’s Olaf Palme Peace Prize in 2015. Raheb retired from Christmas two years later to become the full-time president of Dar Al-Kalima University, the only Lutheran college in the Middle East.
Munther Isaac was then called as pastor of Christmas, and the relationship with St. John’s took another step forward.
“The whole aspect of fellowship with a Christian congregation was an opportunity we wanted to pursue,” says Michael Connor, who heads up our Palestinian ministry team.
When he was serving in an ecumenical accompaniment program for three months in the Middle East, Connor got to know Isaac. He and Pastor Rhodes later approached him about a formal partnership between St. John’s and Christmas.
A document formalizing the partnership will be signed at 11 am worship on Sept. 22. Isaac will also preach at 9:27 worship. There will be no 8:30 am Chapel worship.
Part of the partnership will be sharing expressions of art. Christmas Lutheran creates calligraphy and stained-glass ornaments, while St. John’s members create Chrismons. “Art speaks a universal language,” says Pastor Rhodes. “We can learn so much about each other simply by sharing art with one another.”
The two congregations will also be writing Advent devotions together this year, Pastor Rhodes adds.
In addition to preaching that Sunday morning, Isaac will offer a lecture and conversation for the community at 5:30 pm in the Faith Center, titled “The Other Side of the Wall.” Palestinian cuisine will be offered as light refreshments.
“The impetus of the relationship is about the decline of a Christian presence in the Middle East,” Connor says. “It has dwindled to less than 2 percent of the population.” In Bethlehem alone, the Christian population has declined from 86 percent in 1950 to 12 percent today.
Connor and his wife, B.J., will return to the Middle East in January 2020, when they will serve as volunteer hosts for three months at a guest house in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Connor says that he finds inspiration in the members of Christmas Lutheran. “God is in the rubble,” he says. “Their perspective of hope and how they live in hope in the midst of rubble is something I’ve been blessed by.”
Connor says that he also admires Isaac.
“I see him as an amazing prophet,” he says. “He is a prophetic voice as it relates to Palestinian Christian theology. He and Mitri are close colleagues. It’s a voice and message we don’t have the opportunity to be exposed to very often. It’s a different perspective than what we typically access through our media or faith community. It’s not readily available.”