TOPEKA, Kansas (BP) – When Georges Boujakly arrived in Canada on New Year’s Eve 1969, his homeland of Lebanon was at war, the 19-year-old knew little English, and he had $30 to his name.
But, even in days that looked bleak and before he had a personal relationship with Christ, God was at work in the young man who had grown up in a Lebanese orphanage.
Last year, five decades after his arrival in North America, Boujakly retired from the Kansas-Nebraska Baptist Convention after close to 40 years of ministry. God has used him to plant churches, mentor leaders and see countless people come to faith in Jesus.
As he reflects on his life and ministry just days before Thanksgiving 2021, gratitude is foremost in his mind – and heart.
“I’m just an ordinary person who has been overly blessed by God,” Boujakly said. “And much of it, is not my doing. It’s people saying, ‘Hey, you can do this.’ And God’s saying, ‘I’m going to be with you. It’s going to be OK.’ So you develop a sense of gratitude, which becomes a posture of gratitude from which you approach life.”
When Boujakly’s father died before the boy’s second birthday, his mother knew she couldn’t support the children on her own. She gave her son to a local Catholic convent in the heart of Beirut.
“It was an old army barracks that had been converted into a convent,” Boujakly said. “There was a routine. Discipline was fairly stern. A lot of the abuses that you hear about in orphanages were not foreign to this one either.”
But, Boujakly adds, there were bright memories in the orphanage, too. He remembers how wealthy supporters of the orphanage would donate gifts – holiday treats, pencils and notebooks – so the boys would get something for Christmas. And they were grateful.
Boujakly had to leave school at 13 when he was given the opportunity to learn wood carving as an apprentice. He enjoyed learning from the master woodcarver, a practice he now likens to discipleship. Boujakly watched and learned – and he eventually was given simple tasks to prepare pieces for carving. Over time, he learned to carve – a practice he enjoys even today.
As the 1960s came to a close, rumors of war were swirling. His parents had come from Syria, and they had never been able to get Lebanese citizenship. With war on the horizon, they were “persona non grata” in Lebanon. His brother found work as a welder in Canada’s oil boom. After settling in Calgary, he sponsored Boujakly. Eventually, the two brought their entire family to Canada.
Boujakly distinctly remembers some of his concerns as he prepared to immigrate to Canada. One night as he was leaving the Canadian embassy where he was trying to get a passport, he was thinking about the tenuous nature of the move.
“I sensed a tap on my shoulder, and I heard a voice inside my head saying, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I turned my head and saw a vision in my head of a dove. It seemed like the voice was coming from the dove,” Boujakly said. “It was just two or three seconds, but it set the pace for me and made me think there was a personal God who was powerful and guiding my life.”
Eventually, Boujakly arrived in Calgary with the $30 his mom had scraped together to help with the trip. Although he and his brother were in the process of getting his family into Canada, Boujakly couldn’t help but feel a bit homeless. Though he understood why his mother had put him in the orphanage as a child, he still struggled with a feeling of abandonment. Now, he was struggling to come to grips with a new home a world away from everything he knew.
“I was longing to be connected to something more – to find a spiritual home,” Boujakly said.
Boujakly’s family had been Syrian Orthodox. Though he believed in God, the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus was foreign to him.
One day, he met some students of pastor and noted author Henry Blackaby from Saskatchewan. They had arrived in Calgary to work in local places of employment and serve as missionaries throughout the summer. Boujakly, who by that time was a foreman at a furniture factory, gave many of them jobs. Those young students who worked for him invited him to church activities, such as Bible studies, where he learned the Gospel.
One day, during an altar call at that church, the Holy Spirit moved in his heart, and he responded to the Gospel.
Not only did God save him that night, but Boujakly said he began to sense a call to finish his education, which had ended on a formal level at age 12. He was given an opportunity to pursue music education at the University of Calgary through a special program for non-matriculated students over the age of 23.
God also used his church family to grow Boujakly and his walk with Christ, and he began to recognize a call to ministry. His pastor, Billy Heath, regularly challenged him to share his faith. He learned the Bible in Sunday School and during worship services. Through experiences in college, God began to show him he had a special aptitude for teaching. When his undergraduate studies were over, his wife’s church sponsored and supported the family at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
It was at Southwestern that Boujakly had his first taste of church planting. After discovering a group of Lebanese people living near the seminary, he and his wife, Carolyn, began sharing Christ with them. Eventually, several came to faith, and they began a small church with those few converts.
By that point, church planting was “in his blood.” After seminary, he worked with several other Canadian Baptists to start a church in Cochrane, Alberta.
“Did I receive a particular call to plant a church? No,” Boujakly said. “I just thought that’s what Christians do. They share the Gospel, and they gather people. God does the rest.”
Over the next several decades, God would use Boujakly and his family to start numerous new churches and mentor church planters as a North American missionary in Quebec and Kansas-Nebraska.
“Starting at a very young age, God has done all of this for me,” Boujakly said. “Please tell me who I can thank for all of this wonderful stuff. Everything points toward a personal God who is guiding my life.”
After a lifetime of serving Jesus alongside Canadian Baptists and Southern Baptists, he is also grateful for the cooperative work of Baptists that has undergirded his ministry.
“I never had to guess how I would get my support,” Boujakly said. “I had the freedom to do what I was called to do. I’ve been undergirded by a whole system of people who are working together, putting their money in a piggy bank so those of us God has called can serve.”
Georges and Carolyn Boujakly live in Topeka, Kan. They have four daughters and eight grandchildren.