News Articles

Middle Easterners find peace with God through outreach of Calif. missionary

SAN JOSE, Calif. (BP)–The tune is familiar. The words are not.

But as the electronic keyboard leads the congregation in the opening hymn, it’s apparent that “How Great Thou Art” is easily recognizable in any language.

As a dozen adults sit in folding chairs in the living room of the former home now used as a worship center, children sit in their laps and gaze out at the last few rays of sunshine streaming in through the large picture window.

The pastor writes 2 Peter 3:18 and John 12:23 on a chalkboard, the Arabic characters flowing freely from his marker, right to left, right to left, as the verse takes shape. As he leads the congregation in the Bible study, Basem Qusous explains about the importance of a seed dying in the ground before it can grow into a plant.

That’s the business this Middle Eastern pastor occupies himself with as he teaches immigrants from Arabic-speaking nations about the importance of dying to self and turning to Christ for redemption. It’s a slow work, a hard work, but one that brings great reward, Qusous says after the service.

Khalil “Charlie” Hanna also understands. For the past 20 years he has been serving Southern Baptists as a catalytic missionary in California, working to plant churches across the state. He and his wife, Amal, are featured during the Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 5-12.

When he was dually appointed by the California Southern Baptist Convention and the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) there was no Arabic work to be found.

Egyptian-born Hanna, whose Arabic name means “friend of God,” spends much of his time teaching Bible studies in homes and offices, encouraging pastors and trying to reach Middle Easterners for Jesus Christ. He knows their homesickness, but more importantly he knows their heartsickness for peace with God.

Hanna accepted Christ in a small church in Cairo that was started by Southern Baptist missionaries. As a young man he went to Beirut where he received a degree at the Lebanon Southern Baptist Bible School. Then he was asked to pastor a Lebanese congregation and he’s been preaching ever since.

“The overall goal of my ministry is to start churches and lead that group to grow in the Lord and start another church. Our goal is to reach every Middle Easterner in California. It’s a big state and I can’t do it on my own, but we can all do it working together,” he says.

Starting from scratch, Hanna first began building churches with Middle Easterners who had a Christian background. With that foundation in place, he now teaches those believers how to reach their unchurched friends with the best news they will ever hear.

But it’s no easy task. In the Los Angeles area where he lives, there are more than 15,000 Muslims practicing the faith of their fathers. There are more than a million Middle Easterners statewide.

“The Arab may listen to you,” Hanna said, “but he will politely respond with ‘I already have the best [religion], so I don’t need to change.’ This is what creates the slow response to the gospel by those from the Middle East.”

That’s why it’s so important for Hanna to train others so they, in turn, can start other churches. Others like Qusous, who now serves as pastor of the Arabic mission at San Francisco’s 19th Avenue Baptist Church.

In his role as catalytic missionary Hanna oversees the health of Arabic-speaking churches across the state. When the San Francisco mission was almost ready to close its doors, Hanna prayed that God would lead him to another pastor who would share the vision for the church’s growth. Before long, Qusous and his family responded to Hanna’s vision and relocated from San Diego to the Bay Area.

They left a beautiful home and moved into a crowded apartment in the church and threw themselves into rebuilding the congregation and re-establishing a vibrant, growing congregation.

Now, after seven hard years, the church has grown from two to 70 and is leading in the creation of a Middle Eastern Leadership Development Center at the church, as well as building the Arabic work in San Jose.

Jointly sponsored by the San Francisco church and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, the leadership center will offer theological training and cultivate badly needed leaders in the Arabic community.

Hanna says the field is wide open to reach Iranian Muslims in particular. After the war with Iran, many fled their homeland, penniless with few possessions other than what they could carry.

“They lost everything in the name of Islam. Now they are here in America, looking for a God who can teach them how to love, not hate,” he says. “I know because several have told me those exact words.”

Hanna’s work is many times overwhelming, but he is not alone in his ministry. His wife, Amal, begins each day at 4 a.m. on her knees in prayer for those needing to hear the gospel.

“I thank God because of my wife. She is not only helping me to open our home for visitors, but she helps me in visitation and helps me talk with people on the phone. We are a team serving the Master, who deserves all that we can give.”

Hanna came to California at age 36 and became a missionary, supported by gifts to the Cooperative Program and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, at age 37. Now at age 58, he feels that he only has a few years left before he will have to turn the work over to others.

He is the spiritual father to many Arabic-speaking Christians in the state, but it’s getting more difficult for him to drive the long hours and be away from home for several nights at a time. He simply doesn’t have the energy that he did as a younger man.

His main desire is to share his vision with the churches he has been instrumental in planting and lead them to start other churches throughout the state. He has started about 40 churches in California, but only 24 survive. That’s why the need for strong leadership is so important, he says.

“We won’t have better churches until we have better leaders,” Hanna stressed at the organizational meeting of the Leadership Development Center. “We have to grow leaders from among our own people if we are going to be successful in reaching Middle Easterners for Christ.”

The goal will only be reached with the prayers and financial gifts of Southern Baptists who share that burden for bringing the Light of the World to Middle Easterners.

    About the Author

  • Joe Westbury