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Passion: Reaching Middle Easterners in Detroit

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following two stories are part of a Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

DETROIT (BP)–“In some areas of greater Detroit, you think you are in a different city,” said Jorge Sedaca, language ministries leader of the Baptist State Convention of Michigan.

“Many [Arabic families] have been here for several generations or more, since the late 1800s. They have their own newspapers, their own social clubs and their own family centers. The neighborhoods all have signs in Arabic,” Sedaca said.

The Dearborn area has the largest concentration of Arabic people outside of the Middle East. Some say they came as a result of Henry Ford’s infatuation with their culture. Ford offered them jobs and places to stay on the condition that they would teach him the ways of Islam.

Others recount that Middle Easterners were invited because they were willing to work two shifts per day “hot-bedding.” Leaving their wives and children in the old country for five straight years, the workers would spend seven days per week rotating between eight-hour shifts and a bed vacated by another worker departing for his shift.

Some Yemeni Arab families rooted in Dearborn since that era reflect the hot-bedding legacy with children born five years apart. With more still immigrating, Middle Easterners now number more than half-a-million in Michigan, which has a total population of 10 million.

Because of the increasing numbers of those practicing Islam, cities like Dearborn and Detroit are experiencing some radical religious cultural changes that many do not welcome. In Hamtramck, a city of 23,000 surrounded by Detroit, the city council amended their noise ordinance earlier this year to allow Islamic centers the freedom to broadcast their call to prayer over loudspeakers five times per day. Dearborn was considering declaring two Islamic holy days as city holidays.

Sedaca lamented, “The saddest thing I’ve seen is Christian churches that sell their buildings to Muslim people, and it becomes a Muslim worship center.” Statewide there are currently 26 Muslim worship centers. Trends like these lead some to refer to the Detroit area as “the major gateway for Islam in the nation.”

As for Michigan Baptists’ work among the Arabic people, Sedaca stated, “There are a few Baptist missions. One has been in existence for about 10 years. The largest one started in 1999 and has about 50 in attendance.

“Arabic work is very hard and slow,” he said. “You must be patient and consistent. It’s slow because of the consequences. When they become believers, they know what they are doing.”

Sedaca, a Messianic Jew born in Spain and raised in Argentina, has been on the Baptist convention’s staff for five years coordinating ministries for more than 15 of the 115 diverse people groups in Michigan. Formerly a seminary professor in Argentina and a music minister and pastor in Louisiana, his multicultural background stirred a passion in him to work among many ethnic groups. “God gave me a love for the languages,” he said. “I prayed for God to open a door to work among different ethnic groups.”

The largest ethnic ministries by the Baptist State Convention of Michigan have been to Hispanic, Filipino and Korean people groups. “Michigan is somewhat of a mission field, and the convention had been praying that God would send someone to strategize on how to reach the Muslim community and minister to the Middle Eastern believers,” Sedaca said. The ideal person to work among in Middle Eastern community, he said, would be of Middle Eastern descent with a passion to reach Muslims, someone who can speak Arabic and knows the Koran.

While more workers are needed, Charif Haddad, a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, was a big answer to their prayers. As a teenager in Lebanon, God called him to Christian ministry. He studied at Moody Bible Institute and Columbia Biblical Seminary where he earned his graduate degree with a concentration in Muslim studies. He also studied for a year at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas before accepting the call to the field.

Almost two years ago, Haddad was appointed by the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board to work with Michigan’s Middle Eastern people. By helping with immigration and Social Security issues, teaching English and Arabic and visiting the sick and elderly, Haddad builds relationships among Middle Easterners. He also educates churches in the state on the Middle Eastern worldview to help Christians reach that community.

One challenge Haddad faces is the Middle Eastern perception that being a Baptist means being anti-Palestinian. He recently received a letter from a Muslim man asking him to tell the churches about the injustices that Palestinians face daily. He finds that many Muslim people view Christians as evildoers because of injustices they suffer. “I do have the advantage of being a Palestinian refugee myself, which makes me understand their feelings and gives me some credibility in their eyes,” Haddad said.

Haddad has found that boldness, persistence, self-sacrifice, prayer and a listening ear pay off in winning the hearts of Muslim people. He is grateful that when the temptation rises to give up, God never gives up. As an example, he told the story of a Muslim man to whom he ministered for more than a year.

Haddad confessed, “I was ready to throw in the towel as I walked to his house during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month.” Haddad could hear the reading from the Koran blaring on tape from the man’s home, but God impressed him just to go, and to be bold.

“Upon offering him a book on the infallibility of the Bible, he requested to meet and talk about the cross. We talked for three weeks, until 2 in the morning. Then I left him for two weeks. When I saw him again, he had a huge smile on his face. I knew something was different.”

Haddad asked the man, “If you were to die today, where will you go?”

The man smiled and replied, “To heaven, because when I was asleep someone appeared to me at the end of my bed and said, ‘I was crucified for you!’ I know I will go to heaven because I believe in the Messiah and I gave it all to Him.”

Haddad stated, “In such a difficult field, one does not get to report hundreds of conversions every month. But what a great endorsement it is to have the Lord appear to someone you are ministering to and cause such a miraculous change! He wants this work done even though the fruit seems minimal. God plans for the long haul, and every people group is included!”

While God’s faithfulness was an encouragement to Haddad, he also is burdened that the salvation stories of Muslim converts are not without sacrifice and hardship. Today that same man needs the prayer support of believers to help him through the persecution he currently suffers for his decision to follow Christ. His parents and siblings have abandoned him, he is unable to see his children and his Muslim landlord asked him to vacate his apartment.

Haddad’s passion for reaching and discipling Middle Easterners in the Christian faith is evident not only in the time he spends with them building relationships but also in his commitment to approach them with the Gospel on their own terms.

When asked how to best witness to Muslim people, Haddad said, “Listen, listen, listen. I cannot stress that enough. I used to answer questions that people are not asking.” He advises believers to answer the questions Muslims ask, with the goal of leading them from where they are to the foot of the cross so that they can choose what to do with it.

“I talk about issues that matter to them, like, ‘Why do we believe in the cross?’ They believe that someone else was crucified instead of Jesus who was taken straight to heaven. Also, ‘Why do we believe in the Scriptures?’ They believe that the Bible was originally God’s Word but it became corrupted and that the Koran is the truth. And, ‘Why do we believe in original sin?’ They believe that Adam repented and God forgave him.”

Regarding the recent tensions over the more public practices of Islam in the Detroit and Dearborn areas, Haddad noted that the First Amendment grants all Americans the rights to freedom of religion and speech. “They have gotten it fair and square. But Christians should not be threatened by the presence of Islam. We have the truth. Truth will always shine.”

Reflecting the sentiments of some Arab Christian acquaintances, he stated, “The Muslims respond to their mu-athen [the person who calls them to prayer] to pray. I hope we would do the same with the call of our Savior to pray. My prayer is that our people would become more proactive than reactive. Many of our states have mosques and Islamic centers with nothing being done to reach these people with the love of Christ on a regular basis.”

Haddad is saddened that many Christians don’t really care about the call to prayer as long as they can’t hear it, as an American Christian friend of his admitted. “My prayer is that we would care at all times, if it were one person or a whole mosque. They need Christ, and we need to care.”
Charif Haddad is currently seeking 100 churches to commit to pray faithfully for the salvation of Middle Easterners in Michigan and for his ministry. He can be contacted at [email protected] or Charif Haddad, P.O. Box 943, Garden City, MI 48136.

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  • Kay Adkins