Jewish tradition teaches: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21). It is a call to action and a rejection of apathy, even when the task at hand seems overwhelming. Each person must imagine that the world is evenly balanced between good and evil and that his or her actions can determine the destiny of the entire world.
Pastor Steven Khoury of Bethlehem is a man whose life and work seem guided by this belief. An Arab-Israeli born in Jerusalem, an evangelical Christian and vice-president of the Holyland Missions, Pastor Khoury works tirelessly to build connections between Palestinian Christians and Israeli Jews.
Imagine Israelis welcoming Palestinian Christians into their home for Shabbat dinner. Picture these same Christians studying the Hebrew Bible with a rabbi in order to understand the Jewish roots of their faith. These are but two of Pastor Khoury’s many grassroots initiatives, all grounded in his love of the Jewish people and Israel, and his firm belief that this is what God demands of him as a Christian.
Pastor Khoury recently visited the Twin Cities as the guest of the Wayzata Free Church. Thanks to church member Sandy Gilbert, and JoAnn Magnuson, director of the Jewish Christian Library and Center at Living Word Christian Center, Brooklyn Park, Jewish leaders had the opportunity to meet Pastor Khoury and hear his compelling personal story.
Warm, affable, engaging, and speaking flawless English, Khoury recounted his father Naim Khoury’s personal and religious transformation. The senior Khoury trained at a Baptist seminary in Springfield, Missouri, and established the Evangelical Independent movement in the Palestinian territories. With seven ministries thus far, including two churches in Jerusalem and two in the Bethlehem area, it is, according to Steven Khoury, the fastest growing church in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.
At the heart of the movement is the belief that Christians are commanded to love the “other.” Asks Steven Khoury: “Who is the ‘other’? We started to realize that the ‘other’ in Scriptures is the ‘other’ in the land. That’s the message that my father began to teach, that we as Arab Christians, if we want to be real Arab Christians, there are some responsibilities that go with that terminology—loving the other, the person different from you.”
Holding these views has come with a price—ostracism at best, threats to safety at worst. Khoury notes with matter-of-fact stoicism that church ushers are prepared not only to hand out programs and collect the offering, but to douse firebombs that are sometimes hurled through church windows.
Because of these threats, Holyland Missions has lost the lease on their East Jerusalem church, and no landlord is willing to risk renting to them. Khoury’s dream is to buy a building that will house both a church and a multi-purpose center where Jews and Christians can gather.
Khoury, who trained at the same Baptist seminary as his father, describes himself as neither right-wing nor left-wing, but as a ‘rationalist’: “I want to get things done. We must build bridges to the Jewish community.” A chance encounter with David Nekrutman, Executive Director for The Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) in Efrata, Israel, led to deep friendship built around shared biblical values.
Together the two began creating opportunities for Palestinian Christians and Jewish Israelis to “rub shoulders”, an expression that Khoury used again and again to describe the kinds of simple, personal encounters that would help each side learn about the “other.”
For Palestinians, the act of entering the settlement of Efrata to attend a dialogue at the CJCUC was seen by their peers as controversial. But one session led to another, to openness, and eventually to a group of thirteen Christian Palestinians sharing Shabbat dinner at a Jewish home in the Galilee. Khoury recounts the reaction of one of the participants. “He said, ‘It is dangerous for me as an Arab to tell anyone I had a Shabbat dinner, but seeing what I saw and experiencing what I experienced, I know it was worth it.'” The venture into unfamiliar territory goes both ways—Nekrutman has spoken and taught many times at Khoury’s East Jerusalem church.
Creative thinking led to the next initiative—getting Palestinian Christians to “rub shoulders” with Israelis through the simple act of grocery shopping. With funding from American Jewish donors, Khoury and Nekrutman (CJCUC) teamed up with the owners of the Rami Levi supermarket chain.
Khoury selected Palestinian Christian families whose lives had been especially impacted by the conflict. He gave them coupons printed with the words “Jewish-Christian Relations” that they could use at a Rami Levi store located in an area that bore many scars from past intifada-related violence. Shopping excursions are often followed by coffee at the nearby coffee shop, which leads to informal conversations with local Jews, and gradually, to familiarity and relationships.
Returning to his dream of building a church and multi-purpose center in Jerusalem, Khoury notes with gratitude and a bit of irony that American Jews are trying to rally help for him to raise the needed funds for his church and center. He eagerly welcomes Jewish visitors: “I want to see more Jews catch the vision, visit us when they are in Israel, get involved by partnering.” He acknowledges the tremendous amount of suffering that has occurred on both sides, and readily admits, “Jews have been burned; it is hard to trust. But there are many rabbis that can vouch for our credibility.”
The issue of trust led me to ask Khoury the uncomfortable question: What does he say to Jews, and others, who believe that the love he professes for Israel is based on hastening an “end-times” scenario, where Jews will be forced to convert? Khoury replies, “I believe that I am commanded to share my faith, but I cannot convert anyone. We don’t believe that we can further the return of the Messiah.”
In a column published last year in the Jerusalem Post Khoury wrote, “Yet, if we take our Bible seriously we cannot deny the fact that the Jewish people are the apple of God’s eye and Israel plays a significant role in the Divine plan.” He condemns historic Christian anti-Semitism, writing:
“Nowadays it is easier for Christians to condemn anti-Semitism as a misunderstanding of Christian teaching than it is to come to terms with the valid existence of a Jewish people in Israel. In resisting acknowledgment of the transformation of Jews to victors, Christians may subconsciously maintain the traditional stereotype of Jews as a minority shunned by God.”
He exhorts his fellow Christians, “Be the best example to attract others to God. Faith should be shared but without coercion.”
If you are traveling to Israel, a visit to one of Steven Khoury’s churches is a wonderful opportunity to connect with someone working hard for peaceful co-existence. Because if we believe in our own text, we know this to be true: our actions also tip the balance of the world, ever so slightly, one way or the other.