Coming to America

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Rev. Halim Shukair and our emerging Arabic ministries

The Rev. Halim Shukair is one of our newest priests in the Diocese of Michigan. A native of Lebanon, Rev. Shukair is fluent in Arabic and has embarked on some incredible work — both with Christ Church, Dearborn and with an Arabic-speaking Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregation called Mother of the Savior. This interview was conducted in writing with Anna Stania, the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan’s director of communications.

Tell me a bit about your background and what you were doing before you came to the United States.

I was born in Lebanon a multicultural country with 18 recognized religious sects. Living in this medium had leads me to appreciate diversity, to be shaped by the richness that each group has. This religious “pluralism” is in the context of my understanding of my identity as Episcopalian. Moreover, my understanding to my mission that derives from this identity. Originally. I was baptized in a Baptist church. During my college studies, I came to know of the Anglican/Episcopal Church and quickly I become involved in the church life.

I was attracted to the church doctrine because it encouraged a more ecumenical and open-minded approach. I also connected with the liturgy and style of worship. I took the membership course and was confirmed in 2005 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beirut. My involvement in the ministry of the church developed gradually. At first I started as lector, and little by little I worked with the youth, the Sunday school, and so on. This was a natural process. There was no single point in which I decided to be involved in the church’s ministry. I hold a bachelor’s degree in business marketing from the Lebanese American University in Beirut, and my last job prior to attend the seminary was financial officer at the American University in Beirut.

How did you end up coming here?

In August 2015, I moved to the U.S. to start my theological studies at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. I graduated with my master’s in divinity in May 2018.

In 2017, Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem Suheil Dawani asked Bishop Gibbs whether the Diocese of Michigan might have a place for me as a priest in the Diocese. Bishop Gibbs was immediately interested in whether I might be able to help develop a new mission community among Arab-American people in Southeast Michigan and help develop a worshipping community in Dearborn or in another Arab-American community in the diocese. On behalf of Archbishop Dawani, Bishop Gibbs ordained me to the transitional deaconate in December 2017 and to the priesthood in June 2018. I started my ministry the next day as Curate at Christ Episcopal Church in Dearborn.

What has your experience been like compared to what you thought it would be?

Living in the United States was my dream, as I was educated in American schools in Lebanon. I wanted to experience firsthand the American way of living and to learn about the culture of the country. My biggest cultural shock was how big the U.S. is. I came from a small country that was 4,036 square miles with population of 4,000,000. I was impressed by the diversity in America and that is the beauty of this country. A country that is a reflection of the multiple cultures it contains.

My experience was shaped also by learning about the rise and struggles of African Americans. There are so many diverse things that I love,  especially to belong to the Episcopal Church that welcomes all people, myself being part of this diverse community. It has shown me that there are lot of challenges, and that to work with people you must appreciate this diversity with open minds and open hearts.

Tell me about Mother of The Savior. What are the people like? What is your job like?

Mother of the Savior started as an outreach mission of the ELCA to the Middle Eastern Christians in 1988 and 1989, under the leadership of the Lutheran minister Pastor Rani Abdul Massih, who was Palestinian American. Pastor Abdul Massih worked very hard in making contacts and building relations to outreach to the Arab Christians in Dearborn and the neighborhood.

The Arab Christians expressed their need to have a service in Arabic. Mother of the Savior’s mission and focus at that time was around the community the people who will come to worship from different neighborhoods in the Dearborn area. Arab Christians appreciated that the Mass and the sermon was in both Arabic and English. Mother of the Savior’s services were a combination of Lutheran, Catholic, and Orthodox liturgies to reflect the background of the congregation that consisted of immigrants from the Middle East — Lebanese Syrians, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Iraqis — and the second generation Arab-American youth.

In May 2018, Mother of the Savior moved to Christus Victor Lutheran Church on Ford Road in Dearborn Heights and shared the worship space with the congregation. In the midst of the imminent departure of Pastor Abdul Massih, I was called by both Bishop Gibbs and Bishop Krisse (ELCA) to service as priest-in-charge for Mother of the Savior congregation. I celebrated the Eucharist on Sunday, September 23, 2018. Since then, I have been walking with and serving the congregation. It has been a great challenge and great blessing at the same time.

I worked on putting a new worship liturgy based on the Book of Common Eucharistic prayers both in Arabic and English. The congregation appreciated the Episcopal style of worship, as it contains the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox liturgy.

What helped me a lot in dividing my time and energy between the two congregations was the amazing support from Christ Episcopal Church Dearborn and especially from Rector Rev. Terri Pilarski, who offered mentoring time, advice, and wisdom. I had worked with Rev. Pilarski to bring Mother of the Savior to the joint services at Christ Church Dearborn. It was a great blessing to witness the prayers in both Arabic and English. Mother of the Savior finds Christ Church a welcoming space with loving people.

What has your experience been as an Episcopal priest in a blended congregation?

Serving in both congregations, Christ Church in Dearborn and Mother of the Savior, as an Episcopal priest had taught me that in spite of the difference between the two congregations — a predominantly white, European English-speaking congregation and an Arabic-speaking congregation — I was able to witness how a priest can really seek and serve Christ in every person. I did this by listening to the need of the people around me and respecting their dignity. There is complexity in serving a congregation like Mother of the Savior, which combines immigrants from different countries of the Middle East with social and cultural differences. I was able to build trust and caring for the need of the congregation to move forward in building partnership in faith between Christ Church, Christus Victor, and Mother of the Savior.

What do you see as the value of incorporating the Arabic language into worship?

Arabic language has praised and glorified God and Christ since Pentecost Day: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” Acts 2:7-11.

The praise in Arabic and the work of the Holy Spirit has been witnessed through Arab Christians in the Middle East and everywhere they are present. Arabic is widely spoken around the world today. The estimated Arabic speaking population is around 420 million.

It’s a great opportunity that Mother of the Savior is an Arabic church in Dearborn and a witness to God’s love in both Arabic and English. In incorporating Arabic in worship, it connects the congregation to their culture, and it helps the youth appreciate Arabic language as their tradition. Also, it helps to witness the community, which has the largest Arab population in the country.

What are you looking forward to most? What’s in the future for your congregation?

I pray that as priest in charge for Mother of the Savior, I will be able to help in growing the congregation spiritually to witness to Christ’s love in this world and to help the congregation to grow through attending to their various needs. Mother of the Savior will be a witness to living partnership in faith as Christian community. As an Episcopal-Lutheran joint mission, Mother of the Savior can lead the example of how two churches can work together in mission and partnership. Also, with partnership in faith with Christ Church Dearborn, both congregations will retain their own identity and worship, while living together in one building. We will offer bilingual and intercultural worship services on major feast days like Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday, and Holy Week. We will learn from one another and have the opportunity to deepen our faith. We will share social time, fellowship, relationship building, and meals. We will strive to live as witnesses to God’s love in the world.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about Mother of the Savior?

Mother of the Savior is the only Arabic speaking church in Dearborn, its mission is to build relationship with the community and educate people about the Arab-Christians and the Middle Eastern culture. Mother of the Savior can build bridges among various faith traditions, especially toward our Muslims brothers and sisters as, Arabic is shared language of both Arab Muslims and Arab Christians. Mother of the Savior can help build relationships between the diverse communities in the area and work between the community and the Arab community to discuss common struggles and future objectives. Dearborn and its neighborhood is a very diverse place, and it’s an opportunity to come together and learn from each other — Arabs, Anglos, African Americans, and Latinos.

I invite the reader of The Record to come and see and worship with us at Mother of the Savior to learn more about the Arab Christians, to listen to hymns in Arabic, and to enjoy Middle Eastern hospitality. Ahlan wa–Sahlan (Arabic for “welcome.”)