Discovering Arab Christianity in D.C.
By: Timothy Loh
February 23, 2015
Hyacinth Mascarenhas begins her article on Christians in the Arab world in Mic, an online news source, with a joke: "There is a line about an American general questioning an Arab Christian's faith. 'When did your family convert?' the general asked. 'About 2,000 years ago,' the Arab answered." The joke underlies the mistaken but unfortunately widespread assumption that to be Arab entails being Muslim, when in fact the Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity, and about 5 percent of the Middle East today is Christian, present in countries ranging from Jordan to Lebanon to Qatar. At the turn of the twentieth century, the figure was even higher, with about 20 percent of the population in the region identifying as Christian according to an article from BBC.
Fortunately, I did not have to travel that far to meet with Arab Christians, as Washington, D.C. boasts its own Arab Christian population, a good number of whom attend the Arabic Baptist Church of Washington, DC (ABCDC) on Massachusetts Avenue. Set up in 1967, the church has been around for about 50 years now, making it possibly the oldest Arabic-speaking congregation across the United States, according to one of the members I spoke with. While at the time of its founding the church consisted mostly of Syrian, Palestinian, and Jordanian Christians, the 40- to 60-strong congregation now comes from parts of the Middle East other than the Levant. I actually met a member of the church before the service who had moved to the United States from Egypt only two years ago. I was also told, however, that there was an Egyptian church in Maryland that tends to draw the bulk of Egyptian Christians in the DC metropolitan area.
I had visited ABCDC a year ago out of curiosity, a month before going to Jordan, and was pleased and a little bit surprised that some of its members still remembered me from my visit last spring. When I attended the main 6 p.m. service last Sunday, given the bitter cold and thick snowfall the day I visited, the congregation was smaller than usual, and I counted about 20 people in the service. Like the last time I visited, I decided to challenge myself by foregoing the in-ear translation service that was kindly offered to me and instead to immerse myself fully in the Arabic service. Nonetheless, I was touched when my new Egyptian friend sat next to me and offered to translate anything that I did not understand.
I was particularly struck by two parts of the service: the sermon and a hymn that was sung. The sermon was based on Adam and Eve's encounter with God in Genesis 3 and focused on one line in the passage when God goes out into the Garden of Eden in "search" of Adam and asks, "'ayna 'anta?" (Where are you?). That question, the preacher said, was one that we should constantly be asking ourselves in different aspects of our lives, whether physically (jasadiyyan), psychologically (nafsiyyan), intellectually (fikriyyan), or spiritually (ruhiyyan), and concluded that our answer should be "ya rabb, 'ana ma'aka" (Lord, I am with you). His sermon was a powerful reminder of Jesuit notions of contemplation in action, cura personalis, and finding God in all things—values frequently stressed here at Georgetown but which I often forget in the midst of busyness. I was also moved when, at one point in the service, one of the church members went on stage and sang the famous hymn "Blessed Assurance" in Arabic. Although I did not understand all or even most of the words, hearing the familiar tune and seeing the song performed with such conviction brought me much comfort.
As the service ended and I made my way back to Georgetown, even the cold did not seem that cold anymore. Blessed assurance indeed.