Atlanta, Georgia

A Renewing Experience: Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel and Rita Sabbagh

First Recorded

April 16, 2019


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Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, a Presbyterian pastor, came from Palestine to the United States in the 1960s and found inspiration in the activism of Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. In this conversation, Abu-Akel joins friend Rita Sabbagh to reflect on his experiences as an American immigrant and to explore his work to promote interfaith collaboration in the Atlanta area.

This story was produced by David Dault at Sandburg Media, LLC.

This story is a part of the American Pilgrimage Project, a conversation series that invites Americans of diverse backgrounds to sit together and talk to each other one-to-one about the role their religious beliefs play at crucial moments in their lives. The interview was recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.

Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel and Rita Sabbagh

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Rita Sabbagh: Pastor Fahed, it's my honor to be here today and talk to you. So, I would like to know where you came from.

Fahed Abu-Akel: I grew up in a small Palestinian Arab village called Kafr Yasif, is 25 miles northwest of Nazareth, your hometown in the Galilee area. My parents were Palestinian Arab Christians belong to the Orthodox Church, and we were about eight children, five sisters and three brothers. We studied Hebrew, and in the sixth grade we studied English, and we could not graduate from high school without passing Arabic, Hebrew, and English. In the ninth grade, the history teacher came and said, "I don't want to teach the lesson today. I want to tell you what is happening in the United States of America." And he told us about this man, who is a minister, by the name of Martin Luther King, why he's in prison that day. He explained to us about the Black experience and what he is struggling for, the civil and human rights of the Black people in the United States of America.

I never forget that experience. We all, as a class, said to the teacher, "Let us go to the mayor office." It just a three-minute walk. "Let's walk to the mayor office and ask the mayor to write a letter to President Kennedy to free Martin Luther King." That teacher helped me realized that Martin Luther king made more sense of ministry on the Gospel then the Orthodox priests in my hometown. That fellow in America, 10,000 miles away, made more sense of my faith than any as a teenager.

So, I came to the United States to pursue my education, and I arrived January 29, 1966, and I went to Southeastern University. It was Bible college then, and my roommate was Eddie Nelsen. The following day, he said, "I'd like to take you to church." I said, "I'd love to." So, we went to church, and at noon, he said, "I'd like to take you to prison."

I said, "This is my first day in America. Take me to prison? In Israel, you cannot get close to prison in 10 miles." I did not understand. I said, "What do you mean prison?" He said, "We have a prison ministry, the choir sings and we shared the Gospel in the county jail." So I never-

Rita Sabbagh: Were you scared?

Fahed Abu-Akel: So, my first day in America, I was scared to death, number one, two, we went to the Bartow County jail and the choir sang and he said, "This friend of mine just arrived from Nazareth and Jerusalem and he wanted to tell you about the Jesus Christ." I think that was the shortest sermon of my life. After I finished college, the last year, the New Testament professor said, "You need to go to seminary." I said, "Yes." So, in Atlanta, Georgia, I went to Columbia Seminary, pursued my education, finishing my master of divinity, and I was invited to work with Bob Bervis at First Presbyterian Church in the community outreach ministry and through that relationship at First Presbyterian Church, we really developed a ministry called Atlanta Ministry with International Students.

Rita Sabbagh: Wow.

Fahed Abu-Akel: This year in metro Atlanta, we have more than 15,000 international students and scholar from 180 nation studying into 20 colleges and universities. So, as I think about the United States of America, we need to realize and confess the truth: We are a nation of immigrants from every nation under the sun. The United States is like a diamond. Every part of that diamond makes it beautiful, and America is so beautiful because we are people from more than 200 nations, from every religion under the sun, from every ethnicity, from every language—and that's the power of America. It's a renewing experience. We need to continue telling our story, our family's story, where we come from, and also thank God for our community, our churches, our nation. In fact, I want to say to people, let's face it, the new immigrants would love America and sacrifice for America more than the old-timers, because everything here for us as new people is precious.

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