Rivers of Life Transforming lives among Arabic-speaking New Yorkers Part 1
By Doug Ruffle
A woman called the pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Bayonne, New Jersey, because she was in dire straits. A widow, her two sons grown up and moved away, she now had lost her job. Her rent was overdue and she was down to her last few dollars without enough to buy food or even a bottle of water. Walking down the street, she read the sign in Arabic at the front of Wesley United Methodist Church. She read, “Rivers of Life” and wondered whether she had found a way to quench her thirst. The call went to voice mail but shortly thereafter, Pastor Emad Gerges, who serves both the English and Arabic speaking congregations at Wesley UMC, called her back.
“What is your name?” he asked.
She gave only her first name. She and the pastor knew that if she gave her last name it would give away her religious affiliation.
“Can you see me?” She asked.
“Come to church on Sunday afternoon at 2 pm when we hold our services. I will speak to you after worship.” The Pastor said this to anyone who inquired about the church, regardless of their background. Moreover, he spends hours talking with people who attend. The service ends before 4pm, but he often stays until 11pm on Sunday nights in conversation with worshipers and newcomers, almost all of whom are immigrants or refugees, from Arabic-speaking countries. Some people drive more than three hours to attend worship. There just aren’t that many Arabic language communities of faith.
The following Sunday after the phone call, as was his custom, Pastor Gerges recorded a message that he transmits via YouTube prior to the start of worship. There is a large glass window from the makeshift recording studio to the sanctuary and the Pastor suspected that the newcomer entering was the one who had called.
He greeted her and once again invited her to remain after worship so that he could speak with her.
“How do you know me?” She asked after worship.
He said he did not know her. He had never met her before except for their phone conversation.
“But everything you said in the service spoke exactly to what my circumstances are and what I needed to hear.”
“It’s not me,” he replied. “It’s a God thing.”
She began to weep. “You gave examples in your message of the exact things that I am going through in my life!”
“This is God,” he said.
“I am Muslim,” she said.
He suspected that she was. He assured her. “We have others in the congregation who come from the Muslim faith tradition. Please know that God loves you and it matters not where you have come from.”
She poured her heart out. She told him of her dire circumstances and that her funds had run out and told him the story of passing by the church and seeing the “Rivers of Life” sign in Arabic.
Before she left, Pastor Gerges conferred with some lay leaders of the church. Though they themselves were always trying to make ends meet to pay church bills, they managed to obtain a package of food for her and one lay person donated $200 to help her pay bills.
She came back the following Sunday to worship. “I came hoping to get monetary help,” she confessed. “But I received so much more. I met a loving and accepting God here through the kindness and hospitality of these people.”
The “Rivers of Life” congregation, which is part of Wesley United Methodist Church, is, to Pastor Gerges’ knowledge, the only full-fledged Arabic-speaking church in the United Methodist connection. “There are mission congregations,” he said. “But ours is the only one constituted as a church.”
The Muslim woman who found thirst-quenching help continues to be in contact with Pastor Gerges and she has found a job. She found something more through the encounter. She found a lifeline to Jesus and a community of faith willing to hear her story.
In my next blog post, I’ll share more about Pastor Emad, his family, their origins and the unique ministry of Rivers of Life. Stay tuned!