The Good Shepherd Church at Amman
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Unlike four of the six ELCJ congregations, the Lutheran Good Shepherd Church in Amman and the Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah are “refugee congregations.” This means that both congregations were established within the last forty years (unlike the others which have much longer histories in Palestine). The two “refugee congregations” developed because Lutheran refugees from Geographical Palestine, separated from their homeland due to war and political upheaval in 1948 and 1967, wanted to keep up with their Lutheran traditions and heritage. Preceding the existence of Lutheran churches in either Amman or Ramallah, the Lutherans were spiritually cared for by the Anglican community. However, Christians with a Lutheran background often wanted to keep their Lutheran identity when it came to baptisms, weddings and funerals, so several Lutheran families petitioned the Synod in the 1970’s, and Pastor Numan Smirto was delegated there to begin a church there. (For more history, see below).
Today, the Lutheran Good Shepherd Church counts about two-hundred people in a mix of members and regularly attending friends and acquaintances of the congregation with different church backgrounds. Pastor Samer Azar has been serving the congregation since 1996 when he was ordained. In those days, there were only about six or eight people coming to worship. Today, there is an average of fifty people at worship on Sunday evenings. “It was like starting a new congregation,” Pastor Azar has said. “It was very challenging to do ministry in the Jordanian context.” In addition to building the worship life of the congregation, he identified three specific challenges which faced him in 1996:
- Consolidating a strong connection between the Amman ELCJHL congregation and the five ELCJHL congregations in Palestine despite border difficulties;
- Lifting up the congregation’s Lutheran identity in a city and among other Christian congregations that did not know much about Lutheranism; and
- Becoming connected to and trusted as a Lutheran congregation by the historic churches in Amman, i.e., the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and even the Anglican churches. Apparently an idea had developed before 1996 that the Lutheran church was part of “evangelistic”, conservative church groups, and not part of the mainline, historic churches.
Today, Pastor Azar is pleased to report that a good reputation has been built in Amman for the Lutheran congregation, through involvement in various ecumenical and social opportunities. The historic churches have come to learn more about the Lutheran church and have included Pastor Azar and the Lutheran Good Shepherd Church in their ecumenical and collegial circles. Along with the rest of the ELCJHL churches, the Lutheran church in Amman is part of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), and the MECC includes all four families of churches: the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, the Catholics and the Protestants. A special, close relationship has been built between the Lutheran and Anglican congregations in Amman.
Born and raised in Jerusalem, Pastor Azar received his theological training at the Lutheran Seminary in Tanzania, Africa, called Makumira University College. Classes at this seminary are taught primarily in English, but Swahili is the language of the people. Pastor Azar can speak Swahili, and spent time with the Tanzanian people as well as studying at the seminary. He is married to Abla and they have a young son, Naser, and a younger son, Daniel, born in 2006.
Pastor Azar remembers his seminary days in Tanzania as being a time of spiritual growth. It was there that he developed a desire to share with a congregation a life colored with devotion and spirituality, filled with a good theological awareness and a dedication to use one’s talents in the congregation and in the community. Little did he realize that he would be serving the only Lutheran church in all of Amman, indeed, in all of Jordan itself. The skills and disciplines of spirituality have served him well, making him very aware of the importance of collegiality and ecumenism in the community, and of prayer and ministry in the congregation.
It is clear to Pastor Samer Azar and the congregation that youth work must be a particular focus of the Lutheran ministry in Amman. Sixty per cent of the Jordanian population is under 30 years of age, with a huge percentage of this group being between the ages of 15 and 25 years. It is incumbent upon all the churches in Jordan to work among the youth.With this in mind, the Lutheran church is always looking for ways to attract young people to worship, classes and special activities.
A new example of a youth program is the Good Shepherd Lutheran Musical Team. Beginning in August 2003, the group began weekly rehearsals with bagpipes, cymbals and large and small drums. Pastor Azar plays one of the bagpipes with the group, and about fifteen young people and also some family members are in training to play the instruments. The Musical Team played at a special Christmas Eve 2003 event and is looking forward to performing at many more events in the future. On Easter Sunday 2004 the musical team will be dedicated.
Each summer the Lutheran Good Shepherd Church sponsors a Summer Camp. In 2003 the Fifth Annual Summer Camp was held on the church property and Pastor Azar reports yet another success story. Over fifty children attended the camp, many from families that were not members of the Lutheran church.
Another activity attracting young people with their families is the Holyland Club which meets in the church’s community hall building. This ecumenical, social, cultural and recreational center is open every day, from 5 pm until midnight. A playroom, a computer room, a table tennis and billiard room, and a cafeteria are available and many people come to enjoy the socialization and hereby learn more about the Lutheran church and the Christian faith.
Parish Hall Renovation
Ministry to the community and to young people is now opening on yet another front, according to Pastor Azar. An extensive renovation has been done of the church’s parish hall with financial support from the Northelbian Mission Center (NMZ) in Germany. The parish hall was inaugurated by Bishop Dr. Munib Younan on October 19, 2003. Over 240 persons were present, seated at round tables in the new space. Many community dignitaries and representa-tives from other churches attended the inauguration. Pastor Azar knows that this attractive hall is going to be used for many social gatherings and that community groups will want to rent it for various activities. “This step we have taken to renovate the parish hall has already created a new attitude toward our church from the churches in Amman,” the pastor said. “The Lutheran presence has not been well-known in the past years but we have finally come to the turning point of recognizability and better acceptance. Our new parish hall has made us even more known and we anticipate many youth and community activities will now take place on our premises.”
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In this same building, adjacent to the church, the Action by Churches Together (ACT) group from Lutheran World Federation (LWF) has been administering its program to assist Iraqis in the aftermath of the 2003 war, particularly with social work, water purification and shipments of food. That work may be concluded in Amman at the end of 2004.
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A visit with Pastor Azar revealed some of the hopes and dreams for the Lutheran Good Shepherd Church in Amman. “We have plans, which have been approved by the ELCJ Church Council, to develop an ecumenical conference and lodging center in a four-story building adjacent to the church. Two upper stories will need to be built on the current community center. In the proposed conference and lodging center, the first floor would be used for recreation (continuing the Holyland Club, for example); the second and third floors would be used as guesthouse accommodations; and the fourth floor would house a cafeteria, a library and meeting and study rooms. We are continuing our work to emphasize a Christian presence in Amman and the opportunity to invite ecumenical groups to stay and study together with us is a wonderful step in that direction.”
Future goals include “more of the same,” Pastor Azar says: strengthening the ecclesiastical work and enhancing diaconal work for the ELCJ in Amman; continuing and enlarging work among the youth; continuing the ecumenical work among the historic churches; finding new ways in which to proclaim the gospel of Christ in the Jordanian context; and developing partnerships to support the congregation’s mission and ministry.
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These historic churches are recognized by the Jordanian government: The Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, the Catholics and the Evangelicals (Lutherans, Anglicans). This means these Christian communities have the right to establish “waqf” (trusts), own property, open schools, hospitals and all other institutes and foundations of learning and social services, and who may form their own ecclesiastical courts. In a Royal Decree in 2001, it was announced that Christmas and New Year are regarded as National Holidays (in addition to other Muslim and secular holidays). The Christians were very happy about this because it allows them to celebrate Christmas as a holy day, instead of it being a regular work day in the largely Muslim-populated country.
Pastor Samer Azar also points out that the Jordanian government has established a number of societies and institutes toenhance good will and smooth relations among the Jordanian people, both Muslims and Christians. Last year an Interfaith Coexistence Research Center was established. The Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies promotes common and positive aspects in Christianity and Islam to their respective people, and encourages dialogue at all levels. Another example of the freedom Christians have to express their faith is in the tradition of broadcasting worship services every Sunday from each of the four families of Christian churches. In Ramallah, Palestine, this writer recently heard an Anglican worship service from Amman being broadcast on a Sunday morning. Much of the music in the hymns and the liturgy was very familiar.
The history of the Lutheran Good Shepherd Church goes back to the 1970s when several displaced Lutheran families in Amman asked the Lutheran Synod and Church Council in Jerusalem for a Lutheran church in Amman. The Rev. Numan Smir was delegated by the ELCJHL church council in 1976 to start the Lutheran work in Amman and a house was rented in West Amman for worship, education and social purposes. At first Pastor Smir served the ELCJ congregation in Beit Jala, Palestine, as well as beginning the Lutheran work in Amman. The purpose of the Lutheran mission work in Amman was to provide worship opportunities and give pastoral care for ELCJ members who were obliged to leave Palestine and find work in Jordan. Conversations were held between the Anglican and Lutheran church leaderships in Palestine and Jordan, as well as conversations with the ELCJ’s many Lutheran church partners overseas (COCOP) in regard to the development of the Amman mission.
By 1979 Pastor Smir had moved to Amman to work fulltime as pastor of the growing congregation. Through hard and persistent work, Pastor Smir gathered many Lutheran families scattered all over Amman, including those who had attended or graduated from the Talitha Kumi and Schneller Lutheran Schools in Jerusalem. (These schools were relocated due to the wars. Talitha Kumi is now in Beit Jala; the Schneller School is in Amman.) Worship services and Sunday School classes, women’s meetings and youth activities were held in the rented house. This writer remembers worshiping with the Lutherans in Amman in that house in 1984.
The full-time pastoral work in Amman became possible because the ELCJHL and COCOP (especially the church bodies of Finland and Sweden, and VELKD in Germany) understood the importance of the work. It was considered to be a strategic mission to serve Christian witness in a Muslim context and in the midst of the Arab world. It is worthwhile to mention the support which was given by the then director of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission (FELM), Dr. Henrik Smedjebacka, and the Middle East Secretary of the Church of Sweden mission, the Rev. Rune Backlund (who later became a Church of Sweden bishop). These two men took it as a personal challenge for their mission and theological societies to start a new church in the midst of the Arab world, despite criticism from their own mission boards. Their zeal and enthusiasm combined with their belief that this was the right thing to do at the right time formed crucial support for the new Lutheran congregation in Amman. Bishop Daoud Haddad, the ELCJ bishop at that time, gave every support and tackled all difficulties so the Lutheran vision of establishing a mission in the East Bank of the Jordan River would be realized. Today ELCJL Bishop Emeritus Munib A. Younan firmly believes that all those in COCOP and the ELCJ who worked very hard to establish this congregation certainly did the right thing for the Christian witness in Jordan.
The new Lutheran congregation grew and developed and in 1985 a parcel of land was purchased in Um al-Summaq in West Amman. With the financial help of churches in Sweden and Finland, a new church, parsonage, parish hall and community center were built, dedicated on August 23, 1987. German churches through VELKD also helped finance the buildings and three church bells were donated from East Germany.
The following pastors have served the Lutheran Good Shepherd Church in Amman:
- The Rev. Numan Smir 1976-1992
- The Rev. Bishara Zabaneh 1992-1995 (an Anglican minister)
- The Rev. Samer Azar 1996- to date
Sunday during winter: 6:30p.m.
Sunday during summer: 7:00 p.m.
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Pastor Samer Azar