Greener pastors

The Baptist Church's new spiritual leader is here after stints in Milan and Vienna.

pastor Nucciarone 224 88 (photo credit: gil zohar)
pastor Nucciarone 224 88
(photo credit: gil zohar)
Pastor Al Nucciarone - he doesn't like Dr. Rev. - arrived just before Christmas to lead Jerusalem's Baptist Church on Rehov Narkiss on the edge of Rehavia. "We have a small congregation of 50 to 60 people," says the Italian-American pastor. The sign outside their picturesque house of worship is in Hebrew, English and Russian, reflecting the three smaller linguistic congregations that share the building. Technically the Baptist congregation is the only one listed on the amuta. "It's all nations," Nucciarone smiles, counting off congregants who are American, Canadian, German, Dutch, British, Italian, French, Finnish and African. Recently a Korean tourist group came and packed the church to the rafters. "Tourists want to have a worship experience. They've seen all the sites. Now they want to worship God. They want song and fellowship, something inspirational," explains Nucciarone. Jerusalem's Baptist congregation was founded in 1925. The present congregation, reinstituted in 1996, is a member of the Baptist Convention of Israel and is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention of the United States. Those credentials evidently offended some of Jerusalem's religious zealots, who burnt down the church in 1982. Another arson attempt last October caused extensive smoke damage before three fire trucks and a dozen firefighters extinguished the blaze. Nucciarone was apprehensive about granting an interview for fear of adverse publicity. "We believe in the Old Testament precepts of loving God and your fellow man," he says. In addition to Nucciarone's preaching duties every Sunday, he pays pastoral visits to congregants who are sick, elderly or alone. He is also studying Hebrew at Ulpan Mila on Rehov Hillel. "I did study biblical Hebrew at the Dallas Seminary a long time ago," he laughs. "But that doesn't allow me to converse with people." Like any new immigrant family, Nucciarone, his wife Billie and daughter Allison are also adjusting to life here. Billie is not working here and studies Hebrew four days a week with her husband. Allison is in ninth grade at the Anglican School on Rehov Hanevi'im. The Nucciarones also have two older daughters in the US. Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1951, Jerusalem is the "last stop" on a world tour that has taken him to Milan for 12 years and Vienna for 14, says Nucciarone. The Baptist minister first visited Israel in 1978, and returned in 2006 with a group of pastors studying to lead Holy Land tours. "One Sunday I visited the Jerusalem Baptist Church. It just so happened that the man preaching was a friend from Italy now working in Israel. He asked me to give a greeting and to close the service with a benediction. Afterwards, one of the deacons came up to me and said, 'You'd be a good pastor here. You look Jewish, you're Italian and have a Mediterranean personality like Israelis.' And so I said, 'Well, I'm quite happy in Vienna.'" But the Lord works in mysterious ways. "Returning to the United States for a sabbatical, I felt God telling me to come back to Israel." Thanks to the Baptist Convention's non-profit status, Nucciarone qualified for a clergy visa, which is renewable annually. Theoretically the visa doesn't allow Nucciarone to work for money here, and his salary comes from the Kansas City-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Like other Americans who live here but receive an income in greenbacks, he too suffers from the "dollar doldrums." "You can go crazy worrying about the exchange rate," he cautions. "I don't even think about it." Down the road, he'd like to study to become a licensed tour guide - even though as a man of the cloth he is exempt from the Ministry of Tourism requirements. Giving away 1,500 books in Vienna, Nucciarone arrived here with his most valuable 20 books. "For a man who loves books, that was hard. But in Israel the whole country is a book," he smiles. Nucciarone's prayers were answered when he inherited a library of 600 volumes of Jewish history, Bible and theology from a congregant who passed away. Making new friends has also worked out - through ulpan, neighbors and serendipity. "It's called cultural exchange," he says. "People come here for a feeling. You come here because there is something in your heart to come."