Baptists in the Holy Land

Although Baptist numbers in Israel are limited, their influence has greatly affected believers.

cross 88 (photo credit: )
cross 88
(photo credit: )
As a Baptist journalist in Israel for the past 25 years, I've often been shocked at how little Israelis know about my denomination. With more than 90 million Baptists in the world, about half of whom are in the United States, and 17 million in my denomination - the Southern Baptist Convention - it's a shock that Israelis, so interested in all things American, overlook this phenomenon. How has the role of America's Baptist presidents, many of whom acted out of faith toward the Jewish people, been overlooked? Harry S Truman was instrumental in securing UN recognition for Israel. Jimmy Carter mediated the Camp David accords in which Egypt recognized Israel. And Bill Clinton... well. Although some earlier survey work had been done, the single greatest catalyst for Baptist work in the Holy Land was Sukri Mussa, a resident of Safed who went to the US to study in the early 1900s. While there, he came to faith under the preaching of George Truett at First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Supported by Baptist churches in southern Illinois, he returned to the Holy Land in 1911. According to Fuad Sakhnini, pastor of the Nazareth Baptist Church since 1960, "He bought a horse and began preaching in the villages. It wasn't easy because people were fanatically loyal to their communities. The first Baptists here were persecuted by the other traditional Christian communities." He witnessed in Turan and Eilabun, villages with large nominal Christian populations - the kind of background he was from. Mussa organized Bible studies and people met in homes for a time, but in 1926 the new believers built Nazareth Baptist Church. Mussa died in 1928, but there was already a vision to start planting churches in the Galilee, Sakhnini said. Sakhnini, born the same year the church was built, was among a group of young men who continued starting new works "in obedience to the Great Commission." Many of them went out on donkeys to preach. Churches were established throughout the Galilee, in villages such as Jaffa, Kafr Kanna, Turan, Eilabun, Acre and Rama. More recently, two Baptist churches have been established in Nazareth. During the 1930s a number of American Southern Baptists arrived in the Holy Land to bolster the local work. They included Leo Eddleman, later a college Hebrew professor, who was noted for his mastery of both Hebrew and Arabic. He attributed those skills to the curfew maintained during the British Mandate, saying there was little else to do but study from sunrise to sunset. By the end of the 1930s, Southern Baptists had seven Americans working in Palestine, but World War II forced them to leave and the work floundered for a time. Dwight Baker, who served in Israel in the 1950s and '60s, wrote: "Had it not been for the stout-hearted courage of the nationals, all would have been lost. A work that was begun by Arab Baptists was just as heroically sustained by these indefatigable souls." In 1945 Henry and Julia Hagood arrived, and soon moved to Nazareth to open the George W. Truett Home for Children. That same year, Robert and Margaret Lindsey came to strengthen the work in Jerusalem. Lindsey had spent 1939 in Jerusalem as a student, and already had a good working knowledge of the language, according to Baker. Working tirelessly to establish the orphanage, learn Arabic and preach on the weekends, Hagood "was no match for the serious throat infection which hospitalized him in January 1946 and caused his death three days later," according to Baker. His wife, Julia, stayed on in Nazareth with their young son to continue the work. Baptist work suffered another setback before and during the 1948 War of Independence. Many children orphaned as a result of that war (which killed 6,000 Jews, or fully 1 percent of the country's Jewish population) found a home at the Nazareth orphanage, necessitating a reevaluation of that ministry. The Baptist Village, near Petah Tikva, had originally been conceived by Lindsey as a cooperative for Jewish believers in Jesus; land was purchased in 1948 and 1950 toward that end. But failing that venture, Baptists in Israel later decided to relocate the orphanage. If the Baptist denomination is not known in Israel, the same cannot be said of its institutions. Baptist Village is known throughout the country. Although Lindsey's original vision was never realized, thousands of people have been blessed by its ministry. As the orphans grew, a school was developed for them. In 1963 Baptists established a vocational school whose 100 graduates would include all ethnic groups in Israel. Believers founded a church on its grounds whose ministry continues. A camp and conference program was established in the 1950s. Annual camps are conducted in English, Russian, Hebrew and Arabic. More recently, Baptist Village has teamed with International Sports Properties to support baseball and softball. As a result, the 2005 Maccabiah baseball and softball competitions were held there. Residents of neighboring Petah Tikva and Hod Hasharon have enjoyed Baptist Village since its beginning. Every Friday afternoon 15-20 men gather there to play soccer. Yanco Zvi of Tel Aviv, who's been playing for more than 20 years, says: "This place has been great for us. I hope my children can enjoy it as I have." Nazareth Baptist School, opened in the 1930s, closed during World War II and reopened only after independence. From its modest beginnings, it is now recognized by the Ministry of Education as one of the country's premier educational institutions. In 2006 it was ranked seventh nationally for the percentage of students scoring "excellent" results in matriculation exams. In the youth competition called "First Step to Nobel Prize in Physics," Israel has won 22 prizes in the past 10 years. Nine of those prizes went to students from Nazareth Baptist School. When physicist Stephen Hawking was here last year, three schools were allowed to send students to interview him; Nazareth Baptist was one of them. According to general director Butrus Monsour, Nazareth Baptist scores in the top 1% of Israeli students in English every year. The school's waiting list is long. Monsour says if he had the facilities, he could double its 1,000 enrollment in two years. It is presently considering another site in Nazareth. Although their work has grown exponentially from its 1911 roots, Baptists have suffered setbacks. Beset by wars, terrorism, religious persecution and political tension, the story of Narkis Street Baptist Church is largely indicative of Baptists in the country. With the resurgence in Baptist work after World War I, a church of 13 congregants began meeting on Narkis Street near downtown Jerusalem in 1933. These early congregants included Jewish, Arab and expatriate devotees meeting in a chapel that had been largely built by one man - Roswell Owens - for about $1,000 in building costs. World War II took its toll, and the succeeding revival was cut short by almost immediately by Jewish-Arab tensions. Robert Lindsey assumed the pastorate in 1949 and worked ardently to build the work, most of which revolved around Friday night and Saturday morning services in Hebrew and English. Others assumed preaching responsibilities at the church during most of the 1950s, but in 1962 Lindsey became pastor again as the group formalized itself as a church. In 1961 Lindsey had crossed into Jordanian-controlled east Jerusalem to retrieve one of the residents of the Truett home whose relatives were preventing his return to Israel. Sneaking across the Mandelbaum Gate at night, Lindsey stepped on a land mind, causing the loss of a leg. His biography, co-written by his son-in-law, is titled One Foot in Heaven: The Story of Bob Lindsey in Jerusalem. In October 1982, the church was levelled by arsonists. Police suspected extremist elements from Jerusalem's haredi community. Charles Kopp, senior pastor for the previous 15 years, was the first member to arrive at the scene. He says the members felt "shock and great grief because of our worship center being destroyed. But we also felt hopeful. Bob [Robert Lindsey] took it as positively as he could, and said he had been praying that the fire of the Holy Spirit would fall from heaven, though [the arson] wasn't what he had intended." Although the crime was soundly condemned by politicians and the chief rabbis, the government was reluctant to allow the church to rebuild, suggesting it move farther from the city center. Lindsey was prepared to accept the government's suggestion, but church members declined, saying leaving might encourage the extremists to step up their campaign. Permission to rebuild on site was secured in 1987, after apetition to the High Court. The church at Narkis Street, from its infancy in the 1930s, overcame these obstacles. Presently four different congregations, representing about 500 believers meeting in Hebrew, Russian and English, gather there. One English-speaking congregation has a contemporary worship service, while another employs a traditional Baptist liturgy. Similarly, the national work, from its equine-borne evangelists in the early part of the 20th century, presently consists of about 6,000 adults and children meeting in 20 churches - the Association of Baptist Churches (ABC) having formed in 1963. Although Baptist numbers in Israel are limited, their influence has affected the believing community greatly. Dozens of congregations and thousands of Christians throughout the country are Baptist in terms of doctrine and administration, although they do not formally belong to the ABC. Fuad Haddad, chairman of the ABC, writes: "The concern of Baptists today is to witness and be witnesses in the Land. The promotion of the Lord's work is a priority... local churches have been challenged to double their numbers in a decade. God has blessed, and He will continue to bless."