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DEARBORN, Mich. — In the heart of this Detroit suburb, Muslim women who wear hijabs to cover their heads abound.
Signs for Middle Eastern restaurants, halal meat markets and even national chain stores such as Walgreens appear in Arabic and English.
Cedar trees — the national symbol of Lebanon — line the streets.
Shoppers walk outside a halal meat market in Dearborn, Mich. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)A century after Henry Ford recruited thousands of Lebanese, Yemeni and other immigrants to work in the auto industry, this Michigan community boasts the largest concentration of people of Arab origin outside the Middle East. They comprise roughly 40,000 of Dearborn’s total population of 100,000.
“I call it the Arab Chinatown,” Christian missionary Wissam Al-Aethawi, 36, says as he drives along Warren Avenue, the city’s business and cultural hub.
Al-Aethawi, a one-time Iraqi soldier and engineer, believes God led him here — to the epicenter of Arab life in America and the home of the largest mosque in North America — to share the hope he found in Jesus.
This former Muslim’s dream: to establish an Arabic-speaking Church of Christ in Dearborn.
“Wissam has a heart for Muslims, knows their culture and is actively trying to find ways to reach them with the good news of Jesus in a way that only someone on the inside can,” said Roger Woods, minister and elder for the Detroit-area Walled Lake Church of Christ.
Wissam Al-Aethawi stands by the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit to the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY WISSAM AL-AETHAWI)
Each Tuesday finds Al-Aethawi working with Arab immigrants at the Angel House, a Dearborn nonprofit that helps meet families’ social, vocational and spiritual needs.
“The main way to preach the Gospel to the Arabs here is to teach them English because, unlike the Spanish-speaking people, Arabs cannot survive if they don’t know English,” said Al-Aethawi, who learned English from formal studies as well as American books and movies in his native Baghdad.
Using passages from the New Testament, Al-Aethawi teaches English to students such as Aziz Awadh, a 31-year-old Muslim father of two from Yemen.
“Wissam is a really well-liked man and does a really good job,” Awadh, who works in a pizza restaurant, said in his limited English. “He’s more than wonderful.”
Wissam Al-Aethawi, left, visits with fellow volunteer Larry Francis at the Angel House, a non-denominational nonprofit that serves Arab immigrants in Dearborn, Mich. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
Al-Aethawi serves on the ministry staff of the Sunset Church of Christ in Taylor, a city of 62,000 southwest of Dearborn.
“I do the evening service every Sunday, and I teach the morning class on Wednesday, in addition to the many events and opportunities the church is providing me,” Al-Aethawi said. “But my main work is among Arabs and Muslims.”
The Lincoln Park Church of Christ, south of Dearborn, is among a handful of individuals and churches that have provided financial support for Al-Aethawi’s ministry.
“The Arab population is growing so much,” said Russ Bone, Lincoln Park minister and elder. “We know by looking at the mosques that are being erected that there is going to be a problem if we don’t continue to work with these people and expose Jesus Christ to them. And Wissam is the perfect vehicle, we believe.”
Al-Aethawi’s outreach to Muslims in the U.S. extends beyond Michigan.
Recently, he helped an Iranian woman who started visiting a Church of Christ in Texas gain a better understanding of the Bible.
“He had an answer from the Bible for all my doubts, fears and questions,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing a fear of retribution for converting.
“He is an amazing leader,” she said of Al-Aethawi, “and he is always ready to help, pray and answer your questions. He cares about others.”
The story of Al-Aethawi’s unlikely journey from Baghdad to Dearborn goes back to 1979.
That was the year Saddam Hussein rose to power — and the year Al-Aethawi was born to a poor family who lived in a mud house with steel sheets as the roof. In the winter, rain dripped on the young boy, his sisters and parents as they slept.
Each Friday, Al-Aethawi went to a neighborhood mosque to pray.
But he never felt comfortable with a religion he believed called him to hate people he didn’t know and offered no hope after his 4-year-old sister, Amina, died of food poisoning in 1996.
Wissam Al-Aethawi, right, enjoys fellowship with Steve Spiceland after preaching at the Sunset Church of Christ in Taylor, Mich. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)References to Bible verses in American novels that Al-Aethawi read piqued his curiosity, as did Tom Cruise picking up a Gideon Bible and reading from Job 3:14 in the movie “Mission: Impossible.”
At the massive Al-Mutanabbi flea market in Baghdad in 1997, Al-Aethawi — then an engineering student at the University of Baghdad — bought the Gospel of John.
“I thought that was the whole Bible,” Al-Aethawi said. “I did not find any of the quotes that I was looking for.”
Back at the flea market in 1998, Al-Aethawi discovered the full New Testament.
“It took me a few more days, this time, to realize that the New Testament itself is a part of another bigger book that is written. I ran out of money,” he said, noting that his family lived on a dollar a month as a result of U.S. sanctions against Iraq for invading neighboring Kuwait in 1990.
He borrowed cash from his cousin to buy his first complete Bible.
“That’s when I was really impressed with the historical and geographical information in the Bible — common knowledge where I come from,” said Al-Aethawi, referring to ancient Mesopotamia, which became modern-day Iraq.
A few months later, Al-Aethawi, almost 20 at the time, spotted a man with a large cross on his shirt and asked about his Christian faith.
The Chaldean Catholic described how God sent his son to die on the cross and save the world from its sins.
“That was the first time anyone tells me the message of the Bible,” Al-Aethawi said.
A billboard heralded a recent speaking engagement by Wissam Al-Aethawi in Iowa. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY WISSAM AL-AETHAWI)
From that moment, Al-Aethawi believed in the truth of the Bible.
However, his mother responded harshly when he tried to share the Gospel with her.
“That book is bringing shame and danger to the family,” she told her son, grabbing him by the collar with tears in her eyes, “and it’s a blasphemous book.”
Two Muslim leaders came to his house and told him they’d heard about him reading the Bible. They expected to see him at the mosque every Friday, they warned.
Frightened and worried about might happen to his family, he gave away his Arabic-language Bible.
After a few weeks, though, he bought another Bible — this one in English — and read it in secret.
Former Muslim Wissam Al-Aethawi shows photos of his baptism in a hotel bathtub in Kurdistan in northern Iraq. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)For 12 years — even as he fulfilled 18 months of mandatory military service and launched a civil engineering career — he searched to find someone willing to baptize him into Christ. At one point, while he worked on an engineering project in war-torn Fallujah, the U.S. military briefly mistook him for a terrorist, and he feared he might be killed on the spot.
“Will God accept me knowing that I have been trying to get baptized?” he asked himself.
Finally, in 2010, Duncan Heaster — a believer with whom he corresponded online — traveled from Latvia to Kurdistan in northern Iraq to baptize Al-Aethawi in a hotel bathtub. Al-Aethawi rode a bus to meet Heaster.
“It all seemed so ordinary, but it was that mundane bathtub and standard hotel bathroom fixtures (that) all seemed now so transformed by the Lord’s usage,” Heaster said.
Afterward, Heaster and Wissam went out to eat at a restaurant surrounded by security guards.
“Sure, thoughts of kidnappings and bombs did inevitably cross my mind,” Heaster said. “But sitting there at the table with him … it didn’t matter whether this was Iraq or Europe or wherever, safe or dangerous, war or peace. Because the essence was so clearly of … an abnormally sincere man … coming to the Lord Jesus with all his heart.”
Al-Aethawi asked an American believer named Susan Martin — who graded his online Bible correspondence courses — to pray that God would allow him to live in a place where he could practice his Christian faith freely.
In 2011, he obtained one of the first Iraqi tourist visas to the U.S. in two decades and traveled to see Martin, who lives in the Amish country of Pennsylvania.
Once in America, he applied — and after a lengthy process, received — permanent residency based on his fears of religious persecution in Iraq.
While in Pennsylvania, he met Ivan Martin, a member of the Camp Hill Church of Christ, who invited Al-Aethawi to share his story on a Sunday.
Al-Aethawi so impressed Camp Hill minister Doug Hamilton that Hamilton encouraged the Iraqi native to pursue studies at Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas.
“I told him that he could be a powerful tool in God’s hands if he was properly trained, but he said he could not afford such an opportunity,” Hamilton said. “I said the brethren would love to sponsor a man like him to go to a brotherhood preaching school.”
At Sunset, Al-Aethawi’s Bible knowledge, speaking ability and rare grasp for a foreigner of American culture impressed his teachers and fellow students, President Truitt Adair said.
“I mean, he knows the American idioms,” said Bob Jackson, Sunset’s assistant vice president for advancement. “He knows the cultural cues. Most of our foreign students come here, and they can’t laugh at our jokes. … He just blended right in.”
That’s evident at guest speaking engagements at English-speaking churches, as Al-Aethawi jokes that he enjoys how Americans say the name of his country: “I rock!”
Or he’ll note that people ask him how he got out of Iraq.
It’s pretty simple, he quips: “I ran!”
While at Sunset, Al-Aethawi took an evangelism class taught by Jerry Tallman, author of the book “His Eternal Plan” and a minister with longtime ties to Michigan.
Tallman encouraged Al-Aethawi to consider serving as a missionary to his fellow Arabs in Dearborn. Tallman even bought Al-Aethawi a plane ticket to “spy out the land.”
At first, the idea did not appeal to Al-Aethawi.
“I just escaped from the Muslim world,” he said. “I’m learning what it’s like to be free and safe and without fear for the first time.”
But as he prayed and reflected on God’s calling in his life, he embraced the opportunity to take the Gospel to Arabs in America. He does so with love and respect.
“Muslims have a very strong faith,” he said. “They are very deeply rooted in that faith.”
He asks to hear their faith stories and pays close attention.
But then he suggests — gently — that it’s only fair if they let him share his.
“I would never do anything that offends them,” Al-Aethawi said. “In fact, I love them so much that I preach the Gospel to them, knowing that if they respond to the message I preach to them, I will be stuck with them through all eternity.”
Al-Aethawi’s effort to proselytize in Dearborn is likely to draw responses ranging from ambivalence to antagonism, said Saeed Khan, a Muslim who co-teaches a course on Christian-Muslim interactions at Rochester College, a Detroit-area school associated with Churches of Christ.
“In many ways, the Arab Muslims are not going to be unfamiliar with the strategy or agenda,” Khan said.
But after waiting 12 years to be baptized, Al-Aethawi said he has the patience to win souls to Christ.
A U.S. flag hangs on his living-room wall in a neighborhood where he relishes the sounds of birds chirping and trees whistling instead of bombs exploding.
At times, his emotions overwhelm him as he reflects on his freedom to follow Jesus — and tell others about him.
“Sometimes,” he said, “when I have nightmares or when I first wake up, not knowing where I’m at, thinking that I’m still in Iraq and that somebody will die today like somebody died yesterday and the day before, I look at that flag and then say, ‘Thank God, it’s not going to happen now.’”
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