He’s not a guy for small talk.
He is serious and focused, a well-educated civil engineer who, in the midst of a successful career, felt called to ministry. When we met, there was no polite chitchat. His first question was, “How is your ministry going?” His second question was, “What percentage of your congregation actually tithes?”
As I recall, I mumbled a nonanswer. First, I was shocked to be asked that question – especially this early in our relationship. In the second place, I don’t actually know the answer to that question.
That introduction let me know that this relationship with the pastor of the congregation in Baghdad was going to be different than any collegial relationship I’ve ever known. Assis (it’s the term that means “pastor” and is used as a form of address for the pastors in the Iraqi congregations, even amongst themselves) waited a long time to be pastor of this congregation, and now he’s not going to waste any of it. He was in the midst of moving into ministry from engineering and was taking a training course in Australia when the Gulf War broke out. Embassies and consulates were closed, and he spent the next 23 years trying to get back to Iraq.
Assis could easily have stayed in Australia as his daughter did; she lived her whole life there. But he said, “My body was in Australia, but my heart was in Iraq.” Many Christians – probably most Christians – have emigrated from Iraq to safety, but he moved back. He felt called to ministry among his people; and after waiting for 23 years, he’s not going to waste time.
And so he asked questions about my congregation, and about congregations in the U.S. and this area. He described Australian Christians as spoiled and lazy, and my guess is that he feels the same way about us but is too polite to say it. We might have to assess for ourselves whether or not he’s accurate.
For Iraqi Christians, going to a worship service means trying to figure out the safest route through the city that day. Where is trouble anticipated? Any bomb threats? Any streets or parks to avoid? And after you plan your route, you must make accommodations for the time it will take you to get through the checkpoints. There is not a church on every corner, where you can pick and choose. For folks of our denomination, there’s one church in the city of 10 million people. And so people drive a long way to church, and even then, a 40-minute drive can turn into a three-hour one by the time you wait and go through checkpoints.
So how do I explain that in many U.S. congregations, worship attendance is affected by professional sporting events, children’s sporting events, the weather (if it’s a nice day, there are many things clamoring for attention; but if the weather is bad, we don’t like to go out), and so on? And as much as we like to think that we have things competing for our attention and they must just look forward to going to church for a social event, that’s simply not the case. Iraqis have as many things competing for their time as we do, as well as many options for social gatherings.
They simply choose to go to church because that’s a priority. And it’s a priority for which many have given their lives. They simply cannot comprehend our worship attendance patterns.
In the U.S., there are many more people who claim to be members of churches than there are people who are actually members of churches, much less attend worship. I call it “that’s my church that I don’t go to” syndrome. That syndrome doesn’t exist in Iraq.
Likewise, the question about tithing. Iraqis have as many options and pressures in terms of their income as any American does. Yet for Iraqi Christians, tithing (giving 10 percent of your income to the church) is the norm. In the U.S., it’s the rare exception. Assis told me about a family who had just decided to follow the way of Christ, and came in and gave a check for 10 percent of their income to him. That family understood that their sacrifice to the church was a symbol and sign of their commitment. Assis was shocked at my guesstimate about the percentage of tithers in my congregation and in the U.S.
He simply cannot understand the low level of commitment among American Christians, much as he experienced with Australian Christians.
And so my congregation and this Baghdad church enter into a partnership. It will certainly not be a one-way partnership, with U.S. having any sort of superiority over the Iraqi congregation. If anything, possibly it maybe the opposite … that it is we who have so much to learn about making a commitment to our faith.
The Rev. Dr. Joanne Sizoo is pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Fort Mill, near the intersection of Highway 160 and Gold Hill Road. Contact her at email@example.com.