Christian worship in Arabic at a California church

by Jill Nelson
Posted 10/07/14, 04:35 pm

Editor’s note: So often when churches are in the news it is because of something controversial—such as a scandal or a fight over doctrinal issues. That is not what our Church Life series on The World and Everything in It is about. Instead, we focus on positive things that happen in and through local churches. This series is less about theological emphasis or worship style, than it is about local churches trying to engage their communities and faithfully carry out their ministries.

Anaheim, Calif., is widely known for being the home of Disneyland, but there’s a renewed push to recognize another side to the second largest city in Orange County: an ethnic enclave known as Little Arabia.

This pocket of Arab businesses and Middle Eastern restaurants is one of the largest of its kind in the United States. Pastor Nabil Abraham, who immigrated here from Egypt 40 years ago, moved his church nearby in 2000 and even closer to the center of Little Arabia less than a year ago. Abraham has been the pastor of the Christian Arabic Church of Anaheim since 1989.

California has more Arab-Americans than any other state. “If you take a drive, [there are] Arabic signs all over the place,” Abraham said. “It’s like you’re not in the United States, actually.”

As worship begins on Sunday evening at Abraham’s church, there’s a sense of being transported to the Middle East. The entire non-denominational service is in Arabic. The beauty of the music and the language shine through. A skilled violist and keyboardist play popular Christian songs that worshiper Marsil Isaac recognizes from her childhood in Egypt. 

“To sing the songs in my language too … it touches you because a lot of songs we never sing in the American way,” Isaac said.

Many of the congregants are immigrants who have escaped worsening conditions or religious persecution in the Middle East. Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon are some of the countries represented at this church of more than 300 people. 

One of the challenges the church faces involves meeting the countless needs of the Middle East refugees who show up on its doorstep. Abraham said the numbers have increased since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. Many of the refugees need food, clothing, English lessons, help obtaining a driver’s license, and housing. The church previously had two full-time staff members to address these needs but could no longer afford to pay the salaries.

The Christian Arabic Church meets at Crescent Baptist, a Southern Baptist Church that can host the usual 300 or so regular worshipers. But Abraham said the crowd can swell to about 600 or 700 when the church hosts a guest speaker from the Middle East, and that means some people are forced to stand outside. 

Eventually, Abraham would like the church to have its own building, but for now it is focusing primarily on meeting the immediate needs of those in its neighborhood. And he is excited to see how God is at work in their midst.

“We see God’s fingerprint in what we do … some of the fruits of the ministry that keep you going,” he said.

Listen to Jill Nelson’s report from the Christian Arabic Church of Anaheim on The World and Everything in It:

Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters. Follow her on Twitter @WorldNels.

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