When Shady Bishay, a sales executive for a Boston high-tech firm and a native of Egypt, tells American friends he belongs to Arabic Evangelical Baptist Church in West Roxbury, Mass., the information often doesn’t compute.
“The first thing is that they are shocked that I’m a Christian,” said Bishay, who lives in Foxborough with his wife, a native of Palestine. “They have trouble understanding. It’s definitely not the norm.”
Much has been written and said in this country in recent years about Arabs and about evangelical Christians, but rarely in the same sentence.
Yet in one of the most prominent locations in West Roxbury – on Spring Street across from the Veterans Administration Hospital and next to the local Elks lodge – is the Arabic Evangelical Baptist Church, a large modern building with a faux lighthouse, an attached gymnasium, meeting rooms, television studio and underground parking area.
The Arabic Evangelical Baptist Church of West Roxbury, with a congregation of around 200, is the largest church of its kind in the Northeast, according to its leaders. It belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention, and it shares the beliefs and practices of the megachurches that are so influential in other parts of the United States.
“We are evangelical Baptists,” said its pastor, Khaled B. Ghobrial. “We understand we are a minority of a minority, but we are reaching out.”
Services in the church are conducted in Arabic, and most parishioners are first-generation immigrants from primarily Islamic countries of the Middle East and North Africa. They travel to the church from across greater Boston, although the bulk of the congregation is drawn from the significant Arabic population in West Roxbury, Dedham and nearby communities.
The church’s reach extends far beyond Massachusetts, however. The weekly services are recorded and turned into video programs distributed to cable stations across North America and beamed by satellite to the Middle East.
Ghobrial, a native of Egypt who came to Boston to head the church six years ago, said he finds it remarkable he is able to deliver his message to such a far-flung audience. In his home country and in many of the predominantly Muslim countries, Christians are afraid to express their faith openly, he said.
“Actually God is opening the windows. Especially in the Middle East and North Africa, we never thought we could get our message into people’s homes,” Ghobrial said.
In the Middle East, the largest Christian group is the Coptic Church, followed by Catholics and evangelical Christians.
The West Roxbury church opened in 2006 on the site of an old lumberyard and warehouse. Founded in the early 1970s, the congregation met for many years in rented space at the Emmanuel Episcopal Church in West Roxbury. Since opening the new building, the church has stepped up its outreach programs, offering day care and language classes in Arabic and English that are open to the public.
The church also has opened its space to community groups, including Irish step-dancing classes.
“We have two symbols that summarize our vision: a lighthouse and a bridge,” Ghobrial said.
The lighthouse on top of the building shines brightly at night, although its light does not rotate like those on the coast. A painting of a bridge hangs in the church’s lobby. The main sanctuary has seating for about 400. At the front and to the side is a baptismal pool. During services, music is provided by a band with drums, keyboard, electric guitar and other instruments.
“We are trying to be as wide as possible in our worship style,” Ghobrial said. “We have a multigenerational congregation.”
While most programs are in Arabic, offerings for youth, who are typically second-generation immigrants, are in English.
Jimmy Kamel, 22, a research assistant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was born in the United States and has been a member of the church all his life. A Dedham resident, his mother is Syrian and his father is Egyptian.
“My lifelong friends are from the church,” said Kamel. “The people there have been my core.”
Like evangelicals elsewhere, the members of the Arabic Evangelical Baptist Church take their message beyond the walls of their church.
In the summer, about 15 or 20 church members go out about once a month to spread the Gospel.
“We go out in the streets,” said Ghobrial. “Downtown Crossing, Harvard Square, Revere Beach. We go to worship, to sing, to have free literature, to present the Gospel to all the Arabs, Christians and Muslims. We invite them to have a dialogue with us.”
In these places, the proportion of passersby who speak Arabic is small, but in the course of a day, a few might appear.
“If you meet two, three Arabs throughout the day who are interested to listen and to talk and to ask questions, this is a big catch,” Ghobrial said.
The church is growing, according to its pastor, but he has no illusions of its joining the ranks of the evangelical churches of the American South.
“Is the church growing? Yes. Is it growing like a megachurch? No. We’re not within the Bible Belt. We’re in New England.”
Robert Preer is a correspondent for the Boston Globe, where this article first appeared. Copyright 2008, SBC, Baptist Press, www.BPNews.net.