Seattle’s First Free Methodist Church is celebrating the many ways in which God has grown the church community this year through ministry to and with Iranian refugees.
On Feb. 3, many Iranian Christians led the congregation in a worship song, and Brother Hamed shared his story of fleeing from Iran under the threat of persecution. As Hamed shared, he thanked the church for the many ways people had helped him and his family find a home in Seattle. He quoted Matthew 25:35 in first person: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” The congregation’s faith was built up as he brought the words of the gospel to life. Regardless of the political opposition to Iranian refugees, we continued to serve faithfully as God had led us to do. We welcomed strangers and worshipped God together as one intergenerational, multiethnic, multilingual faith family.
This journey of ministry to and with Iranian refugees started two years earlier with Pastor Sepehr Nafezi’s arrival to Seattle. Sepehr is an Iranian refugee who converted from Islam to Christianity while still in Iran. Under Iran’s laws, many religious freedoms such as Christian evangelism or church planting are forbidden. Eventually, Sepehr’s passion to share Christ and plant churches led him and his family to flee Iran under threat of persecution. His refugee journey led him through Turkey to Portland and finally Seattle. Here, he connected with former Lead Pastor Blake Wood who had spent 10 years in ministry with Impact Middle East (IME), the agency that represents the FMC mission in the Middle East and North Africa. During his time with IME, Blake laid the groundwork for a house church ministry in several countries. He welcomed brother Sepehr and his family into our church community. They joined us in worship and joined us in our existing ministries seeking to share the gospel with Muslims in Seattle.
Within a year, Sepehr was hired as a staff pastor through the partnership of First Free Methodist Church, the Pacific Northwest Conference and IME. Under Sepehr’s leadership, small Farsi-language worship gatherings grew to larger gatherings. Iranian immigrants and refugees of many religions came — including Christians, Muslims and Baha’i. As of this winter, 60 Iranians in the Puget Sound area are being discipled in Christian faith, and 10 are being trained for church leadership.
In the fall, Pastor Sepehr received word from an Iranian friend still in Turkey, Hamed, who asked if Sepehr could sponsor him and his family to come to the United States. People within the church community quickly worked to arrange everything from temporary housing, meals and furnishings to remodeling a church-owned home to provide temporary housing for them. People within the larger Seattle community also responded. Financial gifts and donations from strangers came in. It became a tipping point for the congregation. For many months, we had been talking about welcoming refugees, but the arrival of Hamed’s family created many tangible, accessible ways for people and groups to respond.
Pastor Blake describes what has happened as a “kairos” (opportune) moment. He says, people in this moment are “faithfully participating in what God is doing.” He points toward Luke 10:5–6, saying that the ministry is growing because God brought the person of peace to the Iranian community in Pastor Sepehr. It’s taken time, but momentum has been building. It started as a conversation with Pastors Sepehr and Blake over lunch. It’s grown to 175 people who responded to the refugee crisis by staying after church for a potluck dinner to eat with and hear stories from our Iranian brothers and sisters.
Another fruit of life together is visible in the shared experiences in Sunday worship. Sepehr and Hamed shared their testimonies. The community now meets in small groups at First FMC in Seattle, Light & Life Christian Fellowship in Tacoma and through the newly planted All Nations Free Methodist Church in Kent. Seven Iranians have been baptized, 23 Iranian Christians have become church members, and one family within Iran has converted through online ministry via YouTube and Skype. During Advent, the Seattle First Church congregation worshipped in a song of Salaam, or Peace, together:
Your peace within us, Lord, will stand,
Surpassing all we understand.
Even when fears surround our land
You fill our lives with peace.
The peace of God to every race.
The peace of God in every place.
Lydia Chaffee, a senior music education major at Seattle Pacific University, served this year in worship ministries at the All Nations church plant in Kent. She says that observing our Iranian brothers and sisters worshipping in their native Farsi language impacted her own worship: “[The Iranians’] passionate prayer and singing as a community revealed how I am often lazy, half-hearted and lukewarm in my worship and prayer life. Seeing them kindled a desire to worship God with my whole being again.”
Our worship time and the shared meals have become meaningful points of connection between people of very different cultures. Sometimes God’s love is shown when a refugee who wants to lead worship and lacks a guitar sits down to talk with a person who has a guitar to give. Another time, God’s love is seen when a new refugee family generously tithes to their new church from their first $200 gift. Other times, it’s seen through 100 other actions and donations that people perform quietly, behind the scenes, with only our heavenly Lord bearing witness to their generosity.
Loving God through loving a stranger must be an embodied action. It requires tangible expression of extending hospitality and care. Through this, we show love for the very God we worship. As Pastor Sepehr says, in the midst of our cross-cultural and language barriers that might hold us back, “Love is the same. The Iranian people understand love.”4