Friday, September 9, 2016

We go on a field trip in Michigan

guests' treats at Arab American Friendship Center, Dearborn, MI

During an English language class a few years ago, a number of the adult Arab students were discussing plans for the upcoming holiday of Eid al-Adha. Dwight Billingsley, the teacher of the class, asked about the holiday.

Students responded that it was a time of feasting, families gathering, and dressing up. (Much as if you asked many Americans about the Fourth of July they would reply it was a time of picnicking, sports, and fireworks.) When Dr. Billingsley pressed on what the day commemorated, some of the men didn’t know. (As many Americans setting out Easter baskets for their kids would draw a blank if asked what the day commemorated besides the Bunny.)

Dr, Billingsley told the students the story of God’s asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. But as Abraham moved to obey God, God provided a ram for the sacrifice instead. One of the students asked the teacher how he knew so much about their religion. Dr. Billingsley replied that the story predated Mohammad, and can be found in the Biblical book of Genesis. (Though in the Bible the son is Isaac, in Muslim tradition the son is Ishmael.)

For the rest of that course, there was as much discussion of religion as there was of language.

But English is the chief course of study at the Arab American Friendship Center. The classes run concurrently with the Dearborn, Michigan, school system, with two 4 ½ month sessions from September and through June and a short summer session. The Center also teaches an American Citizenship preparation course. (The citizenship class has an amazing success rate. Last year all thirty students in the class passed their citizenship exams.)

Mindy and I went to visit the Center in the morning, which proved… a little awkward. We didn’t know that morning was the time for classes for women; that morning they had sign-ups for the women’s English classes. At that time, men aren’t supposed to be in the building. But there I was, a man barging in. Everyone was quite gracious as I was informed of the custom, and we returned during registration for the co-ed English classes the next evening.

The mission statement of the Center is “(To) provide quality educational services for Arab immigrants in a friendly place. We encourage understanding among cultures, and friendship and community among people.”

The Center has another goal, and that is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr. Billingsley is a minister of the Baptist Church, but Center desires to share their faith in a respectful, loving, and gracious manner.

Sadly, there are Christians who don’t take this approach. Until 2012, Dearborn had held Arab festivals, but street preachers came to the festival with pig heads posted on stakes and with threats to burn a Koran. The unrest resulting from these displays caused the city to end the festivals. The Center been a part of these festivals, with a booth promoting their services, but no more.
I asked Dr. Billingsley whether they received help from churches for their work, and he said that some churches just weren’t interested in this kind of work. (An aside, strictly of my own, but I can’t help wondering if the current political situation, with concerns about immigration and terrorism, are keeping some churches from being a part of these worthy works with refugees.) He said that in addition to praying and financial help, churches can aid their ministry by providing teachers. The Center provides free childcare during classes for kids up to the age of 5, so childcare workers are another need.

Dr. Billingsley told told us about how he and his wife Jeanne began their work with Arab peoples. In 1966 they moved to Beirut where they worked with The Baptist Student Center and the Sioufi Baptist Church, but civil war in Lebanon forced them to leave after eleven years of ministry. For many years he served in a Baptist church in St. Louis. Though his primary ministry there was in an English language church, he also established an Arab language ministry. In 2010, Dwight and Jeanne moved to the Detroit-Dearborn area.

In the next year or so, he anticipates another ministry as well: a training center to teach Arabic language and customs to students, ministers, and missionaries studying with institutions such as Baptist Bible College. Through this partnership, students will be able to take courses for credit.

We talked a bit more about the Billingsleys’ years of service in Beirut, but he said, “Here in Dearborn, the mission field is coming to us.” It was good to see Dwight and Jeanne in their work of making friends, and introducing new friends to their Friend, Jesus.