By Olivia Brown
Jack Sara is the President of Bethlehem Bible College. He started as a student at the school in 1991, came back around in a teaching role in 1998 and for the past nine years has been serving as president of the college. Though Sara was handed the school while it was at a high point, since stepping into the role one of his greatest accomplishments has been making the school more global– a mission that has impacted the lives of students in Palestine and beyond.
Bethlehem Bible College was founded in 1979 with the intention to help retain the number of Christian Palestinian students who were interested in studying theology. At the time, many students were leaving Palestine to study abroad and never returning. The number in Palestinian Christians had already been shrinking and with concern that the Christian Palestinian population would diminish altogether, founder Bishara Awad decided to plant an inter-denominational Bible college right in Palestine.
In 2012, Awad himself passed the Baton to Sara and under Sara’s leadership the college has continued to grow and expand. “My vision was really how to make the school more of a global institution rather than just a local institution,” says Sara. He contributes his adaptation of this mentality to several people in his life, including the founder of an organization called GlocalNet, Bob Roberts.
GlocalNet is a non-profit organization dedicated to mobilizing churches to engage society and help to create flourishing communities. Founder Roberts just recently retired as pastor of Northwood Church in Dallas after leading it for 35 years but has also been leading the efforts of GlocalNet for the past twenty years.
“I grew up with an understanding of the great commission. I was taught it as a little boy in church, Sunday school, camp. You name it,” says Roberts. “What I didn’t understand,” Roberts says, “was the world.”
Today Roberts is a trailblazer in the multi-faith, peacemaking and international religious freedom arenas, frequently being called upon by the U.S. Department of State, United Nations, U.S. Islamic World Forum, World Economic Forum, ambassadors, international royal families, diplomats, policy leaders and others for the work that he does. As a matter of fact, he was invited to Palestine by Muslim leaders that he crossed paths with while speaking at the World Economic Forum.
Roberts says that when he first entered Palestine his view was very biased. “All I knew about were the Jews. All I cared about was Israel. I knew virtually nothing about the Palestinians other than that they were against the Jews,” says Roberts. However, Roberts discovered in his first trip that there were tons of Christians in Palestine; that most of the Muslims were not radicals; and lastly that Palestinians were tremendously oppressed.
When Roberts was exposed to these truths, he realized that these were truths that many evangelical Christians, particularly in the States, were not aware of. Further, he realized that if the Palestinian people truly wanted to appeal to evangelical Christians in the States that they would need to change their approach.
The “glocal” message is simply about serving both locally and globally. In 2011 Roberts commissioned the pastor of The Perfecting Church, a church located out of Sewell, NJ, USA and a member of GlocalNet to continue engaging this part of the world by living out and teaching the “glocal” message to leaders like Sara.
“When we go in to do church work, that can sometimes be abrasive,” says Roberts, “but when we go in to serve people in the name of Jesus that’s what Jesus did. He healed people. He fed people. He took care of people. That’s what He told us to do.”
Roberts specifically commissioned the Perfecting Church to engage the Middle East because the church is led by an African American pastor who he was certain would be instrumental in spreading the Palestinian message in the States due to his ability to identify and empathize with their oppression. The Perfecting Church’s relationship with Palestine has been invaluable, as they have visited the land two times a year every year since 2011 and built numerous meaningful relationships like the one had with Sara. These relationships help Palestine and Palestinian Christians, in particular, feel seen and supported.
For Bethlehem Bible College, adapting a “glocal” perspective has meant creating programs that empower others, online programs for those that cannot come to Bethlehem, as well as international internships and service opportunities. “Having wider connections and networks will help any sort of community to continue on,” says Sara.
He now understands that to make the Palestinian people stronger, and especially Palestinian Christians, that they need the help of their global community. “To move the school to become a global ministry, institution and work helps us to become more resilient,” says Sara, “This includes financial support, moral support and spiritual support.”
While Bethlehem Bible College is extending its reach, exposing Palestinian students to the world outside of Palestine and non-Palestinian students to the reality of what the Palestinian church is living through, Sara is also proud to say that the majority of Palestinian graduates are remaining in Palestine after graduating. “I would say it’s no more than 15 percent [that leave],” Sara says.
One of Bethlehem Bible College’s recent graduates Adham Alaraj is now currently pursuing his Master of Divinity at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago Illinois. Alaraj is only 25 but plans to return to Bethlehem to pastor one of Baraka Presbyterian Church’s two locations after he is finished with the three-year program.
“I want to serve my land and my people in Bethlehem,” says Alaraj. He recognizes that many Christians are migrating to other parts of the world and wants to be the next leader to encourage his generation of Christians to stay. “If I don’t serve them as a young person, who will serve them because most of the pastors are getting old,” Alaraj says.
His conviction at such a young age is a testament to the people that have poured into his life along the years, including the staff at Bethlehem Bible College and those that the college is now connected to. Bethlehem Bible College has not only raised up a leader in Alaraj that is willing to remain planted in his home but one that now has the same “glocal” perspective that so heavily impacted Sara.
Just before graduating from Bethlehem Bible College Alaraj completed a ten-month pastoral internship at the United Christian Church of Dubai. He was also connected with the Pastor of The Perfecting Church on one of the church’s regular visits to the Holy Land.
“To see Bethlehem Bible College develop and involve outside of Bethlehem, for example in Saudi Arabia, or Dubai or Jordan, or here and there, it was good for me to meet people outside of my country, to pray together, unite together, to know how they are thinking about me. It’s so good for us to connect with other people and to know what’s outside of our country,” says Alraj.
The impact of GlocalNet on institutions like Bethlehem Bible College and individuals like Alaraj are only the beginning of the movement that leaders like Roberts hope to see for Palestinians, and specifically Christian Palestinians in the Middle East.
When asked what the vision is that Roberts sees for this part of the world, he says, “To see Israelis and Palestinians come to respect one another and acknowledge the other’s humanity; to see the Christian church growing, flourishing and having a global impact; to see the church in this part of the world defining peace-making, peace-keeping; and the fulfillment of the great commandment and the great commission. The great commandment being to love God and love your neighbor and the great commission being to share the good news of Jesus.”