Former Muslim has a great sense of humor — and a passion for reaching lost souls

By Bobby Ross Jr.

Wissam Al-Aethawi is the funniest Iraqi refugee I know.

Actually, he’s the only Iraqi refugee I know. Still, he’s the funniest. Trust me on this.

For example, he makes jokes such as: “What is the favorite music band in Iraq?” Answer: “New Kids on What Used to Be the Block.”

When people ask Al-Aethawi how he got out of Iraq, he’ll joke that it’s pretty simple: “I ran!” (Get it?)

But his wonderful sense of humor is only the second-best thing about my good friend and Christian brother: First is his devotion to God and spreading the good news of Jesus.

Al-Aethawi, 37, was born in Baghdad and grew up in a Muslim family. He came to the United States in 2011 seeking asylum because of his conversion to Christianity. He finished his studies at Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas, in 2013 and works full time sharing the Gospel with the heavily Arab community of Dearborn, Michigan.

He’ll speak at the Edmond Church of Christ on Sunday, Oct. 2, on “From Islam to Christianity: A Journey of Faith.”

“In my visit, I hope to educate Christians about the Islamic religion, help develop a healthier attitude toward the Muslim people and promote my Arab Christian ministry,” said Al-Aethawi, who also will speak at the Oklahoma Christian University Lectureship on Monday, Oct. 3.

I was blessed to get to know Al-Aethawi last year when I traveled to the Detroit area to profile him for The Christian Chronicle. Former Edmond outreach minister David Duncan, who now preaches for the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston, had connected with Al-Aethawi and recommended a story.

Later, I introduced my Arab missionary friend to IHOP. That acronym stands for International House of Pancakes, as you probably know, but please don’t tell Al-Aethawi that. I convinced him it was the Iraqi House of Pancakes.

In all seriousness, the one-time Iraqi soldier and engineer believes God led him to Dearborn, Michigan — the epicenter of Arab life in America and the home of the largest mosque in North America — to share the hope he found in Jesus.

This former Muslim’s dream: to establish an Arabic-speaking Church of Christ in Dearborn.

“Wissam has a heart for Muslims, knows their culture and is actively trying to find ways to reach them with the good news of Jesus in a way that only someone on the inside can,” said Roger Woods, minister and elder for the Detroit-area Walled Lake Church of Christ.

Each Tuesday finds Al-Aethawi working with Arab immigrants at the Angel House, a Dearborn nonprofit that helps meet families’ social, vocational and spiritual needs.

“The main way to preach the Gospel to the Arabs here is to teach them English because, unlike the Spanish-speaking people, Arabs cannot survive if they don’t know English,” said Al-Aethawi, who learned English from formal studies as well as American books and movies in his native Baghdad.

Using passages from the New Testament, Al-Aethawi teaches English to students such as Aziz Awadh, a 32-year-old Muslim father of two from Yemen.

“Wissam is a really well-liked man and does a really good job,” Awadh, who works in a pizza restaurant, said in his limited English. “He’s more than wonderful.”

In his home country, Al-Aethawi waited 12 years to find someone to baptize him. So he said he has the patience to win souls to Christ.

A U.S. flag hangs on his living-room wall in a neighborhood where he relishes the sounds of birds chirping and trees whistling instead of bombs exploding.

At times, his emotions overwhelm him as he reflects on his freedom to follow Jesus — and tell others about him.

“Sometimes,” he said, “when I have nightmares or when I first wake up, not knowing where I’m at, thinking that I’m still in Iraq and that somebody will die today like somebody died yesterday and the day before, I look at that flag and then say, ‘Thank God, it’s not going to happen now.’

In his adopted country, Al-Aethawi’s travels and speaking engagements have taken him to 20 states. However, this will be his first trip to Oklahoma.

“I honestly used to confuse Oklahoma with Yokohama,” he said, referring to the second-largest city in Japan. “I can't think of any distinguishing feature other than the buffalo. Can you imagine I have still not seen one?”

By the way, Al-Aethawi is single and open to finding a Christian wife. “At 37, I have made every compromise I could make,” he told me, “so I practically don't have any requirement for my potential significant other.”

There’s that wonderful sense of humor again.

Miles apart, but always at 'home' with the Lord's people

Edmond sends group to encourage church in Montreal


By Josh Watson

    Montreal, Quebec, is roughly 1,600 miles from Oklahoma City.

    But for a small group of Edmond Church of Christ members who recently traveled to the French Canadian city, it’s “home.”

    For 30 years, the Edmond congregation has supported Roger Saumur and his family as he ministers to the Ville-Emard Church of Christ. During the recent trip, a Ville-Emard member battling brain cancer surprised the Edmond group with a grapefruit cake that had “Welcome Home” written on it.

    “She wanted us to know that anytime we visit that church, we are home with fellow Christians,” said Bev Pearman, an Edmond member who traveled to Montreal to encourage the members there.

    Building up through fellowship was exactly the goal of the Edmond group. Rather than engaging in a traditional evangelistic campaign, the group sought to remind the Montreal Christians that they are not alone.

    “It was so great for our members to fellowship with those from Edmond,” Roger Saumur said. “Sometimes visiting and getting to know other Christians is more beneficial than a campaign to strangers.”

    Mike Cain, an Edmond elder who traveled with the group to Montreal, gave a communion talk while there and sought to build up the local church.

    “Being a small group in a big, metropolitan area, the members can feel isolated,” Cain said. “Visiting with our group was a huge encouragement and a reminder that they are not alone. One member mentioned to me that they are few among many in Montreal. I wanted them to know that there is a ripple effect around the world every Sunday during the Lord’s Supper. It is one of the most significant acts of fellowship that goes beyond the walls of a church building.”

    While in Montreal, the Edmond group prepared and served a fellowship meal that was planned by Pearman. That experience strengthened her belief in the work in Montreal.

    “It is so important for us to support this great church,” Pearman said. “At the meal, you could just see how sharing the church is. They are all like family and doing a great job living like brothers and sisters.”

    Pearman also noted the diverse nature of the church in Montreal.

    “Members are from so many different countries: China, the Congo, Albania, Mexico and Spain, just to name a few,” she said. “There was a recent baptism of a lady there, and she converted her daughter soon after.”

    According to Neil Ferguson, an Edmond deacon who helps guide mission projects, the Montreal church’s friendliness is an extension of the group’s diversity.

    “The church is a true melting pot with about every third member speaking a different native language,” Ferguson said. “Since nearly every member is not native to Montreal, they are incredibly friendly and welcoming to visitors. The Ville-Emard church is family for people as they are often away from their earthly family.”

    That friendliness is also exhibited in the Saumur family. Roger and Diane have helped convert hundreds to Christ in Canada. Roger came to Christ in 1986 after watching and seeking out a local minister whose television program, “Bible Talk,” was sponsored by Edmond. Roger quickly decided to become a preacher and baptized more than 50 people in his first year. Edmond has supported him ever since.

    One of the best lessons that the Saumurs have taught in Montreal is how to live as Christian examples. Many people in Montreal identify as nonpracticing Catholics who do not feel a need to make changes in their lives. Others have been so hurt by the Catholic Church that they are turned off to religion entirely.

    “I can show what Christianity looks like here in Quebec by living as a Christian, being faithful to my wife and raising godly children,” Roger Saumur said. “Many here really don’t have an example of true Christianity.”

    Roger and Diane’s daughters are vital members of the church in Montreal, too. Next year, Myriam, 19, and Lydia, 17, are starting university and college, respectively. Lydia’s church influence has led her to study languages, and she serves as a translator for the church.

    According to Cain, God has uniquely equipped the Saumur family for the work in Montreal.

    “Roger and Diane are a great example of the kind of people in Quebec who are looking for the truth,” Cain said. “It is important to support the church there for others who are searching God’s word. The Ville-Emard church is more stable today than ever before, but the members appreciate encouragement, too.”

In Poncha Springs, CO, VBS changes a young woman’s life

Six years ago, a Colorado teen first connected with the Edmond Youth Group. The relationships she formed would lead her to give her life to Jesus.

By Bobby Ross Jr.

Each summer, the Edmond Youth Group (EYG) lets its light shine in a Colorado mountain community more than 600 miles from home.

Why do teens and adult sponsors from our congregation pack into white vans and drive all the way to Poncha Springs?

They go to host a Vacation Bible School for children eager to learn more about Jesus.

They go to make a difference in the lives of young people like Micaela Lowe.

“I met the Edmond Youth Group six years ago after my mom had encouraged me and my siblings to attend their VBS held in Poncha Springs,” said Micaela, who was 14 at the time and joined by her younger brother, Nate, and sister, Olivia. “On the first day, we immediately hit it off with several of the teens in their youth group. We had so much fun that we decided to go the whole week.”

Friendships blossomed, and the Lowe kids couldn’t wait to return to VBS the next year — and the year after that.

“This is a time when our teens shine,” youth minister Jeremy Robertson said. “They lead and serve in every capacity, as they prepare their classes, decorate the church building and, most importantly, touch the hearts of many kids.”

Kids like Micaela.

“The people from Edmond were so joyful and kind,” said Micaela, now 20 and a nursing student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “They were always greeting us with big smiles, and they made us feel welcome and (like we) belonged. People like Maryn Kingsley and Casey Farrar were just such real and authentic people. The EYG showed me how to love Jesus and have fun along the way.”

Poncha Springs is not a place where church is a high priority, youth ministry deacon Darren Adams said.

“You live in the mountains, and you’re getting up Sunday morning and riding your bicycles or climbing a mountain,” Darren said. “Church is the furthest thing from your mind.”

But the EYG is helping change that. The mission effort has resulted in at least nine or 10 baptisms, Darren said.

Via text messages and Facebook, Micaela and her siblings stayed in touch with their Edmond friends all year long.

Over Thanksgiving break of her senior year of high school, Micaela flew to Oklahoma to visit with the Kingsley family — Geoff, Rhonda, Maryn, Caleb and Asa — all of whom had participated in the Poncha Springs mission trip year after year.

This past December, Micaela returned to Oklahoma for the wedding of Maryn (now Thompson), who is about to graduate from Harding University in Searcy, Ark. While here, Micaela asked Darren — whose entire family also has made the Poncha Springs trip several times — to baptize her.

“What’s a better feeling than that — somebody asking you to baptize them?” he said. “It’s pretty awesome.”

“Amazing,” Rhonda Kingsley said of Micaela’s decision to give her life to God.

“I wanted to be freed and forgiven from all of my sins and be included in His Kingdom,” Micaela said. Maryn was so happy to hear the news.”

Darren immersed Micaela and welcomed her to the body of Christ on Dec. 28, 2015.

A big group of EYG teens — many of whom will travel to Poncha Springs again this summer — came to celebrate the spiritual milestone that night.

It’s a night that would not have been possible without the entire church’s support of missions, which is funded through our Commission Sunday contributions.

“Financial times are hard, and that helped us go,” Darren — whose wife Nicole and daughters Mariah and Paige all traveled to Poncha Springs six years in a row — said of Edmond making mission trips affordable. “We couldn’t do it without the funds the church gives.”

Rhonda Kingsley agreed.

“It is expensive to go on mission trips,” Rhonda said. “When the church started paying for more of it, it became more reachable.”

Because of Edmond’s commitment to missions, Micaela’s life won’t ever be the same. She now belongs to Christ.

“It was the best decision I could ever make,” she said of her baptism. “I felt so humbled that members from the EYG group put a pause on their daily lives that night to come and support me. I also will never be able to thank Darren Adams enough for baptizing me that night. I was so humbled by everyone's support, and I will never forget that night.”

Marriage mentoring helps strengthen Edmond church members’ relationships

By Bobby Ross, deacon

For Paul and Bonnie Howard, the need for “marriage mentoring” became clear years ago when they lived in Oregon.

This realization struck as they watched friends in their home congregation divorce.

“It was born out of the frustration of friends getting divorced,” Bonnie Howard said of the couple’s passion for helping strengthen fellow Christians’ marital relationships. “We had no idea there were any marital problems at all.”

Until it was too late.

After moving to Oklahoma, the Howards helped develop the Edmond church’s “marriage mentoring” program — matching older couples with younger couples who get together at least once a month for food, fellowship and frank conversations.

Paul and Bonnie oversaw the ministry from its formation in the fall of 2010 until just recently, when they handed the reins to Neil and Jeny Roberts and Jay and Holly Parks.

“It kind of runs under the radar,” preaching minister Randy Roper said of the ministry, “but it is a great blessing to many couples.”

Matt and Carly Batchelder had been married just a few months when they signed up to be mentored by older couples in 2010.

“At the time, we were part of the Honeymooners Bible class, which placed a special emphasis on building strong marriage foundations,” Matt said. “Marriage mentoring was a natural extension of the focus we had in the class. It provided the opportunity to not only share with couples our age, but also with couples that have been married 20-plus years.”

Above all, the ministry provides the encouragement to keep the marriage relationship a high priority, Matt said.

“Rarely would a spouse consciously make the choice to put his or her marriage on the back burner,” he explained. “However, when the demands of life start to pressure us, it’s easy to get distracted.”

Edmond elder Mike Cain and Helen, his wife of almost 36 years, have mentored seven couples.

“We welcomed the opportunity to bond with and serve younger Christian couples,” Mike said. “We have rarely missed a month where our group has been together — which is quite an accomplishment given the size of our group. We always pray for all marriages and families. The most important benefit has been the friendships that we’ve developed.”

The Cains’ group includes one other older couple and five younger couples with a total of six children.

“Everyone has someone else in the group with whom they share an interest,” Mike said. “Our time together is relaxed and enjoyable and always includes a meal. We plan the next event every time we meet.”

He and Helen hope that their relationship with the younger couples “makes us more approachable in times of need.”

“Our first young couple stayed with us for a couple of weeks when between homes,” Mike said. “We have been able to watch children so couples could have a night out. We have been there when some have needed to talk. While our goal is to serve, 

Helen and I always enjoy the time together and cherish the friendships we’ve developed.”

As Paul Howard points out, “There’s something powerful about five (or more) couples getting together and investing in each other’s marriages.”

Matt Batchelder said he’d definitely recommend marriage mentoring.

But he cautions that “you’ll get out what you put in.”

“The mentor meetings are just the start,” he said. “The conversations with your spouse between the meetings are where the real growth occurs. We’ve formed deep, lasting relationships with people we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

And the Batchelders’ 1-year-old son, Myles, “has a few more sets of adopted grandparents and aunts/uncles!”

Edmond-supported missionaries open

their hearts and share God’s love in Utah

John and Jill Schadegg and their six children inspire fellow Christians as they labor in a domestic mission field

By Bobby Ross, deacon

LOGAN, Utah — At night, an opulent Mormon temple built in the late 1800s lights up the mountain-adorned skyline.

In this predominantly Mormon community 85 miles north of Salt Lake City, domestic missionaries John and Jill Schadegg serve a small-but-growing Church of Christ.

The Edmond church helps support the Schadeggs, who were baptized through a Wyoming campus ministry in the early 1990s and have six children: Silas, 19; Rylan, 16; Simeon, 15; Sydney Joy, 13; Titus, 11; and Joshua, 9.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever grow to be a self-supporting congregation, honestly, because of the demographic,” John Schadegg said. “It’s such a high Mormon population. But it’s a mission field.”

With typical Sunday attendance of 1,200, the Edmond church boasts more men, women and children in its pews than all the Churches of Christ in Utah combined.

Adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — known as Mormons — comprise roughly 60 percent of Utah’s 2.9 million total residents.

A decade ago, the Logan church had just a handful of active members, including Tony and Tanya Pirtle.

“Tony would preach, do the Lord’s Supper, lead singing and baptize people,” Tanya Pirtle said of her husband, who recruited the Schadeggs.

In recent years, the church has grown to an average Sunday attendance of 60 to 75 — in part because of a focus on campus ministry at nearby Utah State University.

This past summer, 31 people from the Edmond church — ranging in age from 3 to 75 — made a 1,200-mile journey to offer sweat and spiritual support to the Logan congregation. 

For nearly a week, the short-term missionaries from Edmond worked alongside their Utah brothers and sisters to renovate the Logan church’s auditorium, refurbish its classroom floors and reinvigorate its flower garden.

Edmond deacon Caleb Dacus and his wife, Deidra, organized the inaugural mission trip to Utah. 

The Dacuses came to know the Schadeggs through both families’ involvement with the Wyoming Bible Camp — the state where Caleb grew up before leaving to attend Oklahoma Christian University.

“What makes the Schadeggs special to me is that they spend their time, money and energy serving others. Always,” Deidra Dacus said. “And it’s very clear that they love people deeply — old friends and new friends.”

David Griffin is one of those “new friends.” 

The 24-year-old Edmond member took a week off from his engineering job to go on the mission trip — and came away highly impressed with the Schadeggs.

“John and Jill have instilled a love for God in all their kids,” Griffin said. “It’s evident after spending time with any of their kids. The family is very mission-minded toward their friends and neighbors. They are always looking for people and opportunities to share God’s love and His wonderful message.”

Edmond member Jen Foster, who made the trip with her husband, Josh, and their four young children, agreed: “The Schadeggs are special in the way that they give their hearts to whoever needs them. They — children included — open their family to minister whenever a need arises.”

John Schadegg said his philosophy of ministry has stayed the same since he became a Christian more than 20 years ago.

“That is, to help people understand the Gospel and help people to learn about the grace of God and help them develop to a point where they can also go out and share the Gospel with others,” he said.

People in Utah are more than willing to talk about God and engage in spiritual conversations, John Schadegg said.

The challenge is that many of the Mormons he encounters believe they have “the whole truth” already.

In their view, he explained, “everybody else that is a good person will still go to whatever level of heaven. So they’re not really as concerned about converting you. But when you start talking to them (about doctrinal matters), there are a lot of people who get uncomfortable or are like, ‘Oh, well, you know we’re OK, and we don’t need to get into all those details.’”

However, ministering to disgruntled Mormons or non-Mormon students at Utah State offers plenty of opportunities for sharing the Gospel, he said.

The Logan church’s third annual youth challenge event is scheduled for Nov. 7-9, with the theme “Defending the Faith.”

“We look forward to another great weekend challenging our youth to grow in their faith,” John Schadegg said, noting that a teen invited to church by a friend was baptized in late July and has started bringing his sister to worship with him.

Jill Schadegg, meanwhile, voiced her appreciation for Edmond members’ willingness to travel so far to encourage the missionaries and the entire Logan congregation.

“We have one high school girl — we’re talking 1,400 kids at her high school — and she is the only Christian in her entire school,” Jill Schadegg said. “When you all come up and she gets to meet other teens that are Christians, it’s huge.

“As far as the adults, a lot of these adults are the only ones in their workplace that are not LDS (Latter-day Saints),” she added. “For you all to come up and edify us and support us, it is huge, and we are so deeply appreciative.”

The Edmond church works to show its love for the Schadeggs and the Logan congregation throughout the year — from children sending colored pictures with their favorite Bible verses to members such as Deidra Dacus and Jen Foster flying to Utah recently to attend Logan’s annual women’s retreat.

In recent months, Jill Schadegg has experienced health problems, and Edmond members have offered both prayers and financial assistance to the family.

“I really don’t know how you all could encourage us more or be more involved in the work,” Jill Schadegg said. “What you’re doing now is super.” 

Edmond Church practices 'pure religion' by reaching out to the less fortunate  

By Bobby Ross Jr.

    Growing up in the small farming community of Lockney, Texas, Jana Miller — Edmond’s newest missionary — learned to love her neighbor.

    Really love her neighbor.

    “No one ever said, ‘This is how you love your neighbor.’ They just lived it,” said Miller, 28, an Oklahoma Christian University graduate who recently moved to Zambia to work full time with The Haven, which provides temporary, home-based care for orphans.

    Miller attended the Edmond Church of Christ for 10 years — first as an Oklahoma Christian student and later as a faithful member of the Pathfinders class. She regularly joined the campus ministry’s spring break mission trips to the small mountain village of Aquiles, Mexico. 

    For a young woman from rural Texas, those trips helped nurture a love for mission work.

    “I still vividly recall the first time I worshiped in Aquiles and fully realized what it was like to be a part of the global community worshiping the same God on the same day and how powerful that was,” Miller said. “It doesn’t look the same or sound the same, but we’re all serving and praising the same God.”

‘The Holy Spirit kept whispering’

    Five years ago, two of Miller’s best friends decided to serve at The Haven. She instantly decided to go, too, and ended up spending nine months at the Namwianga Mission, which includes The Haven. 

    After that, Miller traveled to Zambia three more times and began to dream — and pray — about what it would be like to live there.

    “There were many times when I would try to push those thoughts away and label them ‘crazy,’” she said. “But the Holy Spirit kept whispering to me in those moments, reminding me of the ways God was working through The Haven and the ways he could work through me if I let him. The door in Zambia stayed open for the past several years, which doesn’t happen very often in life.

    “Luke 12 says, ‘From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.’ Sometimes, that means you end up on a different path than the one you imagined. But if you are stepping out in faith, the Lord can take away your fears and use whatever you are giving him.”

Almost all of the children served by The Haven are under age 4. Most end up at the home because their mother has died, and other family members are unable to care for an infant at that time. The Haven arranges to care for the children during the years they are most vulnerable, with a goal of reuniting them with extended family.

    “Families are encouraged to visit as often as possible, and our end goal is for our kids to have a home with family in their village,” Miller said. “The Haven is Zambian run and could not happen without the love and work of 45 women who work as Aunties, providing day-to-day care.”

‘Pure religion’

    James 1:27 says: “Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted in the world.”

    Providing financial and spiritual support for Jana Miller’s mission work in Zambia is just one way that the Edmond church heeds God’s call to serve the marginalized and vulnerable, specifically orphans, preaching minister Randy Roper explained.

    Other examples include the congregation’s annual mission trip and ongoing support for Hope for Haiti’s Children and its assistance with Jochebed’s Choice Home in Indonesia.

    “All provide global opportunities for us to practice pure religion while reaching children in desperate need,” Roper said. “God uses our efforts — through going and giving — to help children have a safe and nurturing place to grow up and to grow in faith.”

‘More blessed to give than receive’

    In Haiti, short-term missionaries from Edmond stay at an orphanage in Thomazeau.

    “A big part of how we serve the orphans there is simply by interacting with them,” Edmond member Brian Eastman said. “They don’t get a whole lot of individual attention. 

    “For those of us who have been to Thomazeau multiple times, it has been such a treat to come back and feel like they remember us, but also to see how much they have grown and learned since we saw them last.”

    Besides the one-on-one interaction, the Haiti mission teams conduct Vacation Bible Schools at two orphanages serving 90 children and donate sweat to improve the living conditions at Thomazeau. 

In the past, the group has purchased new mattresses for the children and a new freezer for the kitchen.

    “I believe it is a very important mission for us as Christians to help orphans,” Eastman said. “As Christians, we are told to look after the orphans and to defend them. Our theme verse for our trip this year is Acts 20:35, which stresses that we must work hard to help the weak and that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

‘A real picture of what Christ does’

    Back in Zambia, Miller said she sees her efforts as “a beautiful and real picture of what Christ does for us.”

    “He guides us through the difficult times with the promise to make us whole and provide his children a place to thrive in our church family,” she said. “There isn’t a child that comes through The Haven that doesn’t learn that God made them and loves them and can provide for them. 

    “As they go back with their families, they are given a Bible, and we talk with the families and pray with them. Anytime someone asks why we are helping, the answer is always, ‘Because we love Jesus, and he calls us to help.’”