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.