On May 6, 2012, two Palestinian Christian hymns had their world premiers during the Sunday morning worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. Both were commissioned by two Westminster members to celebrate the church’s partnership with Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church of Bethlehem, Palestine.
The music for these hymns was written by Palestinian musicians Marwan Abado, Naser Musa and Georges Lammam. They along with three others (Antoine Lammam, Miles Jay and Tim O’Keefe) constitute the Georges Lammam Ensemble who were present and played and sung the hymns and other Middle Eastern music during the service. The lyrics for both were written by Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, the Pastor of the Christmas Church.
The first hymn, Ahar (We Are Free), had three verses and refrain that were a Christian response to the realities of the contemporary Middle East. The hymn’s lyrics in Arabic were on the cover of the church bulletin for the service shown at the right. The verses were sung in Arabic by the Ensemble to their own accompaniment on Middle Eastern instruments. The refrain was sung in English by the congregation:
- “We’re free, unbound from slavery.
- We’re free, in our humanity.
- As dark as it may seem, we’ll work toward the dream until we see the beam, the light of liberty.
- We’re free. We’re free. We’re free.”
The lyrics for the other hymn, Ghanu Lil Hayat (A Hymn for Life) had a message of resurrection to be sung in the Easter season. Its two verses were sung in Arabic by the Palestinian musicians with their own accompaniment, and the congregation repeated the first verse in Arabic:
- Lai sa ho wa ha hou naa ha hou naa
- Kuf fu a’n nii bu kaa caa ma naa buu ha y aat
- “In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found [Jesus], they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”
This passage, Raheb said, was a short summary of Jesus’ political program. In the context of His having been born, raised and lived under Roman occupation and having been oppressed day and night, He was faced with the question, how can His people be liberated?
To answer this question, Raheb continued, Jesus chose not to go to Rome, the capitol of the occupying power, to demand that the people be liberated. Nor did He have any desire to be a king or religious leader or the founder of a political party. Jesus had a different concept of liberation. Instead He chose to go on a village tour to preach, teach and heal the people who were marginalized, who were not in control of their lives. Jesus told them that their liberation starts in the mind and in the heart and that they–the outsiders– were being called to be His ambassadors for the Kingdom of God. We are free!
The service was attended by a local Islamic imam and was live-streamed to the Internet and watched by members of Christmas Church in Bethlehem and by Christians in Europe. It is now archived and can be watched by anyone. It was the concluding event in Westminster’s Palestinian Arts Festival.
In my opinion, this worship service was one of the most meaningful in Westminster’s recent history. It fully integrated the mission of our global partnerships with our worship service. It emphasized that God speaks and acts in different ways, in different times and in different places. We in the United States do not have a monopoly on understanding God and Jesus. The Bible was not written in English in 21st century U.S.A. We can gain additional perspectives on God and Jesus from symbolically standing in the shoes of our brothers and sisters in different places and circumstances. Jesus lived and worked in an era of occupation.