Jack Sara … from Prison to Pastor, by Julia Fisher
I first met Jack Sara ten years ago in 1999, a year before he became pastor of the Alliance Church in the Old City of Jerusalem. We lost contact until a chance meeting in a coffee shop in Bethlehem last year. Then there wasn’t time to talk; Jack was leading a tutorial with a group of students and I was leading a tour! But we agreed to meet at the earliest opportunity which happened to be earlier this year in Jerusalem when I went to his church one Sunday morning.
It was raining hard and the streets in the Old City were like rivers. But the church was full. And the majority of the congregation were young people. They sang and prayed with enthusiasm and a zeal that I now regularly see throughout Israel. They were calling on God to heal the hurts in the land; asking Him to help them live as salt and light in their fractured city of Jerusalem.
A few weeks later I was back in Jerusalem, and had the opportunity to share breakfast and talk to Jack about the past ten years. He arrived on a motor bike. ‘It’s the quickest way to get around Jerusalem!’ he said.
As we talked, I remembered our conversation of ten years ago when Jack told me the story of his early life. To say he has been on a journey is an understatement. That he is the pastor of a church is remarkable because his life could have gone in quite a different direction.
He was born into an orthodox Catholic family in the Old City and went to the Lutheran School there. In 1988 when he was just thirteen years old, he was picked up by the Israeli police.
“I was walking to a shop to buy something for the house and suddenly I was picked up by Israeli soldiers. They took me to the police station, beat me up and accused me of throwing stones even though I didn’t do it. A little while later, it happened again and that time I spent the night in a police cell.”
This started to shape Jack’s thinking.
“Because they did this to me, I found myself wanting revenge. I joined the Palestinian Communist Party and became a leader here in the Old City. Whilst it was one of the more ‘peaceful’ Palestinian groups, nevertheless they were involved in demonstrations and writing graffiti and dong many things in support of our demands for our own Palestinian State. Before I was beaten up by the Israeli soldiers, I would never have imagined myself being involved in a political movement; but now I felt I had no option. I was suffering. My people were suffering.”
Jack was in High School during this time. His ambition was to become a musician. After he’d served several sentences in Israeli prisons he decided he wanted to be out of this political activity.
“The last time I was in prison, I was there for three months. The Gulf War was going on and I remember seeing the bombs coming over and landing in Israel. I decided I needed transformation in my life. I wanted to help my people but I realised I wasn’t helping them by throwing stones. I thought that if I became a social worker that would be more useful. I left prison, left High School, got involved in bad things like smoking and taking drugs all the time knowing I needed change in my life.”
Change was just around the corner for Jack. His parents moved to another house and their neighbour was a Christian. “I realised he led a very different life to me,” Jack explained, “he was a young guy but he didn’t do the sort of things I did. He went to different places; he went to church, he did good things. So I decided I needed to ask this guy what made him different. He invited me to talk with him and another guy – both were leaders in an evangelical church in the Old City. They explained the Gospel to me clearly and I prayed and committed my life to the Lord. That was August 10th, 1991.”
Jack started to change, but it was a slow process.
“The first year was hard because of my background. After three months I enrolled in Bible School still thinking that I could become a social worker or a teacher and in that way help my people.”
Whilst at Bible College, Jack met Salim Munayer, a Palestinian Christian involved in reconciliation between Jews and Arabs and founder of Musalaha.
“Salim was one of my teachers at college. In October 1991 he invited me to go on a trip into the desert. He mentioned something about going with Messianic believers. At that time I didn’t know that Messianic believers were Jews living in the country. It was a new experience for me. I had so many memories of Israelis beating me and hating me but here I was meeting people who loved the same Lord that I loved. They were, like me, wanting to serve the Lord and I found I was starting to be healed from feelings of hatred and revenge that had gripped me. I knew that as a Christian it was wrong to hate, but I still had the memories of what had happened to me. But then I repented of the negative feelings I had towards the Jewish believers I was with. I was determined to seek the way of the Lord even though it was hard. I had to work through those issues and give those feelings to the Lord and ask Him to heal and work through the pain.”
During that interview ten years ago, I asked Jack how important he believed reconciliation between Jewish and Arab believers was for the future of the Body of Christ in Israel
“It’s just as Jesus said, the world cannot bring peace, but He can. If it is the same Lord that lives in my Israeli brother as lives in my heart, just knowing that we share the same Holy Spirit should unite us. Most of the time here it’s the flesh that interferes in bringing hatred and bitterness into our lives. Unity in the body of Christ, peace between Israeli and Palestinian brothers, could be a light to this country. I can remember how my friends were amazed that I could sit with Israelis and talk with them and love them as I loved myself. It is a witness and a demonstration of true peace when we worship the Lord together. It is costly; we had many people saying bad things about our church because we had a Jewish group of believers come and help us in the church. We were accused of being traitors and having relationship with Zionists! Equally, for the Messianic believers it is costly. Imagine what their friends said when they heard they had been meeting with Arabs! Jewish believers and Arab Christians have to stick together and find practical ways to help and meet with each other. Christians who come here from the West must not hold any political position, rather they should hold the heart of Jesus. Don’t take sides. In many ways the church here feels separated from the West; we need to feel love from the West to feel we are part of the Body. We also need practical help – people to help us with the harvest here, to minister among us here.”
Jack then went on to tell me how much he wanted to be a pastor. And so to meet him ten years later was deeply significant. Now as pastor of the Alliance Church in the Christian Quarter of Old City of Jerusalem, Jack told me how they are working amongst Palestinians in the West Bank. Numbers of believers are growing. House groups are forming. He can envisage a time when numbers grow to the point where churches are formed and cease to be ‘underground’.
We met just before Easter, but Jack told me how on the Orthodox Easter Sunday, 500 Arab and Jewish believers and their pastors would be meeting together in the Garden Tomb. This is a first in Jerusalem … for 2,000 years nothing like this has happened there.
Enthusiastically Jack told me how with Muslims you have to show kindness. With 99% of the Palestinian population being Muslim, that poses a huge challenge for the 1% of Christians. No wonder they believe time is short – the harvest is vast.
As he looked ahead, Jack shared how important it is that we pray for unity in the Body of Christ in the Holy Land. Training new leaders is another priority as the number of believers is growing all the time. Teaching about ethics, especially for believers who come from the majority group is, he says, a priority; for example, teaching that it’s wrong to lie. “Lying is an intrinsic part of our culture, the more you lie, the smarter you are”, he explained.
This summer (2009), there will be a gathering of Arab Christians. Many live in villages where they are a tiny minority. When they come together into a bigger gathering, this brings hope and encouragement and shows these people they are part of something much bigger.
Unemployment is a major problem for Arab Christians, Jack told me. They are discriminated against and they feel the pressure of the majority group is getting harsher.
Changing the thinking of our people is a long process. Jack’s prayer is for revival to sweep through! But, he added, church culture is very hard for Palestinians to come into because of culture and history, therefore the church needs to change internally to become a welcoming place for them.
Once again, I am appealing to you. Would you like to help Jack Sara in the work he is doing? Space does not allow more detail, but I am sure you get the picture. I know Jack’s heart is to work closely with other pastors, both Arab and Jewish, to see a strong body of believers in Jerusalem. And it is happening. But as he said, they cannot do it without the support of Christians in the nations. The Olive Tree Reconciliation Fund (www.olivetreefund.org) is committed to helping Jack Sara. Will you join us?
To send a donation to the OTRF please send your cheque to The Olive Tree Reconciliation Fund, PO Box 850, Horsham, RH12 9GA. The OTRF is a registered charity (No 1125706), for more details about our work and books by Julia Fisher please visit www.olivetreefund.org
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And why not prayerfully consider coming to Israel from 5-15th September 2009 on the OTRF tour to meet many of the people we are supporting so that you can gain an insight into the situation … there are still a few places left.