SUWANEE — When up to 20 people gather on Sunday evenings for Christian worship, they are multi-national but able to speak the same language, which binds these immigrant families. The common greeting is salaam, which means peace.
Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world as it serves about 27 nations as the official or co-official spoken language. For 206 million people, Arabic is their native language. Another 24 million people speak it as a second language. Only English, Spanish, Hindi, and Mandarin Chinese have more speakers.
These Georgia churchgoers represent a minority back home where their neighbors were predominantly Muslim. When Mokhles Bekhet grew up in a Christian home in Alexandria, Egypt, he was among only 15% of the population there. And living his faith wasn’t easy.
“Every Christian in Egypt experiences some persecution,” Bekhet said.
His family nurtured him in the Christian faith until he made a profession of faith at age 11. As an adult, he migrated to California where he lived until a brother moved to Georgia. Bekhet soon learned that there were “too many Arabic-speaking people here but only two Arabic churches in Atlanta,” and he moved his young family here.
Georgia has the nation’s 14th largest Arab-American population, according to the Arab American Institute Foundation. An estimated 27,057 Arab-speaking people live in 89 of Georgia’s 159 counties. Egyptians represent 51%, followed by Moroccans at 20%. The majority live in Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb, and DeKalb counties.
Meeting a church-planting need
When Bekhet and his wife, Nivine, moved here with their two sons, he did what came natural. An accomplished worship leader, he invited friends and family to his apartment for worship and Bible study.
“I felt when I moved here there was a need for other ministries (churches),” said
Bekhet when he learned of only two Arabic-speaking Southern Baptist congregations in the state.
He’s since learned enough to draw this conclusion, “We need over 50 churches to serve the Arabic community in Atlanta.”
Bekhet estimates there are about 100 mosques in Atlanta.
When Michael O’Neal, the minister of evangelism and missions at First Baptist Church of Cumming, met Bekhet he could see much potential in the young Arab American.
“I saw some serious maturity there even at 26 when I met him,” O’Neal recalled. “And then I saw his availability to be used by God.
“The first thing he said was, ‘I just want to serve God.’ He said that with humility.”
Cumming’s First Baptist is a Sending Church that cooperates with the North American Mission Board’s church-planting initiatives. They currently sponsor three church plants – an Anglo church in Cumming, an Iranian church in Alpharetta, and now this Arabic church in Suwanee.
Bekhet was a Send North America intern assigned to O’Neal for mentoring. While Bekhet continued to meet with what would become a core group, he also worked diligently to build relationships at this north metro Atlanta church. Soon, additional assistance emerged from the congregation as many wanted to help and encourage him.
Following his internship, the time came to launch. But first, the new church would need a venue. Sugarloaf Korean Baptist Church (SKBC) in Suwanee volunteered and became the host church for the Arabic Baptist Church of Suwanee.
“Thank God for SKBC, they opened the door for us,” Bekhet said after looking six months for a location. “They are very nice people.”
The church launched Sept. 27, 2014, with about 25 in attendance. The weekly average attendance is between 15 and 20.
Bekhet is grateful for the Cooperative Program and Mission Georgia, which allow the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) to provide a monthly stipend for this young church planter. GBC’s partnership with First Cumming and NAMB have accounted for additional assistance.
While the new Arabic Baptist Church benefits from these sources, O’Neal contends that the relationship is equally beneficial for First Baptist of Cumming.
“First Baptist Cumming is located in the suburbs and is predominantly Anglo,” O’Neal said. “For us to be involved in an Arabic-speaking church as a sending church is advantageous for us because it teaches us about how to reach cross culturally and connects us with the world right here.”