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Who Are the Arab Christians? By Guest Blog Writer Rev. Dr. Niveen Ibrahim Sarras

In observance of Arab American Heritage Month, ELCA Racial Justice Ministries invited Rev. Dr. Niveen Ibrahim Sarras to share her thoughts on this topic with our readers.


People in the West often assume that Arab Christians were converted from Islam to Christianity by Western missionaries. However, Arab Christians have always existed in the Middle East and have enjoyed significant influence in the Arabian Peninsula.

To understand Arab Christians, it helps to know the geography of the peninsula. Arabia, known as Jazīrat Al-ʿArab (“Island of the Arabs”) in Arabic, extends beyond present-day Saudi Arabia, encompassing the Arabian Peninsula (bordered by the Red Sea to the west), the Gulf of Aden to the south, the Arabian Sea to the southeast, and the Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf (also known as the Arabian Gulf) to the east.

Arabia was inhabited by nomadic bedouins who survived through hunting, mercenary work, trade and raids on other tribes. As noted in Acts 2:11, Arab merchants traveled to Palestine for business. Christian tribes such as the Ghassanids, Lakhmids, Banu Taghlib, Banu Tamim and Nabataeans were spread across the peninsula, originating from Yemen and migrating to the Levant after the destruction of the Marib Dam in the sixth century BCE. By the fifth century CE most of these tribes had converted to Christianity. Arab Christians in the peninsula spoke and prayed in Arabic, yet their liturgical and confessional writings were in Syriac.[1]

In 732 CE, Arab forces influenced by Islam conquered the Levant, a Greco-Roman region that had previously been part of the Byzantine Empire. Muslims spread their Arabic language with each conquest. The Levant was predominantly inhabited by non-Arab Christians, possibly descendants of various ancient civilizations. Christian communities in the conquered territories spoke Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and Ethiopian languages.[2] Communities in Damascus and Baghdad were predominantly Arameans, using Aramaic for theology and liturgy, whereas those in Palestine, Jordan and Sinai utilized Greek ecclesiastically but Aramaic/Syriac locally. Over time Christians in the Levant and Egypt became Arabized through the imposition of the Arabic language. The Melkite Church was the first to adopt Arabic for worship.[3]

In the eighth century CE, Arabized Christian families in the Levant were drawn to Muslim power, leading them to convert to Islam. Christians held high positions and contributed to intellectual life under Muslim rule but faced pressure to convert. Muslim authorities imposed a poll tax on Arab Christians who refused to convert,[4] so they translated their religious texts into Arabic and developed apologetics to defend their faith. After the Crusades, Muslims imposed harsh policies on Christians, prompting resentment. Arabization accelerated through translation efforts and Islamic influences.

The Ottoman Empire’s occupation of the Middle East, which lasted from 1516 to 1917. led to “Turkification” efforts, and this cultural oppression provoked an Arab nationalist movement. Arab Christians revived the Arabic language and culture, but tribalism frustrated their efforts to form a unified Arab identity. Despite these differing identities, Islam’s influence remains strong among Arab Christians.

In sum, Christians in the conquered territories became Arabized when the Arabic language was imposed upon them. In other words, they are not Arabs by ethnic or race bound but by the Arabic language.


The Rev. Niveen Ibrahim Sarras was born and raised in Bethlehem, Palestine. She is the first Palestinian woman ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA. Her passion for the Bible started through attending Sunday school at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation and attending Lutheran school in Bethlehem.

Hungry for a deeper knowledge of Scripture and eager to answer God’s call to ministry, Rev. Sarras earned her Master of Divinity degree from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif., laying the foundation for her ministry of Word and Sacrament. Her academic pursuits led her to the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where she earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Old Testament.

Rev. Sarras loves to teach Scripture and theology. She shared her knowledge through programs such as the Lay School of the ELCA East-Central Synod of Wisconsin, where she taught feminist, womanist and mujerista theology. She expanded her horizons by teaching courses such as “Introduction to Feminist Theology” and “An Introduction to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” in Marathon County, Wis., through the Extension program at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Rev. Sarras’ scholarly contributions challenge traditional biblical commentaries and offer fresh perspectives on matters of faith and society. Notable among her publications is “Jesus Was a Palestinian Jew — Not White,” which challenges traditional misconceptions about Jesus’ identity and roots. Her scholarly article “Refuting the Violent Image of God in the Book of Joshua 6-12” was anthologized in The (De)legitimization of Violence in Sacred and Human Contexts (Palgrace Macmillan, 2021), offering fresh insights into the violence depicted in the book.

Beyond academia, Rev. Sarras finds pleasure in hiking, biking, baking and immersing herself in books on politics, faith and Scripture, as well as watching documentary movies. In her roles as a pastor and as a scholar, Sarras advocates for critical thinking and encourages others to deepen their understanding of faith.



[1] Sidney H. Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 9.

[2] Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque, 8

[3] Ibid., 49

[4] Kenneth Cragg, The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 54.





Honoring International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Guest Blog writer Rev. Aimée Appell

In honor of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, ELCA Racial Justice Ministries invited the Rev. Aimée Appell, MDiv DMin to share some thoughts about the Triennial Assembly of the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice and their work to end racism and dismantle white supremacy.

The Triennial Assembly of EDLARJ (the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice, newly changed to White Lutherans for Racial Justice) was held in Minneapolis, Minn., March 1-3. A large part of our time together was spent in a pilgrimage to George Floyd Square. What I saw and experienced there changed my understanding of love and pushed my thinking about fear, as I witnessed what it means to say that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

I don’t need to tell you how often our cultural conversation limits love to an emotion. You’ve heard the songs and seen the shows and bought the cards. It is so difficult to find pop culture examples of love beyond romance that when Anna and Elsa’s sister love was the focus of Frozen, it was worthy of commentary. But repeatedly during our pilgrimage and our resulting conversations, we witnessed love as an action.

The community in George Floyd Square has been meeting daily for over a thousand days now to love one another through action. They have brought their individual gifts together to become love for their neighbors. Jennie Leenay used her fashion background to create The People’s Closet, where clothing of all kinds is available for free to those who need it. Similar projects have created a library and a garden center, each tended by volunteers. Marquise Bowie greets visitors and urges them to do the difficult work of love-in-action in their home communities, standing with victims of injustice and educating their neighbors. Community members offer their time and their stories so that pilgrims to the square leave educated about what happened there. And every day, morning and evening, the community gathers, lights a fire in the firepit and checks in, offering mutual support, listening for what is needed and loving one another. With action.

This is the kind of love that casts out fear. As our preacher, the Rev. Dr. Jia Starr Brown, reminded us at the end of our pilgrimage day, action love is the prerequisite for the emotional, sentimental kind of love that we usually talk about. “I do not enter into … relationship with anyone who does not actively work for my overall good: defending my character and advocating for my justice when it is questioned, compromised or stolen. And neither should you.”

This action-love draws us toward one another, even toward those we might not actually like. I don’t have to particularly like someone to provide them with clothing, food, shelter, safety. I just have to love them. And in loving them, I find that I fear them less. I am drawn into their community, and we become family, because family take care of one another. Family love one another, even if they don’t like one another.

1 John (and Martin Luther) remind us that we often give a lot more energy to fear than to love. The power of fear drives our economy — everything from deodorant sales to car sales to the military industrial complex is based in fear. Our political system has become so bogged down by fear that it barely functions anymore. Fear of neighbor, fear of embarrassment, fear of poverty, fear of death, fear of immigrants, fear of “those people.” We give our attention, our time, our money to fear.

This is why we are to fear and love God above all else. If we fear God above death, poverty, embarrassment or (most especially) other people, our neighbors, then we will give our attention, time, money, even our whole selves, to God, who is Love — Love as Action. God is love so deep, so radical, so active, that God could not sit still waiting for us to come to God. God’s active love came to us and showed us just how powerful Love as Action can be. Powerful enough to overcome death and to cast out fear, giving us the strength, courage and love to stand in solidarity with marginalized people throughout our community, and throughout the world.


Rev. Aimée Frye Appell holds an M.Div. degree from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn, and her Doctor of Ministry from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. She has served as solo pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in Washington, Mo., since 2010. Since January 2021 she has served half-time at Peace and half-time as director for evangelical mission in the Central States Synod of the ELCA. She has also lived and worked in Washington, D.C.; Seattle, Wash.; Anchorage, Alaska; St. Paul, Minn.; and Provo, Utah.

Pastor Aimée was ordained in 2010. In her time at Peace Lutheran she has helped the congregation grow into community leaders as a congregation “Bound by Christ, to Break Boundaries.” Together they have spearheaded several initiatives to build inclusion and dialogue in their community, including Vacation Culture School, Stories Matter, a local Juneteenth celebration and a series of community book discussions. In 2017 she received the Humanitarian Award from Church Women United of Franklin County Missouri. In 2018 she and her congregation received the Clergy Renewal grant from the Lilly Foundation.

After sabbatical with her family in South Africa and France, Pastor Aimée began working on a Doctor of Ministry degree, focused on anti-racism in the ELCA. In addition she has worked with the City of Washington to develop its Community Relations Committee, with the goal of building and nurturing inclusive community as their regional demographics change. She serves on the Central States Synod’s Racial Justice Team and on the board of the Association of White Lutherans for Racial Justice.

When not focusing on her call, she can be found spending time with family, knitting, crocheting, reading or gardening. She is mother to four wonderful children – Elinor, Holden, Grace and Abby (as well as three dogs, one cat, a snake, a gecko, a bearded dragon, a bullfrog and a pet rat). She and husband Nelson, who is director of the Washington Public Library, have been married since March 2000.


Black History Month: What It Means to Me by Guest Author Clair Minson

In honor of Black History Month, ELCA Racial Justice Ministries invited Seminarian Clair Minson to share some thoughts about this topic with our readers.


What began as “Negro History Week” in 1926 — created by historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson out of his concern that young African Americans lacked an education about their own heritage and ancestors — has since expanded to what we now know and observe as “Black History Month.”[1] Woodson, a life-long educator, understood the power of knowing one’s history and one’s ancestral heritage. Knowing that you are part of a long legacy of people who have the capacity to create whole societies can ground you in the belief that you too can do anything. Not knowing this history can become a seeding ground for internalized oppression.[2]

As Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in her book The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, “The vision of the past I absorbed from school textbooks, television, and the local history museum depicted a world, perhaps a wishful one, where Black people did not really exist. This history rendered Black Americans, Black people on all the earth, inconsequential at best, invisible at worst.”[3] I suspect that this erasure of Black his- and her-story is what Woodson was confronting through the development of Negro History Week.

As people of faith, steeped in the tradition of remembering and honoring our ancestors, we know the power of hearing, repeating and internalizing the miraculous stories of Moses, Joshua, Mary and Paul. Despite thousands of years of separation, we rely on these stories to help us cling to our faith and to a God who can at times feel very distant, despite always being with us. Understanding this, we perhaps also understand that recalling the stories of our Black ancestors is equally as powerful and necessary.

In preparation for this blog, I sat with the question “What does Black History Month mean to me?” and after some time an answer surfaced. To me, Black History Month is not just an obligatory nod to African American people; it’s a reminder of the strength and resilience of a people who, despite being erased from history and relegated to the margins of society, continue to contribute to the flourishing of our society. It’s a reminder of who we are and whose we are. It’s a reminder from “whence we came” and a vision for where we can go. It’s a clarion call to those who feel lost and need a reminder that their stories and their lives matter.

Black History Month is an opportunity for us as Christians to live into our call to be countercultural and share histories that many in society want to censure. It is an opportunity to live into the commitments we have made as a denomination to honor, protect and value the lives of people of African descent. I ask you, as people of faith, steeped in the tradition of remembering and honoring our ancestors, the same question: What does Black History Month mean to you?


Clair Minson, founder and principal consultant of Sandra Grace LLC, is a nonprofit leader, racial equity consultant, and theologian who leverages her decade-plus experience in workforce development and mental health counseling to maximize the impact of forward-thinking institutions across the United States.

Anchored in her faith in the human capacity for change and propelled by a critical analysis of systemic and institutional racism, Clair works with clients in the public and private sectors to develop and implement sound strategies that address the root causes of social inequity. She first entered the field as a counselor, directly supporting formerly incarcerated people in identifying and developing their skills and passions upon reentry into their communities, and later transitioned into the role of philanthropic strategist, in which she was charged with positioning workforce development as a catalyst for economic justice.

In 2019, Clair founded Sandra Grace, a change-management firm that provides training, consulting and thought-partnership to nonprofit, for-profit and public organizations in embedding racial equity practices in their policies, operations and programs. Sandra Grace serves clients in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco, among other cities.

Clair completed her B.A. in psychology at Clark Atlanta University and her master’s degree in community counseling from Argosy University; she is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity degree at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary at Lenoir-Rhyne University. She is a nationally certified counselor (NCC) and a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) in the state of Maryland.

Clair is from the Bahamas and currently lives in Colorado with her two daughters.


[3] Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (New York: Random House, 2021), xvii.

Honoring National Day of Racial Healing: Guest Blog Writer Rev. Jennifer Thomas

In honor of National Day of Racial Healing, ELCA Racial Justice Ministries invited The Reverend Jennifer Thomas to share some thoughts about this topic with our readers.


As a person of faith, I am called to love God and my neighbor as myself. Because of this, I’m committed to learning how white supremacy culture and my own complicity in it cause harm to my global neighbors near and far — and when I know better, to do better. As a seminarian, I attended anti-racism training in the late ’90s. But my journey didn’t stop there. Even last month I learned a new term: “global majority,” a collective term for non-white people of African, Asian and Latin American descent, who constitute approximately 85% of the global population. It has been used as an alternative to terms that are seen as racialized, such as “ethnic minority” and “person of color,” or more regional terms across the globe. It roughly corresponds to people whose heritage can be traced back to nations of the Global South.  

I’m a board member of the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice and a member of the Central States Synod Racial Justice Team. As a member of both organizations, I’m interested in building a network of racial justice advocates and organizers across the ELCA. I also participate in #Reformation2022, a movement to reform the ELCA. Most of the work I do as a board and team member is amplifying the voices of the global majority community, whether it be an individual or an association within our church. 

When I was invited to blog this month for the “National Day of Racial Healing,” I had to look it up because it was new to me. The National Day of Racial Healing is a call to action for racial healing for all people. It is a time for contemplating our shared values and engaging together on #HowWeHeal from the effects of racism. It’s a day to come together in a shared commitment to building relationships. Launched on Jan. 17, 2017, it is an opportunity to bring people together in their common humanity and inspire collective action to create a more equitable world. The day is observed every year on the Tuesday following Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

You can’t change what you don’t know. So how much do you know about the impact of colonization on the global majority community?  

When we know the truth and embrace it, we begin the process of building and strengthening right relationships with our global majority neighbors. In 2023 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) launched the Truth and Healing Movement. Many resources are available to assist you and your congregation as you work on your responsibilities. 

The ELCA also has ethnic associations for Ethnic Specific and Multicultural Ministries. For even more resources, visit the ELCA Anti-Racism Pledge page. 

If you are of European descent within the ELCA and passionate about anti-racism and dismantling white supremacy, we invite you to join our partner list. 

And plan to attend the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice Triennial Assembly, March 1-3, in Minneapolis. The registration deadline is Jan. 15.  


The Rev. Jennifer Thomas is an ELCA pastor, ordained in 1998. She’s served congregations in Wisconsin, Missouri and Kansas. Her current call is as associate director for Mission Funding in the ELCA Office of the Presiding Bishop. She resides in Kansas with her husband Vance, their almost adult children, Peder and Solveig, and two adorable rescue dogs, Rose and Dumplin’. In addition to organizing, advocacy, fundraising and proclamation of the good news, Jen enjoys cooking, baking, swimming, reading and bingewatching her favorite TV shows. 




Honoring International Migrants Day: “Where Are You From?” by Rev. Menzi Nkambule

In honor of International Migrants Day, Racial Justice invited guest writer Rev. Menzi Nkambule to share some thoughts on being a migrant in the United States.


What is your response when someone asks, “Where are you from?” Mine is a joke and reality. I often reply with my Eswatini accent, “I am from Decorah, Iowa.” I was raised in Eswatini, attended Luther College in Decorah and Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and am now a Lutheran pastor in Jersey City, N.J. For most people in America, “Where are you from?” is a tricky question. We need a different question if we are to be hospitable to one another.

When you ask people where they are from, you receive complex answers. Many Americans have lived in several parts of the country and, in some cases, the world. For example, some grew up in military families, moving from one base to another. Others grew up in a pastor’s family, moving from one church location to another. Like a plant, they were dug out of the ground and transplanted to a new place. Therefore, whether you were born in the United States or Eswatini, the question “Where are you from?” is, at best, challenging. At worst, it feels invasive and presumptuous, especially if asked of those born outside the U.S.

But do not worry; with generosity of spirit, there is nothing we cannot get past. Humor and genuine curiosity can generate a good conversation and help us connect in our similarities and differences. However, I find that, instead of “Where are you from?,” the question “Where is home for you?” embodies the generosity needed to spark instant connection.

In my experience, this alternative question reflects the kind of generosity that Leviticus 19:33-34 asks of us when it says, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the native-born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Ask someone “Where are you from?” or “Where are you really from?,” and that person may hear you saying that they don’t belong. But ask someone where home is, and you will have treated them as if they belong. You will have given them the joy and ease they need to put down roots in your community.

When I first came to the United States, I was 22, had never seen the doors of a Lutheran church and never in my life thought I wanted to be a pastor. Understandably, I was feeling out of place. But then the question “Where is home for you?” transformed me. My campus pastors were the first to ask me this question. It brought a much-needed shift in perspective, from home as a data point to home as the people with whom I feel safe attaching roots and exploring.

As time passed, I began to see Decorah as a community of belonging. By my senior year in college I had explored Lutheranism and gotten baptized at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in town. I spent so much time with the pastors that I began to think I, too, could be a pastor. I studied management and made a leap to seminary and ordained ministry. Because I felt at home in Decorah, I belonged, planted roots and thrived.

Ultimately I am from Decorah and other places because I feel at home there. I believe that those transplanted across the globe or from one state to another need nothing more than for us to be their home. They need us to be what God calls us to be — the soil where the immigrants among us can take root and be at home in our communities.



The Rev. Menzi Nkambule is an ELCA Fund for Leaders alum serving as pastor of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Jersey City, N.J. He enjoys cooking and cycling.