On Christmas Eve, congregants gathered at the New Birth Missionary Baptist church for a service unlike any other: the church choir wore keffiyehs, Palestinians shared stories of the Nakba, and the pastor’s call was clear: a ceasefire in Gaza.
Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in 285 South, a news publication centering the stories and perspectives of immigrant and refugee communities in metro Atlanta – the heart of the New South. Learn more and subscribe here.
On Christmas Eve morning, hundreds of congregants gathered at the New Birth Missionary Baptist church, which has been described as the largest land-owning Black church in America.
The 10,000-member megachurch in Stonecrest, GA, about 20 miles due east of Atlanta, was lit with brightly colored spotlights, huge screens broadcasting the service, and booming music filled the space.
Yesterday’s service though, was unlike any other. Images of the Palestinian flag were on the stage and on the screens. Church choir members wore keffiyehs. And the call from the pastor was clear: a ceasefire in Gaza.
“We cannot ignore that up to this moment, 20,000 lives have been senselessly killed in Palestine,” said senior pastor Jamal Bryant, opening up the service. “If Jesus were born today he would have been found under rubble…because of bombs that this nation paid for and provided.”
Bryant said he had had conversations about “Christmas being canceled,” because of the war.
He ended up taking New Birth on another route. “Today we are calling for America, we are calling for the world to insist that a ceasefire take place immediately. That’s what we want for Christmas.”
His call echoes hundreds of black spiritual leaders across the country.
Among the attendees were a number of Palestinians, seated together. Bryant welcomed them, and congregants raised their hands in prayer.
“I have family still in Gaza…I come from a long line of Christians in Gaza,” said Lydia El-Sayegh, to the crowd of congregants from the stage.
Father George Makhoul read scripture from the Bible in Arabic. Later, Reverend Fahed Abu-Akel gave congregants historical context of the conflict. “American television tells us that everything started October 7,” Abu-Akel said as he spoke about his memories of him and his family being expelled from their home in Palestine in 1948, when he was four years old. “When I see the kids in Gaza, I see myself, leaving my home.”
He was inspired, he said, by Martin Luther King as a child, from 10,000 miles away. “We want American Christians to know that Palestinian Christians are in existence in Gaza and all over Palestine.”
“Embarrasingly there has been a silence from the church. The Christian church has really not echoed and amplified its voice to this genocide that is happening in broad daylight,” said Bryant. But on this Christmas at this sprawling megachurch in Dekalb County, Georgia there was anything but silence.
Sophia Qureshi is the founder and editor of 285 South, the first news publication dedicated solely to reporting on Metro Atlanta’s fast growing and diverse communities. Before launching 285 South, she worked for over 15 years in media and communications, including at Al Jazeera Media Network, The Center for Public Integrity, the United Nations Development Programme, CNN, and South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT).
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