True Calling

July 1, 2016
 Dr. Abdul Saadi and Dr. Abjar Bahkou

The story of how God's providence led two Syrian scholars from the same monastic order in Damascus to professorships at Baylor University

On Sunday mornings, Dr. Abdul Saadi, assistant professor of Arabic, his wife and two sons worship at Seventh and James Baptist Church near the Baylor campus. Meanwhile, his colleague and lifelong friend, Dr. Abjar Bahkou, senior lecturer of Arabic, and his family take I-35 north to Hurst, where "Father Abjar" pastors a congregation of about 70 members at the Antiochian Apostolic Church, the only Arabic-speaking congregation under the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

As young boys, raised in the Syriac Orthodox Church in northeastern Syria, their Sundays looked very different. When they weren't much older than their own children are now, Saadi and Bahkou each set about fulfilling a call to monastic life--a life committed wholly to the service of God.

They attended Saint Ephrem Theological Seminary, a monastery where students live together year-round and study both the state curriculum as well as the Syriac language (classical Aramaic), liturgy, preaching - essentially how to become a priest or monk in the Syriac Orthodox Church, one of the oldest known Christian traditions in the world.

In 1970--the year before the al-Asaad family rose to power in Syria - Saadi, then 11 years old, packed a few personal belongings in a small bag and left his village of Derbassiye, near the Turkish and Iraqi borders. He traveled to Atchaneh, Lebanon, which was the location of the monastery until the mid-1980s.

"In the culture of the Middle East, a person's name is not just a way to identify them; it's missional," he explains. "My personal name is Abdul-Massih, which means 'servant of the Messiah.' So, when I was very young, I was thinking about myself: How will I practice being the servant of the Messiah? So this was a factor as I considered the monastic order. It was a means of being myself. It was a means of beginning my journey."

With only four weeks of leave every three years to visit home, Saadi was fueled by the purpose implied in his name. He excelled in his studies, graduating from the seminary and then earning a degree in civil engineering from the University of Aleppo, while still living and teaching at the seminary.

In 1986, shortly after the seminary relocated to Damascus due to an escalating civil war in Lebanon, a 14-year-old Bahkou arrived at St. Ephrem. For him, the 500-mile journey and transition to monastic life was more about escape than the pursuit of a call.

"I was a young teenager and I didn't really have a firm sense that I would become a priest or monk," Bahkou says. "I was like any other young teenager. It was a confusing time. At 14, you want to get away from your family and social pressures. And so the monastery was a way out."

The oldest of five children, Bahkou left his village of al-Malikyah, and enrolled at St. Ephrem with the praise and pride of his father--a deacon in the church.

"But for my mother, it was hard," he says. "She cried for two years after I left home."

At St. Ephrem, Bahkou had much to learn - the Syriac language as one primary example, since he grew up speaking Anatolian Arabic. He recognized his Syriac teacher immediately.

"I actually remember meeting [Saadi] before he was my teacher," Bahkou says. "The year I first applied to St. Ephrem, there were many applicants and there was no room for me. So, I was so sad. Then a couple of months later, Saadi and another guy actually knocked on our door. He came in and sat down to tea with my father, telling us there was now room for me and they wanted me to come to St. Ephrem."

In addition to teaching, Saadi also served for a time as head of the seminary.

"He was not only a teacher, he was the head of the school--dean or whatever you would call it," Bahkou says. "Imagine handling 30 or 40 teenage boys with all of their issues and moods, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Even though Saadi was at least 15 years older than his students at St. Ephrem, they all lived together like siblings under one roof, growing in brotherhood and friendship.

"Everyone had his own bed, but we shared everything else," Saadi says. "We spent all our time together. We lived together, prayed together, studied and ate together. We grew as a family. [The students] were more like my younger brothers."

In 1990, soon after earning a second bachelor's degree in business and management from the University of Damascus, Saadi received an opportunity that took him half a world away.

"I was in the monastic order from 1970 to 1990--for 20 years," Saadi says. "In fall 1990, I came to the United States on a scholarship to the Lutheran School of Theology at the University of Chicago."

In Saadi's absence, Bahkou's experience at St. Ephrem would never be the same.

"The man who replaced [Saadi] wanted to push us, to scare us and to dominate us," Bahkou says. "He wanted to manage us by creating fear, just like the political system in Syria, like Assad. Anything out of the structure and order presented for you, and you're in trouble. I haven't thought much about it since, but it was not a positive experience for me. There was a void after [Saadi] left. It wasn't the same."

Saadi's move to the West presented radical differences in culture and in the way students of theology and Biblical studies talked about the Scriptures and about God.

"I would watch students raise their hands, questioning the professor, questioning the text, and my reaction was to think, 'Heretic!'" Saadi says. "I wasn't used to this. In Syria, you never question the teacher. You write down what he says. I remember in my first theology class, in my first paper, I tried to keep everything as vague and unspecific as possible. I wasn't accustomed to writing about what I think."

Despite the shock, Saadi couldn't help but enjoy the freedom and privilege of being a student at an American university. However, it wasn't the type of freedom you might expect from a student leaving such a cloistered life for the first time.

"In the U.S., all I saw before me was time to study. That's all I really had to do," Saadi says. "In the monastery, as I pursued my bachelor's degrees, I still had my teaching duties, Biblical studies, and Syriac studies as part of the order. But in the U.S., I had 24 hours to study if I wanted. My average amount of study was about 20 hours per day. Really, wholly, as much as I could, I dedicated my full time to this task of study. I knew I had only two or three years on this scholarship. I knew this wasn't going to happen again."

But, it did happen again, and again. Saadi's time at the University of Chicago, which was supposed to be temporary, was extended to include an additional master's degree in church history, then a Master of Theology in New Testament and finally a doctorate in Syriac studies.

His early teaching experience at St. Ephrem, and his studying and teaching opportunities in the U.S., played a catalytic role in directing his path ultimately away from monastic life and toward a different vocation.

"While pursuing my doctorate and for two years after, I was teaching at the University of Chicago," Saadi says. "No matter what, we know everything in life is directed by God. And after my experience in Chicago, I knew it was not God’s call for me to be part of the religious order anymore. It was my call to continue teaching. It was my ministry."

In 2001, Saadi took a position at the University of Notre Dame, where he taught Arabic for the next eight years.

Meanwhile, back in Damascus, Bahkou was pursuing a higher education of his own. After completing his theological studies at St. Ephrem, he was ordained as a Deacon-monk in the Syriac Orthodox Church.

"I took monastic vows in 1993 - I was 20 years old," Bahkou says, referring to the vows of obedience, poverty and celibacy required to eventually become a priest. "That same year, I was sent by the Patriarchate [of the Syriac Orthodox Church] to study in Rome at the Salesian Pontifical University. Following Vatican II, the Pontifical Institute of Religious Collaboration began offering scholarships to non-Catholic churches to send their students to study at the Institute."

In Rome, Bahkou focused his studies on Christian education and youth ministry in the Middle East. Between semesters he would return to Damascus or travel to England or Ireland to work on his English language skills.

"I knew Italian wouldn’t serve me terribly well in the Middle East where I ultimately intended to return to do youth ministry," he says.

During one of his trips back to Damascus, Bahkou was ordained as a priest in the Syriac Orthodox Church at St. Ephrem Chapel Monastery--the culmination of years of training, Syriac studies, learning how to memorize and preach a sermon, learning how to chant the liturgy and perform the sacraments to perfection.

After completing his studies in Rome and with three degrees in-hand, Bahkou returned to Damascus in 1999, eager to learn where he would be assigned to serve.

"The Syrian Orthodox Church in the United States had gone from one archdiocese to three," Bahkou says. "The need for clergy to serve the west coast in the U.S. was great, so the patriarch told me, 'Go and serve there.' After six years in Damascus at St. Ephrem and six years in Rome, to my surprise, the Holy Spirit would send me to California. In September 1999, I landed in Los Angeles."

When Bahkou arrived in the United States, before he did anything else, he wanted to contact his teacher, mentor and friend - Saadi. They had not spoken in eight years.

"I was in California and he at Notre Dame, so I knew we were far away," Bahkou says. "I asked for his phone number through the Syriac Orthodox Church. I called him and he answered. I asked him, 'Do you remember this voice?' And he said, 'How can I forget this voice?'"

Though the distance between them in the U.S. was less than it had been in nearly a decade, the two friends couldn't seem to connect, narrowly missing each other on a couple of occasions. Busy schedules, limited time and resources would delay their reunion for another 12 years, until 2011.

"I was assisting churches that could not afford full-time priests, so I would drive two times a month to San Diego, do a service, and come back the same day," Bahkou says. "Then on the alternate Sundays, I would fly to northern California to Silicon Valley and Sacramento. Throughout the week, I would work with the youth."

While Bahkou worked diligently at his duties as a priest, Saadi was fulfilling his vocation as a professor at Notre Dame; and it was during this time that Saadi was surprised by yet another call.

"At St. Ephrem, I never took the monastic vows as Dr. Bahkou had done," Saadi says. "I was pressured to do so, but in the end, I felt it was not God's call for me. And then a year after I started at Notre Dame, in May 2002, I announced to all my friends and family, 'I have a call to get married.'"

Not long after sharing this news, Saadi was introduced--over the phone--to the woman who would become his wife. A short time later, Saadi flew to Canada to meet her face to face.

"We met for maybe six or seven hours," he says. "All of the rest of our communication and arrangements happened over the phone."

Four weeks after they met, Saadi returned to Canada with family and friends. This second meeting was for his wedding.

"When I have shared this story with my Baylor students, they can't believe it," Saadi says. "But, the cornerstones were our families. We were of suitable age and suitable families. Yes, our personal contact happened mostly over the phone, but it was good. We were extremely friendly with each other. After several phone calls, we both felt there was no reason to delay the marriage. At our wedding, the priest asked me, 'Is it your decision to marry this person?' And I said, 'No.' My wife looked at me. And I said, 'No, it's not my decision. I feel it is God's decision.' I am to trust God, and obey God. That's it."

Saadi's wedding day represented yet another missed connection between the two as Bahkou experienced complications with his travel documents and was forced to decline the invitation to officiate his friend's wedding.

Bahkou served the archdiocese of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Burbank from 2000 until 2003.

"I learned all the movements necessary to please God," he says. "The theological formation was that grace comes to us by the doing and performing of law. The mass was not a means of grace; mass was a set of rules and regulations to reach an alien and angry God."

During that time, a gradual transformation of his faith and understanding of the Gospel began to take place. He was introduced to People of the Book Lutheran Outreach in Texas in 2005. With them, he did outreach among Muslims and Middle Eastern Christians for a short period. Beginning in that time, he dived into the writings of Martin Luther and the Lutheran theology; and in 2007, he translated into Arabic a book titled Life with God by Dr. Laurence L. White which helped consolidate his own understanding of concepts like Justification, Redemption, Sanctification, Law and Gospel, Word and Sacrament.

"I did not taste the sweetness of the Gospel until maybe 10 years ago," Bahkou says. "We were raised that if you hold up the chalice but you don't put your right hand over your left hand just so, the wine will not be consecrated; and if it's not one-third wine and two-thirds water, then that's it--you're a heretic. Grace has completely transformed my life."

In 2003, Bahkou left the Syriac Orthodox Church.

"I don't want to speak negatively [about the Church]," Bahkou says. "But following some decisions made within the institution, I left."

Bahkou had limited career options in Southern California due to lack of work experience outside the ministry. He was selling phone cards to make ends meet when Saadi informed him of a need for people to teach Arabic and Middle East studies. He suggested that Bahkou could find work with a degree and some teaching experience.

Saadi put Bahkou in touch with a friend at Southern Methodist University, someone who may have been able to ensure Bahkou's acceptance into the graduate program in Islamic studies. In the end, however, it did not work as planned.

"My GRE score wasn't great, but I see it as God's plan," Bahkou said. "I was denied at SMU, but Dr. Saadi's friend encouraged me to move to Dallas-Fort Worth and take a few graduate classes."

Bahkou took the advice and completed one year of graduate study at Texas Christian University with straight A's. While at TCU, he met the director of Islamic studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; Bahkou applied for the school's graduate program and was awarded a full presidential scholarship to complete his master's degree.

"In this way, God provided the money for me to complete my degree," Bahkou says. "I also began working as a research assistant for 20 hours a week, which gave me the teaching experience that I needed."

Soon after beginning his studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Bahkou married his wife, Phylan. The two met online while she was studying Christian ministry at Dallas Baptist University.

"It's definitely a call to be married, I feel," says Bahkou, whose decision to marry also marked an official and final departure from the priesthood of the Syriac Orthodox Church. "Whether we can get married or not and still assume the priesthood is man's rule. But, I feel if God calls you, there is no one who can stop that call."

Upon the completion of his master's degree, Bahkou took a position as a full-time instructor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He served in that role for only one year before receiving a call from Dr. Chris Van Gorder, associate professor in the Department of Religion at Baylor University.

"I met Dr. Bahkou before he came to Baylor and was immediately impressed by his amazing breadth of knowledge combined with a warm pastoral ministry investing in the lives of Christians from Muslim backgrounds," Van Gorder says.

Initially Van Gorder hoped for Bahkou to teach Islamic studies, but the opportunity he thought might become available in the Department of Religion never fully materialized.

"Soon after, in 2009, I agreed to teach two courses in Arabic in the department of modern languages and culture," Bahkou says. "And I was also teaching two courses in Arabic at University of North Texas."

Bahkou commuted between Waco and Denton for one year before a full-time position opened up at Baylor.

"I was delighted to hear that [Bahkou] applied and was invited," Van Gorder says. "He is a great treasure for the entire Baylor community and a unique voice in our community who knows first-hand the perils of the persecuted church."

At the same time, a second full-time lecturer in Arabic was needed, so Bahkou called Saadi, who was still at Notre Dame, and encouraged him to apply.

"He always says that I'm the one who brought him to Texas," Saadi says. "And I always say he's the one who brought me here."

Regardless of who brought whom, the two men were finally reunited in-person in Waco in 2011, and once again lived under one roof for a semester.

"Before our families joined us, we lived in a campus apartment," Saadi says. "It was just like old times again. Our lives were so busy with work and children. As I say, we were separated physically, but never spiritually. Spiritually, we are united."

Saadi and Bahkou are also united in a dual national identity--feeling as much American as they are Syrian. Bahkou's entire family immigrated to Sweden long before the current Syrian conflict, while Saadi has family still in northeastern Syria.

"I worry for my brother, who is still in Qamishli, and his sons who actually left the United States recently to be with their father and provide moral support," Saadi says.

The Syrian-Turkish bordertown of al-Qamishli was the site of twin suicide bombings Dec. 30, 2015, targeting an Assyrian Christian neighborhood. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) quickly claimed responsibility for the explosions, which killed at least 16 people.

"That neighborhood has been bombed three times since then. Christians are being targeted specifically," Saadi says.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 55,219 lives were taken in 2015--the fifth year of Syria's civil war. This figure includes more than 2,500 children. Between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and ISIS, more than 260,000 have died, more than 50 percent of Syria's pre-war population has been displaced and more than 4 million have fled the country.

"In the last four years, around two-thirds of the Christian population in Syria have left," Saadi says. "But always a small minority of Christians stay through conflict, as far back as the seventh century. They refuse to pack up and leave and give up their heritage. If there is any hope of revival and renewal of Christian faith and culture and identity to come again, it will happen there in Syria. Always, always we need to live with hope. Let us not die before we die."

Today, Saadi and Bahkou office next door to each other in a corner of Old Main, and they are very much invested in the success of their students. Baylor Director of Middle East Studies Mark Long, an associate professor in the Honors College, said Baylor is fortunate to have Bahkou and Saadi.

"Their work as committed scholars, informed by their vibrant and evident Christian faith, ensures that Baylor students can gain a richer perspective on the Middle East," Long says, adding that Bahkou and Saadi benefit students in ways beyond being native speakers. "Students learn of the Syriac Christian communities in the region, the Aramaic background of the New Testament scriptures and the critical tradition of apologetic activities in the Levant. On a personal level, I can attest to how generously they have assisted me in working through primary materials that extremist groups like al-Qaida and ISIS produce."

Senior University Scholar Jacob Imam, one of 32 recipients nationally of the 2016 Marshall Scholarship, says Saadi and Bahkou have irreplaceably added to Baylor's program.

"Learning ancient languages is best done with a pencil and a piece of paper, with continuous repetition and a wide variety of readings," Imam says. "Modern languages must be learned with the character of the peoples who use the tongue, with their accents, and with the living memories of their culture."

Imam says their command of Syriac is equally invaluable.

"Many people struggle to learn this language that is so very crucial for ancient and medieval projects, and these Baylor professors speak it with the fluency many scholars could only dream of obtaining," he says. "In both pedagogical and scholarly technique, they thrive. But it is their beautiful characters and warm personalities, which have clearly been touched by charity, that blesses students so richly."

On a weekly basis, Saadi hosts an "Arabic language hour" when students can join his family for dinner, usually at Penland, and practice their conversational Arabic.

"I was so nervous when I first sat down to have dinner with Dr. Saadi and his family," Baylor junior Arabic and Middle Eastern studies major Katie Matthews says. "I sheepishly introduced myself in Arabic, and immediately his wife gave him a puzzled look. Obviously I had said it incorrectly. I soon realized that, much like English, Arabic has colloquialisms and slang; I still have a lot to learn. His whole family is so gracious to eat there each week, all for the sake of our education. I am very grateful for them."

Saadi and Bahkou count it a great privilege to see each other nearly every day, to stop and say "hello" or to share news--a privilege they lived without for more than 20 years. As young men, studying and living at St. Ephrem, neither could have imagined a life in Texas that included wives and children of their own.

"I named my older son Isaac," Saadi says. "The name means 'laughter', and makes me laugh. And, I was 45 when Isaac was born, so not quite as old as Abraham. But, in all my life, I never imagined that one day I would have a child. And then one day, God gave me a child."

As Bahkou reflects on his life's journey and how he came to Baylor, he says it clearly was God's work.

"Sure, there was a conversation with this person which led to another conversation; it began with my teaching one course and then two courses; and then Baylor wanted me full-time and so forth," Bahkou says. "But, as I review my history, I see how God spoke to me through circumstances. And here I am, and I did not do anything. It was God carrying me."