AMMAN: It was in a cold and small Israeli prison cell that Khader El-Yateem received his calling.
“I was arrested arbitrarily from our home by Israeli soldiers and was being accused of belonging to the communist party,” El-Yateem said in an interview with Arab News.
Although a number of his family members were active with the then-outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian Communist Party, El-Yateem was never a member.
Alone and without the ability to connect with anyone in the outside world, El-Yateem turned his heart to the Almighty.
“I made a short prayer, I prayed to God to help me and made a commitment to be God’s servant if I was to survive the ordeal,” he said.
Never in his wildest dreams did El-Yateem think that he would not only be released from jail, but that he would become pastor of a church of Arab Christians in the US — and, more recently, the first Palestinian or Arab American to run for a seat on the New York City Council.
Rev. El-Yateem, born in the Palestinian town of Beit Jala near Bethlehem in 1968, is competing for the seat currently held by Vincent Gentile, who has represented the 43rd District for more than 13 years, and who cannot run again in this year’s election due to a term limits.
El-Yateem made the announcement he would enter the race in February to a crowd full of supporters at the Le Sajj Lebanese restaurant in New York.
Relationship between faith and nationalism
One month after making his short prayer in the Israeli prison, El-Yateem — one of two boys and four girls born to parents Naim and Janette — decided to check out the nearest seminary.
“My father, who at the time was making olive-wood Nativity sets, had known Bishara Awad, the president of the Bethlehem Bible College, who had been a godfather to my sister.”
El-Yateem would soon attend a two-year course, in which he gained a perspective on the relationship between faith and nationalism.
“What I learned at the Bethlehem Bible College was that faith does not negate love of the homeland,” he said.
Awad had been associated with the Mennonites in Palestine, and was able to steer the newly established college toward a progressive understanding of issues of peace and justice.
El-Yateem learned more about Christian liberation theology, and would rub shoulders with Palestinian-Christian thinkers who felt they needed to develop a theology of the land that counters the right-wing Christian Zionist ideology that justifies Israel’s occupation.
El-Yateem would continue his BA studies in Egypt’s Evangelical Theological Seminary. After graduation in the spring of 1992, he met Grace George, a Palestinian-American nurse who had come to volunteer with the US medical charity Operation Smile.
The two married in December 1992 and traveled to the US. El-Yateem applied for the Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, near where George’s family was living.
It was shortly after his graduation and ordination as a Lutheran pastor that El-Yateem would land in the southern Brooklyn area. The bishop of the Lutheran Church in New York had noticed a demographic change in the area.
Gone were many Scandinavian immigrants from areas like Bay Ridge; instead Middle Eastern Christians were moving into the area.
El-Yateem was assigned to the area and was granted to shepherd the Salem Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge.
El-Yateem’s first decision was to change the name of the church. He changed “Salem” to “Salam” making the new name Salam Arabic Church. Services were conducted in Arabic and English but El-Yateem’s mission went much further. He began organizing classes in English for new immigrants and brought in lawyers to give advice to people facing problems with their immigration papers. He also reached out to other faith leaders including other Christian leaders, Muslims and Jews.
El-Yateem co-founded the Bay Ridge Unity Task Force in 2001 to promote unity and cooperation in his own neighborhood. A skilled mediator who is willing to champion difficult issues, the new pastor began tackling hard problems in the community. He started by combating drug use among neighborhood youth, building police community relations, and serving newly arrived immigrants into the district. This community effort would soon become necessary.
It was 9/11 that brought El-Yateem into the public eye. He spoke out clearly in both condemnation and solidarity.
“We wanted to send a double message,” El-Yateem said. “We wanted everyone to know that we totally condemned the heinous act that led to the killing of fellow New Yorkers; but at the same time we wanted to make sure that our community does not have to bear the brunt of any revenge act,” he explained to Arab News.
The efforts paid off in a different way. A PBS documentary producer decided to choose three Arab Americans — a Lebanese journalist working at the UN, a Yemeni policeman in New York, and El-Yateem — to feature in a film. The documentary “Caught in the Crossfire” not only gave prominence to the Arab-American community in New York but also humanized it.
El-Yateem’s community activities, along with his public exposure, quickly propelled him to be a true community leader. He started to appear at public events, and government officials reached out to him for help in coordinating with the local community.
Many community roles
In his nearly two decades in Brooklyn, El-Yateem has been asked to serve on a community board, as well as the boards of St. Nicholas Home, Lutheran Augustana Home, and the Arab-American Association of New York. He also was appointed as clergy liaison for the New York City Police Department — helping to ensure a collaborative and productive relationship between community members and the local precinct.
His last six years working in the patient relations department of Maimonides Medical Center has also allowed El-Yateem to further strengthen his work with local families, helping them navigate the often complicated health care system.
“Working at Maimonides gave me a unique opportunity to meet with and engage with a wide group of American Jews,” he said. “They all know I am a Palestinian patriot but we have been able to find common ground and I am sure many who promised to support me in the coming elections will do so.”
If El-Yateem succeeds in the elections in November, he will make history as the first Arab-American member of the New York City Council. He has come a long way since that cold night in an Israeli jail.