The Khajehpour family. Left to right: Nahid, Matthew, Mansour, and Rebeka.
Iranian Alumnus Serves Presbyterians in Middle America
by Roger Shapiro and Kimberly Pinnix
Mansour Khajehpour (M.Div., 2008), a native of Mashhad, Iran, has experienced firsthand the persecution that comes with being a Christian in some parts of the world. Having been born into a Muslim family and trained to faithfully follow Shi’ite Islamic laws, Khajehpour was a practicing Muslim for the earlier part of his life. However, he was faced with harsh consequences when he converted to Christianity from his Muslim roots. Over the course of fifteen years living as a Muslim convert, he was imprisoned twice and even faced a death sentence for his decision. “For years, I lived in Iran as a Christian and freely preached and shared the good news of Jesus Christ,” he said.
In Iran there were different waves of persecution. In 1994 Khajehpour was imprisoned for apostasy and evangelism. The second time he was arrested, he was serving as an elder and director of youth ministries at the Presbyterian church in Tehran, Iran’s capital. He was imprisoned for twelve days, but said, “People visited me and were still respectful and used nice titles. They treated me well and never tortured me. They were even very apologetic when someone came and told me, ‘I’m very sorry that we have to kill you.’” Although the Iranian government was under international pressure from humanitarian organizations, it was still a scary time—Christians were being killed.
Before Khajehpour’s scheduled execution, miraculously, the government released him from jail with instructions not to leave the town. “I tested them. First I went to a town twenty miles away and came home. Nothing happened. Then I went further away and nothing happened. I realized that I could get across the borders so I fled to Greece in the summer of 1996,” he said.
Prior to leaving his country, Khajehpour had already lost contact with family members, and keeping his new faith was not easy. He recalled a time his uncle held a knife to his throat, telling him to denounce his Christianity. “I said that if God wants me to die today, you will kill me. If he doesn’t, you won’t be able to do any harm to me. He left me right away, and alive,” said Khajehpour. Similarly, his father disowned him. While they later reconciled their relationship, Khajehpour could not return to Iran for his father’s funeral.
Khajehpour along with his wife and one-year-old daughter found peace when they left Iran. After spending a year in Greece and starting a ministry in Athens, their asylum-seeking case was accepted by the United States. They migrated as refugees to Salt Lake City, Utah, on June 28, 1997—with $100, stories of escaping Iran, and nothing else.
Their plan, after Khajehpour got a car and started working as a financial manager, was to start an Iranian church in Salt Lake City. “However, I realized there were not enough Iranians in Utah. So we moved to Seattle, Washington,” he said.
Just three weeks after moving to Seattle, Khajehpour found his way to Seattle Presbytery, where he was welcomed, supported, and empowered to start the Persian Church of the Good Shepherd. In the fall of 1998, he was called by the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a commission lay pastor. “This new ministry enabled us to share the Good News with thousands of people. We were blessed to baptize forty-five (former) Muslims and hold many outreach events,” he said. While he was there, the church thrived and took advantage of his preaching experience. But Khajehpour had other aspirations. He wanted to earn an American M.Div. degree, a degree he had started in Iran. Once again, the family moved, this time heading to Princeton Seminary.
“I had many good experiences at the Seminary, but the most important thing I brought to Fort Scott [the congregation he currently serves in Kansas] from Princeton is the discipline of preaching the word of God in many new ways. Learning how to preach to people of the United States was something I didn’t know before I went to the Seminary,” he said. Khajehpour credits Princeton with giving him the tools to succeed at an English-speaking congregation. “I believe Fort Scott trusted Princeton Seminary’s training and opened its doors to me. They made me welcome,” he said.
As he recalled his Princeton experience, Khajehpour talked about learning to study the Bible in a deeper way—alone and in small groups and respecting diversity, all while learning from professors who shaped how he ministers today. In particular, he talks fondly of Michael Brothers, assistant professor of speech communication in ministry, Bruce McCormack, the Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology, and Martin Tel, the C.F. Seabrook Director of Music.
“Dr. Brothers taught me to read the word of God slowly, Dr. McCormack encouraged me to shape my theological faith, and Dr. Tel’s work touched my heart. These three brothers joined a few other brother and sisters who have shaped my life,” said Khajehpour.
They’ve also shaped how Khajehpour serves his congregation today. For example, at Christmas in 2010, he adopted Tel’s Carols of Many Nations program, one of Princeton Seminary’s most beloved annual events. Presented in seven languages, Khajehpour’s program included stories and songs from around the world. “We looked for narratives that we could relate to the songs. For example, after singing “Joy to the World” in French, we talked about Christianity in that country today and the challenges people face. When we sang “Feliz Navidad” in Spanish, we talked about what was happening in El Salvador,” said Khajehpour.
The program was a complete success, with 240 people staying after the service to sing carols by candlelight in twenty-degree weather. The local paper wrote about it http://www.fstribune.com/story/1689373.html and nearby churches called because they wanted to duplicate the event. One church in Pittsburg, Kansas, even asked Khajehpour to organize a similar program for its congregation. Most recently, the Ministerial Alliance of Fort Scott adapted this event. Khajehpour is excited about the December 2011 event and has already secured the participation of a number of local churches.
“I took the idea from Princeton and modified it to reflect the community in Kansas, but I really credit Martin Tel. The idea came from him and he did it so well. His program impacted my life in a way that I can’t forget,” said Khajehpour.
Following graduation from PTS in 2008, Khajehpour took a call to serve as the director of mission and stewardship in Seattle Presbytery. Two years later, in 2010, he was called to the First Presbyterian Church in Fort Scott, Kansas, an all-white church in the middle of America. “Working closely with the executive presbyter at Seattle Presbytery was priceless. I worked with several churches and fellowships, which opened my eyes to the amazing work that Jesus Christ is doing, but I wanted more challenges,” he said. “At first I wasn’t sure if Fort Scott was the right answer.”
While he had concerns, Khajehpour found comfort in taking on the role of pastor and has used his diverse experience to make an immediate impact. It’s a role that shows how far he has come—spiritually and geographically—from his days as a practicing Muslim participating in the Islamic revolution that swept through Iran in the 1970s. In 2010, Khajehpour was ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the PCUSA. He is the first Iranian pastor ever ordained by the PCUSA.
“I’m in southeast Kansas. This part of the world is the least diverse place I’ve ever been,” he said. “I’ve lived in Iran, Greece, Turkey, and the east and west coasts of the United States. When I first got called to a church made up of one hundred percent white people, I was concerned. But once I got here, I learned that they are mentally diverse. The people are not ethnically diverse, but they are so open-minded. So I thought I could contribute to this congregation,” he said.
Although membership at Khajehpour’s church has remained steady with about 300 members, with his contributions Sunday worship attendance has increased by thirty-five percent—from ninety-five to 140 people. Reflecting on his short experience in Kansas, Khajehpour said, “We have helped each other.”
Unfortunately, the situation in Iran is not much better today than when Khajehpour fled. In December 2010, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad broadcast what Khajehpour called “a seemingly nice Christmas message to Christians in Iran.” However, two days later, ninety-three Christians were arrested and two weeks later 190 more were arrested—all because they follow Jesus Christ. “The situation in Iran may seem to be okay these days, but the fact is that the unstable political situation has a direct impact on our fellow sisters and brothers in Iran. One day there is peace and the next day things are not so peaceful. It looks like the cycle of persecution has unpredictable rhythms in Iran,” he said. Khajehpour hopes to see more people praying and advocating for the voiceless Iranian Christians.
Click here to read about Khajehpour’s ordination, making him the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s first Iranian pastor.
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