Bridging two worlds is nothing out of the ordinary for Rola Al Ashkar, MA(TS) ’16, who arrived in the United States from Lebanon to attend Princeton Theological Seminary and decided to settle across the country in California.
An ordained pastor and ministry assistant for outreach and Christian education at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, Al Ashkar is founder of ἴama Yoga.
“I wanted to be part of something that helps people see that they can be serious about their faith and commitment to the church and, at the same time, live their life and be a fun person and do fun things,” Al Ashkar says.
ἴama Yoga is a new worshiping community that brings people together to enjoy something from the secular world that they love and perhaps, in the process, be introduced to God.
ἴama (pronounced ee-yah-mah) is the Greek noun (ἴαμα) for healing.
“Sacramento is becoming a more and more secular town,” Al Ashkar says. “I feel like I have this gift of being able to connect to people, where there is no judgment. They see me as a person like them, and then they can't believe I'm a pastor, at the same time.”
Through the yoga program, Al Ashkar has been able to bridge these two worlds. “I can meet people where they are rather than asking them to come to us and see what great ministry we have.”
Al Ashkar says her time at Princeton Seminary was critical to who she is today.
“My year at Princeton was life-changing,” she says. “It opened me up to be who I always wanted to be.” She also says she was made to feel special from the day she arrived when Rev. Jan Ammon, minister of the chapel, and Martin Tel, C.F. Seabrook Director of Music, invited her to sing and dance as part of the chapel service during orientation for new international students.
“The biggest transformation that happened for me during that year, both from what we learned and from interaction with people, is this physical liberation,” she adds. “What we're doing (with yoga) really is embodied spirituality, using your body for worship. And that would be a taboo in my culture.” Yoga is banned in Lebanon.
Al Ashkar says her yoga ministry is part of what the church is going to look like for years to come.
“This is the church of the future,” she concludes. “Some people would look at new worshiping communities as ‘less churchy,’ but I would like people to know that this is what we're called to do: to go out and reach people in different ways.”