An Oasis of Hope

The Awana program at the only evangelical church in Gaza is extending God’s love, truth and grace to kids and families in this volatile region.

By Deann Alford in Gaza City

Thursday and Friday afternoons, a haggard bus drives a circuit through garbage-strewn neighborhoods in one of the world’s most volatile and densely inhabited areas of the world, where half of the population is under age 15.

Israeli punsters quip “go to Gaza” when they mean “go to hell.” Many say it’s an apt comparison for this tract of misery that nobody likes yet everybody is fighting over. Gaza’s scant biblical significance is largely evil.

Gaza’s reality
Gaza smells of salt and decay, a place where donkeys are left to rot where they fall, where violence is normal and life for most is a hopeless, toxic mix of poverty, sickness, joblessness, illiteracy and domestic abuse. The Gaza Strip’s 1.3 million people live on a speck of land the size of Corpus Christi, Texas, a city that holds just one-fifth of Gaza’s population. The United Nations says 70 percent of Gazans live on less than $2 a day. Israel, which controls the strip, allows few Gazans out and few visitors in.

Almost all Gazans are Muslim. Only 9,600 are considered “Christian.” Most attend a Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Anglican church because that's where their families have belonged for generations. Christian numbers are dropping as many of those who can are fleeing their homeland for places that offer brighter futures – Europe, the United States and South America. Just about anywhere is better than the dead-end existence that Gazans collectively face. Some even become Muslim.

Among those pressed on all sides are children from nominal Christian backgrounds. Their Muslim friends, neighbors and teachers also constantly urge them to convert to Islam.

Awana Clubs in Gaza Fun, fellowship and faith building
So twice a week, Gaza Baptist Church’s chartered Awana bus stops by the houses and apartment buildings of approximately 100 children to take them to an afternoon of fun, fellowship and filling their hearts with God’s Word. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Awana to children from traditional backgrounds – and to the gospel’s future presence in Gaza. Awana is reaching children who were raised in the church but were never grounded in their faith.

Tiny but growing Gaza Baptist, planted some 50 years ago by Southern Baptist missionaries, is the Gaza Strip’s only evangelical church. Almost all Awana clubbers are Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic. And they're not only coming to Christ but also are reaching their parents, friends and neighbors with the gospel.

Before Awana began at Gaza Baptist as an outreach primarily to nominal Christian children two years ago, “These children didn't know anything about the Bible,” says Suhad Massad, director of Gaza’s Awana club and wife of Gaza Baptist’s pastor, Hanna Massad. “They didn't know what is inside the Bible, and they didn't know the verses. The main idea is to let them know more deeply the Bible.”

An anchor within a spiritual storm
Since the Islamic Intifada, or uprising, began in October 2000, Hanna Massad has witnessed Gaza’s spiritual atmosphere evolve from a mainly secular Islam to a form that's far more devout. The reason, Massad says, is because most Gazans believe their suffering stems from Allah’s anger at them; stricter adherence to Islam will appease Allah and improve their plight.

Gaza offers few fun options for Christian children to choose. Just about every activity for kids in Gaza centers on the Islamic faith. Even public schools are steeped in Islam. Religion is central to Middle Eastern life. Muslims constantly challenge Christians with myths they’ve heard about Jesus and Christianity: that Christians worship three gods, that Christianity is a “changed” religion, that Jesus was just another prophet, that God cannot have a Son. Such an atmosphere sows uncertainty within those not grounded in their faith.

“If they're empty from inside, it’s easy to have doubts about Christianity and about the Bible,” Suhad Massad says. “The main problem here is that they do not understand what you mean about God and the Son of God. It’s very easy for them to question their faith.” Without grounding, children and even adults are vulnerable to abandoning their faith.

Making disciples
Before Awana, when others challenged their faith, the children didn't know how to answer. “But now when they have any question they can answer from the Bible directly,” Suhad Massad says. “It really gives them the strength to share the gospel of love. At the same time we can teach them the Bible, and they can memorize the verses. We have testimonies from parents about their behavior with their family and friends. We can notice this, too.”

The children bear powerful witness that can win many to Christ. Parents’ interest gets piqued by the dramatic changes in their Awana clubber children who come to faith. Parents often help their children memorize Scripture to win prizes, and in the process they hear the gospel.

Sometimes parents come to Sunday worship at Gaza Baptist, where they receive Christ. Awana disciples the club members and teaches even the youngest ones how to share their faith. Suhad says that about half of the clubbers have brought at least one parent to faith in Christ.

“The child is a gate to the family,” says Khader Khoury, who leads Gaza’s Sparkies.

Changed lives
Suhad Massad shares the story of Rami, a 10-year-old Orthodox boy whose Christian neighbors joined Awana and invited him to a meeting almost two years ago. In a few short weeks, Suhad watched Rami transform from a “very naughty” child who cursed and fought with his siblings into one who is calm, helpful and polite. His language is no longer foul, and he is kind to everyone.

His amazed mother has not only encouraged her other children to attend Awana but also has begun attending church herself. One of Rami’s brothers has joined Awana. Rami also has invited others to attend.

Then there's Mousail, 15, a depressive loner from an Orthodox family. He turned down his siblings’ invitations to attend club. Then the church launched a JV Awana group for teens. Mousail came to a meeting. The next week he returned. Leaders began giving him responsibilities. The teenager not only eagerly accepted the tasks assigned him but also asked to help with Friday programs for younger children. He, too, came to faith in Christ.

“He has the heart to help and minister,” Suhad says of Mousail. “He likes to serve people.” Last year he was chosen to play the role of Jesus in Gaza Baptist’s Easter play.

Standing firm amidst trials
Most of the 100 or so Awana clubbers have trusted Christ as Savior, but Suhad notes that discipleship is vital to keeping these children in the faith. “We share with them every time the message that Jesus is the only way, but if you don't continue with them it’s easy to forget,” Suhad says. “Sometimes they don't notice they're changing but the people around them will notice.”

Life isn't easy for traditional Christians who receive Christ. Gaza’s Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic clergy, angered by what they perceive as “stealing sheep” from their ever-dwindling congregations, not only actively discourage Awana and Baptist church attendance but also threaten families. Reprisals include parents losing their children’s scholarships or their own jobs at the Catholic school.

Some families won’t let their children attend Awana for fear of reprisals. In response to the popularity of Awana, some Orthodox and Catholic churches have even launched their own children’s programs.

Gaza’s Awana program is geared toward children from traditional Christian backgrounds. “The situation here is very sensitive for other kids from other backgrounds to come to the Awana club,” Suhad says. Only one child from a non-Christian background takes part in the club. He leaves his Awana T-shirt at the church where he changes into it.

Ministering in a war zone
Then there are the dangers of living in a volatile zone. Israel has responded to suicide bombings by firing mortars at Palestinian Authority buildings or Hamas leaders. Christians have numbered among the innocent victims of such attacks. The roof of Gaza Baptist Church has collapsed four times following Israeli strikes at nearby buildings.

During Awana club meetings, “Sometimes you can hear bombs and F-16s in the sky,” Suhad says. “(Reprisal attacks) can happen anytime, anywhere, and sometimes we’re afraid (the Awana clubbers) can't get home safely.”

But God’s hand has protected this growing cluster of believing children. For two hours each week, a hundred Gazan kids can leave the woe around them, board the bus and head for a club meeting at Gaza Baptist Church. Awana is quietly transforming Gaza by bringing peace and revival to a hundred children's souls.

It’s Amazing
What God
Has Done

Otto Melby was a carefree 13-year-old from a loving Christian family in Chicago when an unexpected event rocked his world.

When his father passed away in 1949, Otto struggled profoundly with the loss. His mother became deeply concerned as she watched her son grow increasingly confused and angry with God and those around him. It was clear to her that he needed a male mentor to fill the void left by his dad’s death.

Read More

Using Her Gifts to Serve Others in Full-Time Ministry and Awana

A few months ago, Mandy Hornbuckle’s box of Awana memories tumbled out the back of a truck going 60 miles per hour down a Texas highway. The box contained old Awana uniforms, pins and her Citation Award, the highest achievement in Awana.Mandy Hornbuckle earned the Citation Award for learning Scripture verses and truths

As the box hit the pavement, the contents scattered all along the road.

Read More

Celebrating 50-Plus Years of Faithful Awana Service

Gwendetta Albright’s 50-plus years of faithful Awana service at a church in Chicago has changed lives in hundreds of families

Gwendetta Albright grew up on the west side of Chicago. She trusted Christ for salvation at a summer camp at age 13. She then started serving as an Awana leader two years later in 1958.

Read More

First Family Church: Using Awana to Reach Kids and Parents for Christ

A few years ago, Roger Stuart’s life changed dramatically. He trusted Christ for salvation through the ministry of First Family Church in Overland Park, Kansas.The Sparks children's ministry club at First Family Church in Overland Park, Kansas

“I came to First Family Church in hopes of finding a great children's ministry for my daughter,” Roger said. “I was more concerned with her spiritual growth than my own. But listening to my pastor preach, I felt like he wasn't talking to a congregation of 2,000; he was talking to me and my own personal struggles.

Read More

Hope Amidst Hardship

For 12 years, Carlton Carty knew only intense poverty and suffering. Now, thanks to an Awana program in central Jamaica, he knows Jesus as Savior.

The first time they met, Carlton Carty made an immediate impression on Brad Rostad—but not exactly a good one.

Read More

An Oasis
of Hope

The Awana program at the only evangelical church in Gaza is extending God’s love, truth and grace to kids and families in this volatile region.

Thursday and Friday afternoons, a haggard bus drives a circuit through garbage-strewn neighborhoods in one of the world’s most volatile and densely inhabited areas of the world, where half of the population is under age 15.

Read More

31 Years of Service Brings Generations to Lasting Faith in Christ

If you’re ever looking for someone from the Wallace family, there’s a good chance you’ll find them at Harvest Bible Chapel in Lake Zurich, Illinois on Monday nights.

Every Monday starting at 5:30 p.m., four generations of Wallace family members serve in Awana. Bob, age 85, and Lucille, 82, along with their daughter Diane and granddaughter Jill, are faithful leaders in the Sparks (kindergarten through second grade) and T&T (third to sixth grade) clubs. A great-grandson, Brayden, is only 1 and stays in the nursery but is certain to someday be in Puggles (for 2- and 3-year-olds).

Read More

The Model Awana Leader

Jim Barker was facing a dim future when his aunt brought him out of the backwoods of Tennessee to live in Chicago during the Great Depression.

Jim resided in one of the poorest sections of the city. He was painfully shy. He had a meager educational background. He wasn't good at sports. His Southern accent made him a target for insults. He didn't own a car and rarely had money in his pocket.

Read More

Baseball Continues To Be a Tool to Proclaim the Gospel

Alvin Davis has hit his share of home runs over the years. As first baseman for the Seattle Mariners from 1984 to 1991, Alvin racked up 160 home runs and batted .280 in 1,206 games. He homered in his first two big-league games and once belted a grand slam with both Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr. on base. Alvin Davis played eight seasons and made the All-Star team with the Seattle Mariners

Alvin was named 1984 American League Rookie of the Year and was also selected that year for the All-Star Game. He was the first inductee into the Seattle Mariners Hall of Fame in 1997.

Read More

to Awana and Helping Their Own Kids Develop Lasting Faith

You may know what it’s like to get one or two kids ready for Awana and to church on time. But can you imagine getting six kids organized and out the door?

The Pilgrim family lives in Huntsville, Alabama, and all six children participate in Awana at Whitesburg Baptist Church every Sunday night:

Read More

Building a Worldwide Kids’ Ministry From the Ground up

Art Rorheim is co-founder of Awana. Art built Awana from the ground up from its early days as a weekly club program at the North Side Gospel Center in Chicago.

Art was introduced to youth and children’s ministry in 1935 at age 17 when Lance Latham, his church’s pastor, asked him to serve as a club leader at the North Side Gospel Center.

Read More

Leading Awana to Influence Generations of Kids to Follow Christ

Since 1999, Jack Eggar has served as President/CEO of Awana. He has provided strategic leadership for the ministry’s efforts to equip churches and parents in raising children and youth to know, love and serve Christ. Under his guidance, Awana has expanded its impact from a total of 9,000 churches around the world in 1998 to over 22,000 as of 2011.

Knowing that parents are the key influencers in their children’s spiritual development, Jack invested vision and passion to give direction for the recent launch of the Modern-Day Joseph and Awana at Home initiatives.

Read More