Pastor Sam Farbod is a compassionate, patient, measured and thoughtful leader, pioneering a vital work in Melbourne’s Eastern suburbs. He and his wife Nicky and their daughter Negin arrived in Australia 14 years ago. At the time, Nicky was accepted as a PhD student at Melbourne University, while Sam was working in Engineering. Over the last fourteen years they have distributed Bibles and Christian materials and led Bible study groups for people of Muslim background. One such small group, with five people, was at NewHope Baptist Church. Later in 2013, Sam and his family felt a strong call to serve the Lord in an extended way and it was accompanied by an invitation from NewHope’s leadership to serve the growing Persian community. Today the congregation is mainly comprised of new migrants, refugees and asylum seekers – many of whom are suffering greatly in the current COVID-19 crisis and Australia’s subsequent economic climate.
Below is a compelling interview with Pastor Sam that reveals both the intensity of pastoral leadership and the incomparable joys of transformation. His recent in-depth studies help Australian Christians to understand their important role in living out their Christian faith and welcoming new arrivals into loving Christian communities.
Who are the people in your congregation?
Most of the people in this congregation are refugees and asylum seekers who have fled Iran to come to Australia for different reasons. Some of them have fled Iran because of persecution. There are very harsh penalties for Muslims who choose to convert to other religions. Some of them have come to Australia because of their political and anti-government activities in Iran. Some of the people have come to Australia in hope of freedom and also hope of better future for their families. The community consists of people from different age groups. However, the majority of people are young families, single men and women.
Most of the people in the Persian community are new migrants, refugees or asylum seekers, who are carrying profound emotional, spiritual and physical issues originating from their past. They are often afflicted by being away from their families and friends with the transitional changes they are experiencing being highly challenging. They have come to a new world, surrounded by people with a different culture, language, values and religions. These newcomers are also experiencing deep anxiety caused by uncertainty concerning their future, as well as for their children and loved ones whom they have left behind in their own countries.
Similar to other new Christian communities, there are only a few mature Christian lay people, who can be supportive of leadership in serving this community. The need for pastoral care is considerable and is extremely time consuming. Furthermore, the biblical knowledge of members in the congregation is limited and given their previous religious and cultural values and conceptions, there is considerable scope and challenge in being able to further grow and develop these people. In addition, language barriers and cultural differences limit the English-speaking Christian leaders’ ability to provide effective support.
How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting your congregation?
The current situation has intensively affected many Persian refugees and asylum seekers whom we are serving. Many of these people have lost their casual or part-time jobs and are in desperate need. Some of them had been supporting their families back in Iran by sending them a part of their income. By losing their jobs, they are no longer able to support their families (who were completely dependent on this) in Iran.
The stress and pressure these people experience is affecting their mental wellbeing and emotional health. They are also affected by the news they hear from inside Iran and are worried about their families back there. Some of them have lost their family members, relatives, or friends, because of the widespread of sickness inside Iran or have their family members affected by COVID-19.
How are needs being met?
These people are in need of receiving practical assistance, prayer, and counselling. We do our best to serve them in this distressing situation. In response, the church has continued providing food vouchers and food baskets (including Persian rice). In response to their emotional needs, I have tried to spend time with these families through phone calls, Skype and occasional home visits. These pastoral care activities have almost filled my time. There are professional counselling services available in NewHope Medical Centre, but unfortunately due to some cultural issues, people are often hesitated to get assistance from the centre.
However, I think, in the short term, we can assist these people not only by supporting them and giving them food vouchers but also by referring them to jobs which we may be aware of them in our workplace or somewhere else. Many of these people have lost whole or a part of their income and they are looking for a new job.
What has the experience of this journey into pastoral leadership been like?
Despite all challenges in serving people in this community, there have been always a great joy and encouragement for us when we see transformed lives. We see hopeless and weary people find hope in Jesus and this hope revives them and changes them. Through this journey with our Lord and His people, we have been greatly blessed by witnessing how the gracious Lord fills their lives with His assurance and hope. We see how the Lord uses his faithful followers in the church community to welcome, love and serve these hopeless and weary strangers (Iranian refugees and asylum seekers) who step into their church. This is the biggest encouragement for us that we are also a part of God’s plan for reaching to this people and serving them.
You have recently completed a PhD. How did you decide on your thesis?
The topic: The love of God: shared experiences of Muslim-background Iranian Christians in their journey to seek refuge in Australia.
Serving the Muslim background Iranians (and non-Iranians) during past 14 years, it was interesting to me to see how God works in every individual’s life through different paths to bring them to his knowledge and eventually into a personal relationship with Him. I found the most common aspect of God which is reflected and emphasized in Muslim background believers’ testimonies and life stories is His unconditional love. God reveals himself to Muslims and gets their attention through different ways such as dreams, visions, miracles and His Word. But there is one unique and important aspect of God which is very attractive. It helps Muslims to continue learning about Him, change their previous beliefs and eventually believe in him. This aspect is the Love of God, which motivates them to continue the spiritual journey they have started. This observation motivated me to have my thesis in this topic and try to find out how Muslims make sense of the concept of Love of God in Christian faith and why it is so attractive for them. Is it a mere conceptual idea or it is a practical experience? The love of God often has been subject if many debates between Christian and Muslim scholars. I tried to find out is there any similarities between concept of the love of God in Islamic and Christian doctrines. Moreover, is “love of God” only a conceptual idea expressed in the Bible or it is a real and tangible reality experienced by people (Muslims) in their relationship with God revealed in the Bible? Did they experience the same when they lived as Muslim and worshipped Allah?
What were some of the findings from your thesis?
It was the participants’ contact and interaction with members of Australian churches, more specifically during the first months after their arrival in Australia: this greatly influenced their attachment to Christian communities and also contributed to their perceptions of the loving nature of God. The passionate and loving attitudes of Christians in taking care of the intensive emotional and physical needs of the participants, has profoundly contributed to shaping the participants’ views about the love of God in Christian faith. The godly characters of believers, their actions and deeds in serving others and their welcoming and receptive attitudes toward newcomers and strangers are commonly highlighted as reflective of God’s loving nature by this group of Iranians.
How do you hope the insights from your thesis will be used?
As the body of Christ, Christian communities could effectively contribute to the refugee and asylum seekers’ healing process. As we see, the community of believers plays a significant role in leading Muslim background Iranians to Christian faith. For Iranian new believers, God’s love is actualized in the loving attitudes and character of members of the Christian communities.
Are you thinking to share the findings of your study or your experience of serving Muslims with others who may be interested in or feel called to serve Muslims?
Yes, of course, God willing I would like to write a book based on my research. There are amazing stories about spiritual journeys of people in the community which is accompanied by their dangerous physical journey from Iran to Australia. The findings are astonishing; their views and perceptions about Christian faith and its communities are fresh and look at them from a different perspective.
Moreover, I am trying to design and offer a series of classes for people who might be interested in serving Muslims. Australia is one of the main destinations for the Muslim refugee and asylum seekers. This provides us with a continuous opportunity to connect them, serve them, carry their burdens and share the God’s love with them. I believe there are many people who have heart to serve Muslims. We need to equip these people by helping them to understand Muslims, and answer their questions: How do Muslims see Christian faith? How they interpret our interaction with them? How do they make sense of our God and compare it with the idea of God which they used to carry for a long time in the past? Do all groups of Muslims have a common understanding of God (Allah)? We hope to initiate these classes soon and I would encourage our sisters and brothers in the Baptist family to join us.