The scene is still so fresh in his mind that it might have happened 27 minutes ago instead of 27 years ago.
Habib Alajaji, his three children, and his pregnant wife huddled in the stairwell of their apartment building in Beirut, Lebanon. Thirty people from the building were there, waiting for lulls in the missile, rocket, and mortar fire, waiting for the machine guns to pause, even for a moment. They were in the middle of a civil war. When the explosions stopped, they were replaced by sirens or screaming. Residents raced from the stairwell into their apartments, grabbed temporary provisions, and raced back before they were trapped in new violence.
Before the Alajajis moved to the stairwell, their apartment was blown open by a shell that burst through a wall and exploded. "A few times on that stairwell we felt shells hit the building, and I thought, 'This is it,'" Habib Alajaji said. "Money won't help you in that situation. Fame won't help. The only thing you can cling to is the name of Jesus. There is nothing else you can trust."
The Alajaji family lived in the stairwell for more than two weeks. Eventually they moved to another part of Beirut. Alajaji, an Armenian, had been pastoring the Church of the Nazarene in Lebanon. He became the district superintendent for Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan after the war forced Nazarene missionaries out of the region. His knowledge of the Armenian, English, Arabic, and Turkish languages made him a strategic leader in the church's Middle East efforts. But the war kept him from visiting many churches, and Habib and his family faced increasing danger in Beirut.
More than 60,000 people were killed in the war's first year. The Church of the Nazarene's World Mission department convinced Habib to leave the area until the war died down. For six months, they said. The Alajaji family moved to Glendale, California, where hundreds of thousands of Armenians had relocated from Armenia, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Wars in Lebanon continued with Syria and Israel, making it unsafe to go back home.
"We did not want to stay in the United States," he said.
"We wanted to raise our children in our conservative tradition. But the Lord convinced us that if we would remain faithful to Him, He would take care of our children."
And the pastor in him noticed something about Glendale. "There were no Nazarene Armenian churches here, or anywhere else in the country," he said. Many Armenians in the area drove to Pasadena to some Christian churches with Armenian congregations, but people told him they weren't comfortable in those churches.
Alajaji began looking for a place to start a church. Glendale alone is home to approximately 60,000 Armenians. The greater Los Angeles County has closer to 400,000 Armenians. Many came to the U.S. during the civil war in Lebanon, while others came during the Iranian revolution, the Iran/Iraq war, and the current war in Iraq.
The Glendale Church of the Nazarene welcomed Alajaji and the others to form an Armenian congregation there. It was the first Armenian Nazarene church in the U.S. Soon the English-speaking congregation realized it could no longer afford a pastor or building payments, and asked Alajaji to pastor both the English-speaking and Armenian congregations, a position he held for almost two years. Eventually the English congregation closed.
The third year after taking over the payments on the building, the Armenian congregation paid off its mortgage. "I don't know how we did it," Alajaji said. Since then, the church has started two more Armenian Nazarene churches-one in Pasadena and another in North Hollywood. They have collaborated to start even more Nazarene churches back in Armenia, where Nazarene work is now in three Armenian cities.
Alajaji travels to Armenia frequently to teach in a Bible school. After the 1988 earthquake that killed more than 55,000 people in Armenia, he went as part of a Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM) effort, and helped move a sewing factory into the region. The factory was equipped for handicapped people to operate, giving a rare employment opportunity to many of those who were injured. He also traveled to Turkey for NCM after a devastating earthquake there in 1999. In California, the Nazarene Armenians are on television every other Sunday morning broadcasting music and a sermon in the Armenian language.
In the fall of 2004, the Glendale Armenian congregation celebrated its 25th anniversary. Alajaji felt that his time as pastor should end, so he retired at the end of the year. But retirement is a relative term. He plans to keep traveling to Armenia to teach at the Bible school. He also plans to preach throughout Armenia and the U.S.
"I don't think a minister of God retires," he said. "I'm not retiring from preaching or winning souls."
Dean Nelson is director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University.
Holiness Today, Sept/Oct 2005