Muscular Love: Yohanna Katanacho
A Palestinian evangelical, Rev. Dr. Yohanna Katanacho serves as the Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College. He is the author of several books, including The Land of Christ: A Palestinian Cry. (This interview was published in the March/April 2012 issue of PRISM magazine.)
Interviewed by Paul Alexander and Robert K. Welsh
I was born in Jerusalem in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli War. My mom was at the hospital, and my dad was not able to come because of the curfew outside. The next day he had to endanger his life to come pay the hospital in order to release me and my mom. That was the first day of my life.
We lived on Via Delarosa—the Way of the Cross, Station 8—and I grew up in the old city of Jerusalem. I used to see people carrying crosses and singing, but God was so far from my heart and my mind. When I grew up as a young person there were a lot of things that tempted me—drugs, gambling, alcohol—and my life was so far from God. But God still had mercy on me, even though I didn’t have a relationship with him.
I come from a Roman Catholic family, but my family only visited church once in a while. When I grew up I joined the university and became an atheist. Eventually I became one of the leaders there who advocated atheism. My undergrad degree is in chemistry. This somehow fit with the scientific approach, and the one reinforced the other. Then around 1986 I had a very strange experience. I was sleeping at my home on Via Delarosa, and at about 3:00 a.m. I heard the bells of the churches ringing, and I opened my eyes. Then I felt some kind of air going through my body. I was not able to move my hands or feet and not to able to shout. It was not a nightmare—I was awake—but I didn’t know what was going on. My mind was really crashing. I wondered, “What in the world is happening? Why can’t I move? Am I paralyzed? Am I dead?” I tried to free myself, but I was not able to get up. After about two hours of struggling I said, “God, if this is from you, free me and I promise to look for you.” The moment I said that I was able to move again. I was terrified.
My whole worldview collapsed in one night. What could I do? I was one of the leaders at the university advocating atheism. I was confused. As a result of this experience, every time I walked in a dark place I had fear in my heart and mind, a continual reminder of what had happened to me. I went to the university and told them I wouldn’t be active in the atheism group anymore, but I didn’t explain why. I started looking for an answer. For almost a year I searched. And as I was looking, someone started interacting with me who was a Christian. I thought maybe I need to read the Bible. I thought, “Jesus is a cute guy; he’s meek; he never hurt anyone; he’s a good person, I’m willing to know more about this man.” So I started reading, but I was not convinced.
I was invited to a church, and the presence of God was really strong there, and I felt God speaking to me, telling me, “Yohanna, you are a sinner.” I had no problem confessing that I am a sinner. So I closed my eyes and said, “Lord, I give you my heart, but I can’t give you my mind. I know that I am a sinner, and I can see that you are the Savior and that you love me, so I’m giving you my heart, but I’m really not convinced, and I cannot follow you with my mind.”
“God was shaping my heart. I would walk in the same streets, see the same soldiers, and now I would pray in my heart, “Lord, please let them stop me. Because when they stop me I can share your love with them.”
God in his mercy chose to speak to me that week in dreams. I’m a very intellectual person, and yet God saw that this was the more effective way to deal with me rather than giving me arguments. These dreams were really a turning point in my life. God whispered in my ear, “If you want to follow me with your effort you will lose me, but if you are in Christ, then I will carry you, and this is grace.” For some reason when I heard that the barrier in my mind just fell. And I said, “Lord, I want now to give you my heart and mind. I want to give you my whole life.”
It was said easily, but obedience is the real test of whether it’s true or not. The first thing God put on my mind was, “You have to start a Bible study at the same university where you were advocating atheism.” I said, “NO WAY. No way. Forget it.” I struggled. But the struggle went through stages. One of the first stages was something very important that God wanted to prepare me for. He wanted to take away the hatred I had toward the Jews.
How could I relate to the Jews? I read my Bible, and Matthew says to love your enemies. It wasn’t like multiple choice—Who is my enemy?—the answer was clear for me. But I didn’t know what to do. In the streets Israeli soldiers would stop me and ask for my ID card. I would pull out my ID card, and many times they would ask me to stand in a corner for one or two hours; it was humiliating. They provoked my anger, and all the time it was nourishing my hatred. I went to the Bible and read again, and the spirit of God whispered in my ear one time after another, “Love your enemies. Love your enemies.” Eventually I said, “Lord, I can’t. I don’t know what to do. How can I love my enemy when I’m living in a context that is so horrible?”
God again whispered in my ear, “Witness to them. This is the way you love them. Witness to them.” So I thought, “Okay, I don’t know where God is leading me, but I’ll take a small step of obedience.” I went to a restaurant where they had a flyer called “Real Love,” and on it was a quotation from Isaiah 53, written in Hebrew as well as in English. So I decided to take that flyer, put it in my ID card, and when the soldiers asked me for my ID card, I would pull it out and give it to them. In this way I would obey my Lord.
When the soldiers opened my card, they would say, “What is this?” And I would say, “This is how God wants me to relate to you.” I didn’t want to lie, I didn’t want to tell them how I felt about them, because I really didn’t feel any love in my heart, but I also wanted to obey the Lord. They would look at it and say, “Ah, this is from the Hebrew Bible,” and they would read it, and we’d have a discussion, and they would let me go. Sometimes they asked me more questions. I did that so many times that, without even noticing, my heart and mind and emotions started changing. God was shaping my heart. I would walk in the same streets, see the same soldiers, and now I would pray in my heart, “Lord, please let them stop me. Because when they stop me I can share your love with them.”
One night I was photocopying the church bulletin, which is in Arabic, and the photocopier was stubborn that night. I don’t know if the evil one or God himself was involved in this—I’ll discover in heaven—but the photocopier was not working well, and it took me so long to photocopy a few bulletins that it was about midnight. During that time some Palestinians were writing graffiti on the wall, political things, and distributing political flyers against the Israeli government. The Israeli government wanted to stop that, so they said, “If you call a Palestinian who looks suspicious, and he doesn’t stop, you can shoot him.” So it was a really tense, dangerous time, and most people wouldn’t go out at night. I was going down the stairs from Damascus Gate, and, lo and behold, there were three soldiers sitting at the gate. When I saw them, my heart went faster and faster, and I said, “Lord, I have all these Arabic bulletins in my jacket pocket, and these soldiers don’t read Arabic. If they see them they will think these are political flyers, and I will probably be detained for the night, and I really don’t want to do that, Lord. I was doing your work, and now you’re gonna do this to me? That’s not fair. So please, Lord, do your work. You know I don’t want any of this to happen.”
“The grace and mercy of God came to an atheist Palestinian in the middle of the night and transformed me into a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. God works in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, in Nazareth, in the Palestinian territories, in Israel today.”
One of the soldiers pointed at me with his finger, which basically means “Come here.” And if I didn’t respond to his finger I might be shot. I approached the three soldiers without thinking, and I don’t know why, but I opened the zipper of my jacket very quickly and the zipper made a sound and these three poor soldiers were terrified. They thought I was going to attack them and kill them. So they put their hands on their machine guns and pointed them at my face. I put my hand on my heart, and I said, “I love you.” There was a moment of silence. I don’t know how long it lasted, but it felt like eternity for me because the guns were pointing at my face. And then the soldiers put their guns down. The words of love were stronger than their machine guns.
And I started talking to them about Jesus Christ, who changed my heart and really helped me to understand that I love them. They said to me, “We wish that all Palestinians were like you.” I said, “No, I wish that you were like me—I wish that Jesus was in your heart.” And we had about a 20-minute discussion. It was like a sermon after midnight. Praise the Lord. The soldiers didn’t accept the Lord that night, but they really had something to think about. And I will not be surprised if I see them in heaven.
God taught me that love is not a feeling but a command, that love is a commitment to advocate Jesus Christ to the other. Only when we advocate Jesus do we truly love. Only when we help people to be transformed into the image of Jesus are we ourselves transformed into the image of Jesus whom we love. Since that day I learned that my love muscles are too weak. During the process of witnessing, God helped my love muscles grow stronger and stronger. Today I know I need to practice love so that my love muscles will grow stronger. We Palestinians have a great opportunity to be so muscular in our love.
Later, after God worked in my heart like this, God also opened an opportunity for me to start a Bible study at Bethlehem University, where I had once advocated atheism. That was the first Bible study ever in any of the Palestinian universities. We started with three students, and each semester the number grew. Then we had a conference and moved to other universities, and God in his mercy reached out to so many students. I thank God for that privilege.
Without his interference I would have been lost. The grace and mercy of God came to an atheist Palestinian in the middle of the night and transformed me into a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. God works on the Via Delarosa in this century. God works in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, in Nazareth, in the Palestinian territories, in Israel today. It’s amazing what God can do. All we need to do is be willing to walk with the Lord and to follow him whether he leads us to the checkpoint where I witness to soldiers or to the church where I kneel down in prayer. God is there—at the mount of transfiguration as well as in the valley of the shadow of death. God is here when I meet an Israeli soldier and when I meet a Muslim. God is here among the Palestinian people and in Palestinian churches.
These interviews were made possible by a grant from the Flame of Love Project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Paul Alexander is professor of Christian Ethics and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary as well as director of public policy at the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy. He edited Christ at the Checkpoint: Theology in the Service of Justice and Peace (Pickwick Publications, 2012) and is producing a film about Palestinian Christians titled With Love from Palestine.
Also read: “If We Could Be Where Peace Starts,” an interview with Elisheva Korytowski, a Messianic Jew who has served in the Israeli military forces and now works with the reconciliation-focused nonprofit Musalaha.