In a time of Divides, Pastor Aims to Unite the Jesus Tribe

Assad Saif S’11 is using his own diverse background as a way to help bring people together as part of the “Jesus tribe,” while he also serves Christians in the Middle East.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

September 28, 2018 | 5 p.m.

Assad Saif S'11

Assad Saif S'11

As he leads Orchard Community Church, Assad Saif S’11 is focused on finding commonality in his racially and politically diverse Escondido, California, community near the U.S.-Mexico border. To Saif, it’s vital for people of different races and opinions to find a common language and highlight their similarities over differences.

“My tribe is the Jesus tribe. I’m the family of God, and one of my skills has become helping people identify the family of God as their tribe,” he says.

Saif is also serving the church by tracing his roots—and Christianity’s—to the Middle East, where he’s supporting Christians spreading the gospel and learning for his own church’s success. “I think there’s secrets to be unlocked that some churches in the Middle East have,” he says.

But the gifts Saif uses today for the church were born of conflict. He grew up in California between his parents’ diverging worlds. His father was a Muslim from Yemen, and his mother was the Catholic daughter of a Sicilian-Italian father and Mexican mother. The challenges only deepened after his parents divorced when he was 8. “They used religion as a tool against each other and I was in the middle like a ping-pong ball,” he says.

Saif struggled to find his place. From age 12 to 17, he practiced Islam. “I was all in on Islam,” he says. “I was with the imam—selected by the imam to pray up in front, to do the call to prayer.” But he also regularly attended Catholic and Protestant churches with his mother, friends, and a girlfriend, so he heard the gospels many times.

Despite being voted to the prom court, Saif says he never truly fit in during high school. “I was a high school kid that didn’t have a place—I was very, very social, but very, very emotionally bankrupt,” he says. He struggled with depression and recalls hitting a low where he questioned if anyone would care if he were gone. But he came home to discover his mother had placed a Bible on his bed, and it reminded him of the gospel story. It inspired him to pray to God, “If you’ll be real to me, I will give you everything.” Saif felt the weight lift and that “hope had been conceived in my heart.”

“My tribe is the Jesus tribe. I’m the family of God, and one of my skills has become helping people identify the family of God as their tribe.”

— Assad Saif S’11, lead pastor of Orchard Community Church in Escondido, California

Saif committed his life to Christ, but it caused his father to disown him. With strained relationships with both parents, Saif turned to the church. “The church became my family because I was an orphan,” he says. Saif connected with Campus Connection, a ministry that organized large events for teens. This eventually connected Saif to a man who would become a spiritual mentor and to a job for a church as he began college. But he didn’t finish his degree for many years, and he was discouraged by his church leadership’s lack of emphasis on pastoral education.

Finding Encouragement at Bethel Seminary

After taking a position at Emmanuel Faith Community Church, Saif expressed his desire to attend seminary. The congregation gave him time off and financial support to attend Bethel Seminary San Diego in 2007. He’d become deeply involved, serving on the Student Senate, serving as class president, and helping revive Chapel at the site. “I loved my time there,” he says.

He also credits his Bethel Seminary professors for journeying with him as he wrestled with his Middle Eastern heritage in post-9/11 America. “I tried to shed my Middle Eastern identity, and the church did not allow me to do that,” he says. “So I always felt like I was at odds just existing in the church.” He even recalls a church member asking him if he were a Muslim, even though he was the pastor approving their memberships.

As he wrestled with his heritage and the perception of it in America, his Bethel professors offered support. “They really informed me and reminded me that Jesus was Middle Eastern,” he says. Saif credits his professors for making him feel loved and encouraging him to be himself. “In their own way each professor acknowledged my talent and skill can encourage me to push myself beyond what I knew I was capable of,” he says.

As he raised his own four children with his wife, Summer, who is Caucasian, Saif felt called to form a church that mirrored Escondido’s diverse community. “My heart was to develop a church that [my children] would be part of so they would not grow up in a church where things were obviously different,” he says. “So I wanted them to see a brown preacher and a white preacher and a black worship leader and a white worship leader and an Asian preacher and all these different people.”

Planting an Intentionally Diverse Church

Saif planted Orchard Community Church through and with support from Emmanuel Faith Community Church. Despite the challenges of founding an intentionally diverse church community, Saif found himself equipped to minister and connect to people of varying backgrounds.

Bethel University Professor of the New Testament Mark Strauss attributes that to Saif’s background and his personality and his vast people skills. “Escondido, where he lives, is increasingly diverse,” Strauss says. “He’s got a heart for God’s vision for the world. I think that has helped him in terms of church planting. He’s in the community. He’s seeking to bring people in from the community. He’s not just focused on traditional church-goers.”

Saif traces that back to his goal to focus on the things people agree on, not the differences—which is something Bethel focuses on in its seminary education.

Saif’s background allows him to interact comfortably with Muslims and people of different faiths in the community, and he found it enables him to also serve the church in Middle East. He was invited by a group of churches in San Diego to help Syrian refugees, and that trip exposed Saif to what he calls the horrors of what the refugees are going through and the geopolitical issues refugees face.

But he also witnessed great things happening there in the church. “I learned over there that there was something going on—when 100,000 Muslims turn to Christ and become Christian because Jesus revealed himself in dreams or because the Middle Eastern church is meeting the refugee crisis with open arms, helping, leading,” he says

He continues working with various organizations as he strives to listen to, pray for, and support those serving refugees and people in the Middle East. “I’m not the agent of change,” Saif says. “I want to be a blessing to the agents of change.”

These experiences are helping Saif serve his own church. As a church planter, Saif is interested in the longevity of the church and wants to learn from the church in the Middle East. “They have survived and are now thriving and have been in the midst of tension and persecution for centuries,” he says. Saif committed to a five-year mission to travel to the Middle East regularly, develop partnerships, and learn from the church there. He hopes the experience will help him learn ways to overcome challenges at home like persecution, divisions, and people leaving the church.

“Being Middle Eastern shouldn’t be a knock against you as a Christian,” he says. “That is what has been motivating me. You take all of that, and that has spurred in me a desire to really reach the Muslim world for Christ.”

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