By Scott Zeller
Planted in 2010, Redeemer Church of Dubai gathers weekly as a congregation of nearly 1,000 brothers and sisters representing dozens and dozens of nationalities. Redeemer in Dubai has also been a launching point for several other church plants in the region and is home to a training center for pastors, planters and future church leaders. Known as the place where the tallest building in the world was built on the desert sand and where the sands of new islands were built on the waters off its coastline, Dubai is a remarkable place. And the story of how Christian ministry came to find a place here in this Islamic kingdom is equally as remarkable.
The freedoms we enjoy to do ministry in Dubai come from a long legacy of faithful ministry in the Gulf region of the Middle East. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as the Gilded Age flourished in America, some Christian missionaries left their homes and came to the coast of the Arabian Gulf to open a hospital in Bahrain. Enduring the incredible heat, despite the lack of any modern conveniences, and as guests in a Muslim land, these missionaries served faithfully and won the local people’s trust.
Decades after those pioneers had come, in 1960, when the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were yet to be united and were still called the Trucial States, the tribes living in the area were at risk of dying out. Their population was in danger primarily because of the lack of adequate medical care. One in every two children and one in every three mothers were dying in childbirth. The ruling Sheikh at the time knew of the Christian hospital in Bahrain, about 300 miles away, and appealed to the Christian medical missionaries there to come to the Trucial States to start a maternity hospital.
Drs. Pat and Marian Kennedy responded to the invitation. And despite the fact that their first work space was a simple clay house with a thatched roof, the Kennedys’ hospital immediately changed the crisis, making it safe to have children. Most of the current rulers of Dubai and of the UAE were born in that hospital. Over time, more staff came, all Christians, and were able to develop meaningful relationships with the local families because they came to love and to serve and to care for them.
About eight years ago, after everything we know now to have been the modern story for the UAE — all the oil money, and the flashy shopping malls, and the buildings and everything the area is now famous for — one ruling family gave over $100 million to build a beautiful new hospital on the site of that original maternity ward. The administrators of the hospital thought the donation might be given very privately, to avoid word getting out that Muslim leaders were funding the building of a Christian hospital in the Middle East. However, when the time came to cut the ribbon on the new building, the ruling family was present. In response to the donation, one of the Kennedys’ children said to the Sheik, “We can never repay you for this.” The Sheik responded, “No, we can never repay you. What your family did for us, we can never repay.”
And so the current ministry we have in Dubai and the openness we have to worship as Christians is due directly in part to Christians who came when there was no “value” to being here: there was nothing glitzy or glamorous about coming to this area of the world. No, those original missionaries came because they were compelled and motivated by the love of Christ to a lifetime of faithful service — wherever Christ would call them to go. And one fruit of their sacrifice is now tens of thousands of Christians all throughout Dubai and the UAE get to worship each week and practice their faith openly.
Scott Zeller is the executive pastor for Redeemer Church of Dubai and oversees a variety of church planting and network development initiatives from that church. Scott, his wife Angela, and their four children are from the U.S. and came to the Middle East via several years spent in a church plant in Delhi, India. Their passion is to be part of the work of God to see all nations come to know his mysteries through the church (Eph 3:10).