I am Pastor Danyal serving Living Hope congregation in Waterford, NY. My story began by responding to an invitation. Once upon time, he said, “follow me,” and I accepted his invitation. (Matthew 16:24)
The call “follow me” is an inclusive opportunity for all people who wish to experience love, peace, and joy; all people who wish to feel God’s active presence. The call “follow me” is an invitation for entering into the path of discipleship. By accepting this invitation, we become his disciples who study God’s actions with their minds and hearts in history and in their own time, the people who think and talk about God’s will and God’s reign, and the people who become God’s people building the God’s reign on earth as it is in Heaven. Following Jesus makes his disciples automatically the practical theologians of the world. The disciples do not need to argue like philosophers or academic theologians. Like the Apostle Paul, the disciples breathe the theology through their actions in their daily life and they rejoice in this theology regardless of where they are, on the mountain top or in the valley of shadows. “Rejoice in the Lord always: And again I say, Rejoice,” Paul wrote to the Philippians while he was in the prison, in the valley. (Philippians 4:4) I accepted the Jesus’ invitation for experiencing God through rejoicing in the Lord.
When I came to the United States in 2011, I was exhausted, destroyed, and disappointed. But today, I am joyfully on the path to become a United Methodist Elder. Thanks, be to God who through Christ and the Spirit gives hope to the disappointed and life to sinful men and sustains them in the wear and burden of their service to him. (2 Corinthians 3:6 and 4:10)
As an Iranian citizen, my journey to the United States was not a chosen one. As a human-rights activist and journalist in Iran, I was constantly arrested for exposing the lack of human rights for women and minorities in my country. Journalism is basically a crime in the Middle East. They consider journalists potential spies.
During the heated 2009 Iranian presidential election, the newspaper that I owned was shut down and I was put in solitary confinement where I was tortured for 39 days. Released on bail, I temporarily fled to Turkey. While in Turkey, the U.S. Embassy, noting that I was on the Amnesty International list, requested to meet with me to discuss my concerns about the lack of human rights in Iran. I met with the U.S. officers. I spoke with them about my solitary confinement, human rights in Iran, and the fact that we have over 800 political prisoners. They are in prison just because of the way they are thinking. They didn’t use any guns; they just used their pens and wrote their views. It was supposed to be a confidential meeting because I wanted to return to Iran and continue my activities.
After a month in Turkey, I returned to Iran. Two years later, Julian Assange and the Wikileaks website exposed every detail of the meeting with the U.S. Embassy in Turkey. The Iranian government would easily be able to learn what I told the U.S. Embassy in 2009. My life was on the line. If Iranians realized I met with the U.S. Embassy, they would arrest me again and put me in solitary confinement again. My charge would have been communications with foreign countries; in other words, I would be considered a spy. I would go to prison for 10 years or could even face execution.
I ran from Iran. I immediately fled to Turkey within a couple of days of the Wikileaks exposure and met with the U.S. Embassy again. They urged me to accept a U.S. Asylum offer. I would not. I told them I am a political activist and I cannot destroy or leave my background. They then offered me a student Visa to study at SUNY Albany and I accepted. I was in deep despair when I arrived in Albany. I had no family…no friends…and it was VERY cold.
At SUNY Albany, I majored in journalism and minored in religion studies, for what would be my second Bachelor’s degree in journalism. While taking a bible study course, I began to feel Jesus’s gentle tug. When I took the bible study course, a new window opened in front of my eyes. I read the bible, the Gospel, and I realized that Jesus is a human rights activist; he is a journalist; he is a reporter who reports the Good News, he is a reformist; and, he is a good friend. So, he became my role model; my leader; Jesus was my love…and his teachings were the real asylum I was seeking.
Then, I began to explore about the Christian denominations. One day, I read the United Methodist Social Creed. The United Methodist Social Creed was speaking about preservation, enhancement, and faithful use of the natural world as God’s handiwork. Hence, I learned Methodists are environmental activists. The United Methodist Social Creed was speaking about the human rights. It says Methodists commit themselves to the rights of all human beings regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, and abilities to improvement of the quality of life and to the rights of dignity of all persons. Hence, I learned Methodists are human rights activists. I realized that I was looking for such a progressive lifestyle. I told myself I have been a Methodist since I started to be a human rights activist and hence, I wanted to be a perfect Methodist. When I learned about John Wesley and Methodism, I became even more intrigued by Christianity, especially Methodism. John Wesley’s interpretation of grace reconciled me with God, the world of creation, and myself.
Worship each week left me in a peaceful mood. I felt in harmony with nature, humanity, and the world. I could feel an inner revolution in my heart. Indeed, I found the beverage for which my soul had needed for so long. I felt that I wanted to be at the church forever. I wanted to read, sing, and speak at the church. I wanted to eat, drink, and sleep at the church. The church had become my home, my shelter, my haven, and indeed my heaven. My soul was at peace there. I received many joys and eternal gifts. Then, I made decision to become a Christian to keep these safe and shining feelings forever.
In March of 2014, I formally asked Rev. O’Conner-Slater if I could be baptized on Easter Sunday. I wanted to be a Methodist because I realized that if I want to change the situation in the Middle East, I needed to follow John Wesley and his interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. John Wesley offers Jesus as a source of peace and I need this source of peace for my home, the Middle East, and I need to know more about Jesus as source of peace. Now, Easter is my birthday. Since becoming baptized, I am not exhausted anymore. I am not disappointed anymore. I am not alone anymore. Instead, I feel happiness, joy, and peace. I can dance. I am not away from my country anymore because this faith made me a citizen of the world, and now I see that all people of the world are my neighbors.
Soon after my baptism and after graduating from SUNY Albany with my second Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism, I worked in a political newspaper as reporter in Albany but it was not enough for me. I felt I have a responsibility to share the happiness and joy that I experience with others; the hope that I experience with others; and the love that I experience with others. I wanted to become an ordained Methodist elder to share the eternal gifts that God has sent to me through Christ and the Spirit. I wanted to share the Good News and good feelings that I received with all the people of the world. So I went to Boston University School of Theology.
In September 2015, I went to Boston University School of Theology because I wanted to find God. I wanted to understand God. I wanted to get accurate knowledge about the nature of God. I wanted to discover the Truth. However, I got none of them after studying in a three-year program named Master of Divinity but something better. In May 2018, I had no practical understanding of the nature of God or Truth but I was equipped with many intellectual and practical methods to feel God with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my strength and with all my mind. (Luke 10:27)
I graduated as a Methodist pastor who walks with wonder and joy in the path of Truth. I learned many intellectual and practical ways to follow Jesus the Christ. I learned the Wesley’s practical theology and I become a practical theologian; a Wesleyan theologian. I learned that God reveals God’s self to humanity in four ways: scripture, tradition, experience and reason. And so I was ready to help other people regardless of their beliefs and other disciples to become theologians who transform the world, theologians who build the reign of peace, the reign of justice, the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. Yes, I did not understand the nature of God after three years studying in Boston but I understood the way of realizing God’s grace in my daily life and helping others to realize it in their daily life.
“If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God,” says Saint Augustine. In the seminary, I learned that I cannot understand God but I can understand God’s grace. I, as a human being/disciple/theologian, was invited by Jesus to realizing God’s grace, to becoming God’s grace, and testifying God’s grace in my life journey. The Apostle Paul believes testifying the good news of God’s grace is a task given to us by Jesus and it became my belief, my truth and my theology too. (Act 20:24)
When I read the timeline of Israel in Hosea 11, I actually see it’s my life. There are different stages, different moments, and different events in the timeline of Israel and in my life timeline. However, all these moments, all these events have one thing in common. These events have been marked; have been highlighted by God’s grace. I see God’s grace embraces Israel in different moments of his life, in the different stages of his life but Israel does not realize it, Israel does not recognize it, Israel does not see it. I did not realize God’s grace in my life for twenty eight years. In the first stage, Israel is a child and has a limited knowledge about God. However God loves Israel regardless of his ignorance as a child. I was a child and God fed me when even I could not communicate with anyone.
Then, in the next stage, God called Israel and Israel did not respond to God’s call. Instead of responding to God’s call, Israel went away from God, However God still loved Israel regardless of rejecting God. Israel rejects God, but God leads Israel by kindness and love. I rejected God many times in my life but God led me by kindness and love. Israel worships other gods but our gracious God still loves Israel and God embraces Israel with God’s grace. In Hosea11:2, they sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. Israel sacrificed to other gods but our gracious God healed him when Israel was sick, God loved him, and God fed him. And the ungrateful Israel did not see God’s actions; Israel did not realize God’s grace. I did not realize it for a long time too. I worshiped the gods of money, greed, and lust. But the good news is God’s grace is bigger than my ignorance. It is bigger than my ungratefulness and my disobedience.
When I review my life since I was born, I see that I have enjoyed God’s grace through the free will of people, through people who responded to their personal call, through their personal spiritual gifts. They were acting on behalf of God. They were God’s hands, God’s heart, and God’s lips in my life.
Currently, every day and every night, I feel I swim in the pool of God’s grace. It’s my story which began by hearing him. He said, “follow me.” And I responded, “sure.”