Missionary to Arab Americans details struggle of conversion, ministry

April 14, 2010

PLAINVIEW – Even as a young woman, Nomie Derani’s mind worked counter to her culture and religious upbringing. She recalls asking for the meaning behind certain traditions and actions of her Muslim faith.

Years later, as a missionary to Arab Americans in Virginia, Derani attributes that questioning spirit to a call from God that she eventually answered. Derani shared her conversion experience and her mission work to her native people with students in chapel at Wayland Baptist University on Wednesday as part of the McCoy Lectures series, in its seventh year.

A native of Sidon, Lebanon, and one of 10 children raised in a traditional Muslim family, Derani said she began wondering early on about the nuances of Islam that didn’t quite compute in her young, independent mind. She wanted to work, but her culture called for a husband or others in the community to support women, and she wanted more assurance of her eternal life than what she found in the Muslim faith.

Finally, after her father’s death, she came to America alone, finding Christians all around her who wanted to share the Gospel. At first, she would have none of it, finding it hard to summon the faith required for Christianity. But soon, she found God on the right path.

“In looking for God, I thought maybe being a good student would help, but that didn’t do it. Then maybe if I made a lot of money it would help me. I even joined the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization),” Derani noted. “But God was looking for me in Lebanon and in America because he saw the need for Him in my life.”

Derani said she felt overwhelmed by the Gospel messages and cried out to God for mercy and help. She said it was a very realistic dream in which she felt God speaking back to her in love and acceptance. The next day she visited a local church and was led through the plan of salvation. Suddenly, Derani had a vision of her purpose in the U.S.

“I waned to take that Man to my people,” she said. The result was the formation of a ministry in 1995 to Arab Americans in Dearborn, Mich., and Derani’s appointment as a field representative with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In 2003, she was moved to New York and helped start the Brooklyn Arab American Friendship Center, in which Derani continued to build relationships with Arab women and families and provided assistance to them in any way she was able.

“We want to love them so they ask, ‘Why?’” she said. “And that love takes a lot of time, energy, financial support and even legal help sometimes.”

Derani said Muslim women are naturally untrusting of each other, and she hoped to bridge the gaps and lend support as a Christian who shared their heritage. Though her service to the families – now in Falls Creek, Va., at the Oasis Friendship Center since August 2009 – takes the form of English as a Second Language and citizenship preparation classes as well as food and clothing assistance and other needs, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is foremost on her mind in the ministry.

“As we go about our ministry, we share our interests and our love for God that makes us love them and serve them. Many of them ask me why we do these things and if we hate them like [Islam] says we do,” she said. “We tell them about God’s love for us.”

The Gospel weaves its way into ESL class lessons and other activities as well. And the people are coming to know God the way Derani did, won over by love and hope as she was.

“Christ did everything for me. Muhammed wanted everything done for him,” she said. “When I would ask about how we could know if we would be in Heaven or Hell, everyone told me no one really knew. But Christ showed me hope in Him.”

To close the chapel service, Dr. Rick Shaw, assistant professor of religion and director of the Wayland Mission Center, presented the 2010 Missionary of the Year awards to two students who had demonstrated service in missions for the year. Senior Melanie Vasquez of Hobbs, N.M., works with the Apostolos group in mentorship to high school students and spent a summer and semester in Kosovo and Macedonia.

Andrew Lancaster, a junior from Earth, received the male missions award. He spent a semester in Kenya doing ministry after a summer trip there and participates in local and area missions efforts through his church and World Changers.

The McCoy Lectures included a presentation by Derani to missions students that afternoon and at the First Baptist Church in Plainview, who co-sponsors the series with WBU. She also spoke at a Thursday morning religion class.

The series was developed by First Baptist with an estate gift from the late Dr. Dorothy McCoy, a longtime math professor at Wayland who died in 2001. McCoy had a great interest in missions and the church wanted to honor her memory with a lecture series on mission service topics.