A historic Abu Dhabi church which has enjoyed a remarkable rise from intimate living room services to a congregation of thousands is celebrating 50 years of faithfully serving the community.
Members of the Evangelical Community Church reflected on a spiritual journey with humble beginnings as they rejoiced on their golden anniversary on Saturday.
Those formative meetings attended by a handful of Christians eager to practise their faith were held in the home of evangelical couple Carl and Barbara Sherbeck, who moved to the Emirates from the United States in 1966 to support the work of Oasis Hospital in Al Ain.
A place of worship which is now home to 10,000 parishioners drawn from 80 countries was born out of a legacy of goodwill and generosity.
The medical facility itself had been founded by fellow evangelists Dr Pat and Marian Kennedy in 1960 after UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan invited them to set up a modern health care facility for newborns and infants.
It was renamed Kanad Hospital in their honour in 2019.
Church with rich roots in UAE
Rev Sherbeck was to serve as the church's first pastor in 1972, with services soon moving from his home to a warehouse before a growing flock soon required additional space.
In 1974, the late Sheikh Khalifa granted a small housing plot for the band of worshippers to meet and worship just across from Airport road in the emirate.
“From 1974 to 1990 that is where they met and grew to a congregation of almost 100,” said Aubrey Sequeira, senior pastor at the church.
In January 1991, Sheikh Khalifa granted permission for them to construct their own church building, in Al Mushrif, which opened in 1994.
“From that era and till today there has been so much mutual respect and trust,” said Mr Sequeira.
“We are given the freedom to worship here and have been given clear legal status in the country through the Department of Community Development.
“Those are the blessings that the country has given us but I also think that the presence of Evangelical Christians here and the Church here, blesses the country and the nation because before anyone comes here to work, then one of the things they check here is if there is a church.
“Very much like schools, if you know a country has good schools, then you are more comfortable moving your family there. The presence of a church strengthens families and many people want to raise their children on the Christian faith. It strengthens their lives spiritually and holistically.”
While the church has expanded over the years, it remains close-knit, supporting members with everything from biblical studies to marriage counselling.
In one instance, church members visited a cancer patient each day for two months until he sadly passed away.
“We are their spiritual family away from home. We become their family — their social network and when people leave Abu Dhabi, they tell us that the highlight of their life here is the church,” said Pastor Sequeira.
Church brings joy to worshippers
Marten Youssef, associate vice president of university relations at the University of British Columbia, was recently in Abu Dhabi for Sunday mass.
“This church feels like a slice of heaven because of you have all these different nationalities and that is what heaven going to be like.”
Hjayceelyn M Quintana, the Philippines ambassador to the UAE, has attended the church since her appointment four years ago.
“This is very important especially for my community, which represents the third largest expat community in the UAE,” she said.
“It represents tolerance, openness, and diversity which is very important to us. They take care of the spiritual well-being of the Filipinos working in this country.”
Cass O'Rear, director of the church's operations, is aiming to spread a message of unity and harmony far and wide as a second place of worship opens in Ruwais, a developing area in the western part of the emirate.
“The fact that I, a man from Texas, am a pastor and worship at a church in the UAE is incredible to me,” he said.
“We were given a lot of assistance by this country to worship freely and that is not necessarily what I would have thought as a boy in Texas.”