This story is written from excerpts of interviews with Qorban Sultani, an Afghan Baptist pastor in Hamburg and Thomas Klammt, the Coordinator for Integration and Training with the German Baptist Union.
Qorban first started studying theology in Hindi, even though he did not know Hindi at the time. He learned as he went. Later he studied theology in English, again learning the language as he took courses. This is all before he walked from Iran to Europe, where once he was in Germany, he learned German along the way as he studied through the German Baptist PIAP programme (Pastoral Integration and Training Programme). This past year, he became the first ordained Afghan Baptist pastor in Germany, possibly in Europe. He is now co-pastoring a church in Hamburg.
Qorban’s story is a remarkable one, yet parallels the stories of so many people who have been displaced from their homes. He grew up in a small village in Afghanistan, but moved with his sister’s family to India in 2007 to help them build a better life. In India, he encountered a church for the first time and began to read the Bible in Dari. He remembered thinking, “Wow, It’s in my language, I can know about God in my own language.” For Dari speaking Afghan’s the strict use of Arabic in much of Islam can be isolating. He started studying the Bible in Dari and came to know God in his own language. In 2008 he was baptised.
Though he was new in the faith, he knew he wanted to serve in the church and so that is when he began his piecemeal theological studies, first in Hindi and later in English, where he first had contact with Baptists in India. Later he returned to Afghanistan to be with his family, but quickly moved to Iran where he worked in construction. In 2015, he along with thousands of others, made his way across the continent, leaving Iran for Turkey, across into Greece, and up the Balkans until he finally made it to Germany later in 2015. His family was able to join him in 2017.
When he first arrived in Germany, he started attending a Baptist church in Mettmann. From his first Sunday in the church he was already serving and within a week he was leading an Afghan Bible study. Both the church leaders and Qorban could feel a sense of trust from the very beginning. He describes the feeling of going to the church for the first time, saying, “when I came there I felt at home." They could tell that God was present in the other and so church leaders quickly empowered Qorban to lead.
Though he was working on an apprenticeship in car mechanics, he still felt a draw toward ministry. After encouragement from church leaders in Mettman, Qorban was connected with Thomas Klammt who encouraged him to participate in the PIAP programme, designed for church leaders from a migration background to gain theological training from the Baptist Academy and Theological Seminary in Elstal. The programme began in 2010 and includes theological training weeks, intercultural learning experiences, written research and reflection and mentoring, meant to help contextualise the theological thinking and practical ministry.
Once completing the PIAP programme, participants can then apply for ordination through the German Baptist Union. In 2021 Qorban did just that, joining 27 other migrant leaders in Germany who have been ordained through the programme coming from ten different countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. Klammt spoke of the impact of these leaders on the German Union, saying "the international groups and leaders are challenging us as much as blessing and strengthening us in our faith and our church development."
Qorban recently moved to Hamburg with his wife and three children to co-pastor at a Baptist church. They are expecting their fourth child in the summer of 2023. While he is predominantly working with Farsi and Dari speakers during the Farsi speaking church, he is a pastor for the whole church. When asked about some of the challenges of pastoring in such a context, he first emphasised, "I want to say that it is so nice and only possible through Jesus Christ that we come together and have one goal." He knows the challenges of intercultural church, not just between Germans and Afghans and Iranians, but also between different Afghan groups and between Afghan and Iranians. Most westerners are blind to the historical conflicts and prejudices the communities hold against each other.
With so much conflict between the groups, it is a miracle that they are able to sit together, let alone worship together. Particularly it is remarkable that Qorban is able to lead as an Afghan with a church of both Afghan and Iranian people. This reconciliation can only happen with Christ. He reflects, "it's so challenging, but we want to learn and grow together, but we need to learn to accept each other, we need to learn to see each other as equal."
His story and his experiences make him uniquely and especially qualified to serve in his context. He reflected, “I am a child of war, I have experienced war and I hate it… My dream is that everyone may have an encounter with Jesus and experience the peace that we have with God, the peace that we have with each other… I want the peace of God.” Particularly, he has a heart for his own people of Afghanistan, saying, “everyone needs the peace of Jesus, but Afghan people especially. After 40 years of war it is the time that we need to experience peace in our heart and with our neighbor.”
Qorban is not alone as a new leader from a refugee or migrant background. At the Refugee Highway Partnership in March, Qorban was joined by two other Afghan Baptists working in Europe and in the US, Javad Bakhtiari and Ali Haynes Ansari. All three are all working to help equip and train Dari speakers for ministry across Europe through the Quest Academy programme. God is powerfully at work through the lives of those who have been displaced and they are crucial leaders in our continued mission as Baptists. It is our privilege and opportunity to join them in the important work sharing Christ’s peace in our world. We ask for your continued prayers for these leaders as they learn to minister in new contexts and journey through the pains and joys of cross cultural ministry.