29-year-old Emmanuel Mebasser is an Iranian-American Jewish believer in Jesus. He brings such a multicultural perspective to the table that we thought you might be interested in asking him a few questions. Since you’re not here, Aaron Abramson asked the questions and here are some of Emmanuel’s answers.
AA: Tell us about your family background.
EM: Both my parents and their families are from Tehran, and that’s where I was born in 1978. In January 1979 came the Islamic Revolution, so my parents wanted to get away from that whole situation. My dad had connections in the U.S, so we moved here. I grew up in Los Angeles.
AA: What does your surname “Mebasser” mean?
EM: It means “bearer of good news.”
AA: You come from a Jewish-believing background. How did your parents come to believe in Jesus?
EM: My paternal great-grandfather was an elder in a synagogue. A missionary once came and asked for permission to speak. My great-grandfather agreed, and the missionary actually presented the gospel during the service. My great-grandfather was so upset that he actually kicked him out of the synagogue. But the missionary stuck around after the services to learn where my great-grandfather lived, and visited him a few days later. Of course, because of Iranian hospitality, my great-grandfather invited him in and served him something to eat. The missionary continued to visit him until, over time, my great-grandfather, and in turn his family, realized that Jesus is the Messiah of the Jewish people.
AA: When you moved to the U.S., did your parents attend a Messianic congregation or a church? Did they identify both with Christian and Jewish circles in some way?
EM: Initially, my parents started a Bible study along with another Jewish family and a pastor who was from a Muslim background. They also attended different churches. When I was between five and eight years old, we attended a Messianic congregation, Beth Ariel. We identified more with the Iranian population, though. My parents had a heart to witness to Iranian people.
AA: How did they define themselves in terms of their religious and ethnic background?
EM: First of all our identity was in Christ; we were followers of Jesus. We were Iranian by culture and Jewish by heritage. My parents did all of the Iranian holidays and celebrations and it was all part of being Jewish as well. They saw a lot of their Jewish identity in Jesus, rather than in practice or in rabbinic forms of Judaism. I remember celebrating Passover; that was the most recognizably Jewish thing we did.
AA: What was unique about growing up in an Iranian household?
EM: For one thing, we spoke Farsi. I was pretty fluent as a child; now it takes me awhile to find the words that I need. Also, family is very important in Iranian culture. My mom has four sisters and two brothers, all in southern California. So we had a big, close-knit family which functioned as our community. I was actually insulated from American culture because my parents were afraid of what it could do to me and my brothers. In a sense that held me back. My parents were first-generation immigrants so they didn’t know. But they used Iranian culture to cultivate a loving environment.
AA: Did you ever feel that you were “different,” even among Jewish people or Christians?
EM: I always felt that my personality and background were unique; being Iranian, Jewish, Christian, and an American was quite a combination. And all these elements, especially the American, were pulling against each other, trying to be dominant. At church, where we had a large Iranian community, when they tried to teach us Farsi, I wasn’t interested. I was already learning English and didn’t want extra homework. But at the same time, I felt like I wasn’t quite American, because when friends came over they would hear my parents speaking Farsi. And since I went to public school, a lot of my friends weren’t Christians, so I felt different because they didn’t have the same moral standards in their families as we did. Even at church, most people, even those my age, had lived longer in Iran than I had, so again I felt like I didn’t really fit in. Even today, that feeling of being different is a defining part of my identity, as I’m among Iranians, Jews, Christians, or “just plain Americans.” What helps tie everything together is my faith in God.
AA: Did anyone ever give you a hard time about your background?
EM: Not really. Los Angeles was so ethnically mixed that there wasn’t prejudice like there might be in other parts of the country. I felt like I was different but to some degree so was everyone else, and that was fine. In fact, my background actually helped me relate to others. If I saw people who were new to the country and didn’t speak English that well, I felt an affinity towards them, because my family didn’t grow up speaking English.
AA: You and your wife Sarah, who is Jewish, have been married for five years now. Was it important to you to marry a Jewish believer?
EM: The only real rule my mother had is that she wanted me to marry “a nice Christian girl.” She never said Jewish, never said Iranian, never said anything else. I would tell people I was looking for an Iranian Jewish Christian girl. After a year or so, I realized that I was really narrowing the pool of people that I would meet (laughs). Yet I knew that being from a Jewish background, I could speak into the lives of other Jews. As Sarah and I met and I got to know her better, I realized that what I was looking for in a wife was not necessarily someone Jewish, but someone who had the same life goal of sharing the good news of Jesus and also had a passion for sharing it with Jewish people.
AA: What aspects of Iranian culture do you want your kids to experience as they grow up?
EM: Speaking Farsi is one thing. I know that I would miss it if I did not speak it, but I think it’s especially important for our children, who would miss out on a connection with their family if they didn’t speak Farsi. Sarah loves languages and has been learning Farsi so she can communicate with my family, and so that we can both teach our kids the language. I feel that we will also instill a bit more Jewish identity in our kids. Being Jewish and believing in Jesus is rich. There’s a history that goes throughout the Old and New Testaments. And because Sarah and I both have a Jewish identity, that helps tie our family together as well.