By Amy Eckert
“Here I stand, a Middle Eastern woman in the Pulpit of Luther.” So began the sermon delivered by Rev. Najla Kassab at the General Council worship service in Wittenberg on July 5. Now Kassab is poised to stand at the forefront of the WCRC as the Communion’s first female president.
Kassab has a B.A. in Christian Education from the Near East School of Theology and a Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her career has revolved around Christian education at the synod level and, through conferences and workshops, she has encouraged women in ministry for 24 years. The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon offered Kassab a preaching license in 1993 and, in March 2017, awarded her full pastoral ordination. Kassab has served as a member of the WCRC Executive Committee since 2007. She also hosted the 2015 Executive Committee meeting in Lebanon.
Having spent much of her career encouraging women to enter the ministry of the church, Kassab felt compelled to accept the nomination for president when it was suggested to her at the General Council in Leipzig. It’s a fight that she believes has taken far too long. “We cannot think that a bird can fly with only one wing.”
Standing in Martin Luther’s pulpit to deliver the sermon at Wittenberg’s Stadtkirche gave Kassab an immediate sense of inspiration and empowerment. “This was where Luther first preached,” she said. “It was the perfect place to speak of women’s ordination.”
Just as Martin Luther admonished the 16th century church for failing to live up to biblical teaching, Kassab believes she has been placed in this position at this time to insist the modern church take seriously its responsibilities when it comes to equality and justice.
“Martin Luther is a symbol of speaking up,” said Kassab. “To speak your mind in freedom, that is essential. This is why I said, ‘This could have been Martin Luther’s 96th question to the church. Not why is there a woman in this pulpit, but why did it take so long?’ This is not just a struggle of equality,” said Kassab. “This is a struggle of justice.”
But Kassab, who is a native of Lebanon, believes the most important qualification for her presidency of the WCRC may be her nationality.
“The WCRC talks a lot about justice,” Kassab said. “I come from the Middle East and let me tell you, I know what injustice looks like.”
Kassab’s work frequently takes her to Syria. It’s a calling that carries with it a fair degree of personal danger. But Kassab feels strongly that the Christian church as a whole and the WCRC specifically must assume that risk.
“At times I have to be present to affirm, ‘I am one of you.’ We as a church have to be physically present in places where there is suffering. We have to be present where it aches if we’re going to talk about justice,” she said.
Practically speaking, issues of gender equality and justice will be carried out locally, said the incoming president. Likewise, affirming and celebrating the WCRC’s diversity will play out in local synods. For this reason, Kassab plans to look for ways to strengthen the work done within the WCRC’s regions.
Ultimately, Kassab believes that change will come over time. And, if the WCRC is willing to engage in the work—and engage all of its leaders, both male and female—justice is possible.
“Change is not about documents,” she said. “It requires physical presence. And if we don’t want to be present, well, we should just stop talking about justice.”
As long as she serves as WCRC president, Najla Kassab has every intention of continuing to speak up.