To Baghdad with Love

The 1931 volume  of the Gospel Advocate contains a smattering of references to  a Nicholas Dimitry, who was touring churches around the country in 1930-31 attempting to raise support for a small congregation in Baghdad. What follows is a note from Foy E. Wallace, Jr., that explains Dimitry’s situation to the readers of the Advocate. The whole thing sounds so very contemporary, which is why, I think, it caught my attention. That … and the Birmingham connection.

     For some months Brother Nicholas S. Dimitry has been laboring to raise funds to provide a home for the church in Bagdad, Irak [sic], Mesopotamia. This congregation consists of about fifty or sixty Christians, refugees from Persia, who fled to Bagdad to escape massacre at the hands of the Turks. They were converted in Persia under the preaching of the Yohannans, and now they are looking to the churches in America for assistance in their efforts to establish a permanent church in Bagdad. Brother Dimitry, giving himself unselfishly to this cause, asks nothing for himself. He desires that all funds be deposited in a Nashville bank for the Bagdad church fund and forwarded to a bank in Bagdad that will make proper delivery of the funds there.
     Churches should take pleasure in making possible the success of such worthy efforts as this. Brother Dimitry has just received a check for twenty dollars from the West End Church in Birmingham, Ala., and other churches should respond as readily and liberally. Until arrangements are made for the elders of some congregation in Nashville to take charge of this fund, Brother Dimitry will receive the funds personally through the Gospel Advocate office, and all receipts will be acknowledged. Let us build the church in Bagdad.
Foy E. Wallace, Jr. “Building a Church in Bagdad.” GA 73.8 (February 19, 1931): 196.

In 1920, the League of Nations granted Britain a mandate to rule “Irak,” the name given to a newly-formed country that had been carved out of the now-defunct Ottoman Empire. It does not seem to have gone all that well for the British. FEW’s brief narrative hints at just how turbulent the situation was.  That is probably why in 1932, a short time after this piece was written, Britain washed its hands of the whole affair and granted Iraq its independence.

To my knowledge, this may be the first SCRM presence in Baghdad. (I could be wrong, of course. Let me know if there’s someone I’m forgetting.) We are familiar, of course, with the work of James Barclay in Jerusalem in the 19th century. Among the a cappella Churches of Christ, some of the first Middle Eastern efforts were made by Alexander Yohannan, a Nashville Bible School graduate and close friend of J. W. Grant, who returned after graduation to his native Armenia to evangelize. By the 1920s, geopolitical events had driven his small flock to seek out the relative safety of British rule in Baghdad. Here is a fascinating story waiting to be told. What remains of Yohannan’s papers or of his evangelistic work?

Other questions remain. FEW suggests that “arrangements [be] made for the elders of some congregation in Nashville to take charge of this fund.” He would later — for a time, at any rate — reject this sort of arrangement. But in 1931, views on intercongregational cooperation were still fluid. Certainly, no large scale argument had erupted, as it would over the next couple of decades. At any rate, West End, perhaps at the suggestion of its new minister Cecil Douthitt, lends its support to the effort — if not to the ‘sponsoring church’ role.

Additionally we might mention just how careful Brother Dimitry is in his approach to the Nashville churches. Might they have been inclined to be suspicious of him? If so, why? What sort of credentials did he bring with him? Which bank in Baghdad was to handle these funds? Whatever the answers, this is still an interesting window into the mission work of the churches in this period.

One response to “To Baghdad with Love

  1. Even today I’m wary about this kind of appeal. Though there are a few legitimate needs for benevolence, so many in third world countries, especially the preachers, look upon American churches as a way to escape poverty, as sources of economic rather than spiritual help. I wonder what ever happened to these brethren.

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