Harold Vogelaar: His Legacy and the Challenge of CCME

By Scherer, James A. | Currents in Theology and Mission, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Harold Vogelaar: His Legacy and the Challenge of CCME


Scherer, James A., Currents in Theology and Mission


What we owe Harold Vogelaar

I first met Harold Vogelaar in the spring of 1984 at a conference of Lutheran missionaries held at Larnaca, Cyprus. It was an annual gathering of LCA missionaries serving in the Middle East in various ministry capacities, particularly in Egypt, the West Bank, and Jerusalem. Historically, Lutherans were not significantly involved in this area except in support of Lutheran World Federation involvements in Jerusalem, in educational and development projects in what was then known as "Occupied Jordan," and in the management of the Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives. Lutherans had supported the Henry Martyn Institute in Hyderabad, India, and Islam in Africa (IAP) projects in several African countries, but there was no major Lutheran involvement in the Arab world. I was eager to learn more about this new LCA area of concentration, its genesis, scope, and prospects.

At Larnaca, Cyprus, I learned that the new LCA Middle Eastern mission venture was decidedly ecumenical in nature. The deployment of Lutheran missionaries and the determination of their fields of service had been closely planned by, and coordinated with, the Middle East Christian Council (MECC), whose Director, Gabi Habib, was present at the conference. MECC had played a key role in devising this new Middle Eastern mission strategy. The LCA contribution was also unique in that it included a significant number of non-Lutheran missionaries, among them Harold Vogelaar and his wife, Neva, who were being loaned to the LCA Division for World Mission and Ecumenism (DWME) by the mission board of the Reformed Church of America (RCA), a church with a long and historical relationship with the Muslim world. These "lend-lease" Reformed missionaries were now supported by the LCA and received their assignments from the LCA mission board while maintaining their relationships with the RCA. This novel arrangement, worked out by the farsighted Southern Asia area director for the LCA-DWME, the late J. Frederick Neudoerffer, allowed Lutherans to become engaged in Middle East ministries much sooner than would have been the case had the LCA been obliged to begin from scratch.

Leaving Cyprus and travelling first to Jerusalem and then to Cairo, I once again ran into the Vogelaars, who for a part of our stay in Egypt served as hosts for my wife and me. I had received a fairly good academic introduction to the teachings and practices of Islam from my graduate studies at Columbia University, but now Harold helped me gain a firsthand ground-level view of the world of Islam as it was on display in Cairo. Harold had performed a similar role as guide and mentor for many other church- or mission-related visitors who came to Cairo in search of an in-depth experience. He arranged and led short-term study seminars for groups coming from Africa and Southern Asia. This was the education and training component of the new LCA mission strategy. I accompanied Harold on a memorable visit to Al Azhar University, one of the world's most prestigious Islamic institutions, where we witnessed young boys reciting the Qur'an from memory in competition for a prize and as a noble achievement. On visits to several other mosques Harold carefully coached me and explained the differences between various Islamic schools and sects. Under his tutelage our visit to Cairo enabled my wife and myself to enter into the world of Islam at a depth not previously available to us or to the average tourist.

In the fall of 1984 the Vogelaars came to the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago under the auspices of the LCA Division for World Mission and Ecumenism to begin a new experiment. Harold and Neva's assignment was to develop a program to explore the "interface" between Christianity and Islam in America. The base for this activity was to be LSTC, but its scope was not narrowly defined. In time, Harold would be appointed adjunct professor of Islamic studies at LSTC, but his original assignment had always been to explore and develop the "interface" (I often wondered what that term meant) between the two Abrahamic faiths--between the Muslim and Christian communities and between church and mosque. …

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