By Kollin Miller
A small room is lined with about a hundred chairs. Split into two sections with rows of six, seven, eight or nine. A small wooden table serves as an altar, and a large wooden cross with a stained-glass center stands behind it. People start to trickle in, and soon, nearly every chair is filled.
Joseph Rafique sits in the front row dressed in black with a green stole around his neck, signifying his duty as the pastor. He sits with his eyes closed, lips mouthing a prayer in his head.
At 11 a.m., Rafique stands up and heads for the podium next to the altar. Rafique is not a big person. He barely stands above the seated congregation. When he reaches the podium, his head just sticks up over it. He takes the glasses hanging around his neck and puts them on, and begins the service.
Rafique became the pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in July 2013. For the small church on 84th and South streets in Lincoln, Nebraska, it was quite a culture shock. The predominantly white congregation was used to social principles, not Bible verses. Their previous two pastors were women.
Now they had a former Catholic priest from Pakistan.
“There was a bit of an adjustment period,” said Harry Kellenbarger, the lay leader at the church.
One of the first things the members asked Rafique was how to address him. They were used to calling their previous ministers “pastor” out of respect, but Rafique doesn’t want that. He said simply “Call me Joseph.”
Some members come to church early to enjoy coffee and cookies and warm conversation. Others come for the Bible study session that takes place in another room.
Yet others come early every week to discuss the social issue of the week. One week, the topic was retirement and how religion plays a role in it. Another week, it was the Syrian refugee crisis.
Rafique typically sits in, offering his opinion at times. He isn’t given special treatment and doesn’t make time to talk as the pastor. He doesn’t want to be viewed as being above the members. He is one of them.
In the spring and fall, he helps deep-clean the church and tend to the garden and bushes outside. At potlucks, he is the last one through the line and the first one to pick up dishes. He isn’t above the members.
Of course, some members still call him “Pastor” or “Pastor Joseph.”
Rafique loves all this interaction among the congregation, but he also likes to get the members interacting with the community.
The church hosts outreach events in the hopes of spreading the joy and welcoming the community around the church. Every Halloween, the church hosts Trunk-or-Treat. Members line the parking lot with cars and decorate their trunks. Neighborhood kids come and trick-or-treat. On Ash Wednesday, Rafique does “drive-by ashes.” All people, religious or not, are welcome to drive-by and receive a blessing with ashes. The church also hosts a car and motorcycle show.
Every once in a while, Rafique will forego church services and take part in a “church leaves the building” event. Instead of going to church, the members of the congregation do volunteer work.
One of Rafique’s strongest passions as a pastor is to love and accept everyone and to help everyone as best he can on their faith journey.
“I want to strengthen their faith by walking with them,” Rafique said. “Some don’t know where there are going.”
One Sunday morning, after finishing with the services, one man, a newcomer to the church walked up to Rafique and said, “I’m an atheist.”
Rafique didn’t turn him away. That’s not his nature. He welcomed him with open arms, told him he would pray for him and that he would always be welcomed back.
“Joseph doesn’t tear people down,” Kellenbarger said. “He builds people up.”
At the start of every service, Rafique introduces any visitors, and after the service is over, several members of the congregation introduce themselves to the visitors. Everyone has the same goal: make the visitors feel as welcomed as possible.
At a recent potluck, one new member stood up and said, “Aldersgate is the friendliest and most welcoming church we’ve ever been to.”
Rafique’s face beamed. It’s great to know Bible verses and to participate in church services, but his biggest goal is to help others accept all people.
“We are all created in God’s image, and God loves them,” Rafique said. “So how can we not accept and love everyone?”
Rafique loves going out to people and bringing Jesus’ message to those who couldn’t otherwise hear it. It is something in which he takes great pride.
“Joseph is always going out to visit,” Kellenbarger said. “Much more than our recent ministers.”
At the potluck, Rafique conversed with a new member of the church. Within five minutes, Rafique had asked for a telephone number and email address.
“I would like to come visit you,” Rafique said.
“Joseph is very warm and open,” said Dwight Ganzel, a retired minister and member of the church. “He’s very good at making contact and going to see people. He’s interested in people.”
Rafique also serves as a chaplain for the Lincoln police and fire departments. Every Wednesday, he is on call. If someone calls, Rafique answers. His role as chaplain varies depending on the incident. Sometimes he goes to domestic violence calls and offers counsel to the victims as the police do what they need to. He’s been called to grieving family members whose loved one has just passed away and to victims who’ve lost their homes to fire. Sometimes he is called simply to bring food to the hungry.
No matter what the call, Rafique is ready to go out and fill the needs of anyone.
Rafique’s passions as a pastor developed as a Catholic priest in Pakistan.
Rafique was born in 1954 in Pakistan. He first knew he wanted to preach during his days at St. Thomas High School in Khushpur, Pakistan. He heard God calling to him while he was at a Bible study taught by a Dominican missionary. At the time, Rafique thought his calling was to become a Dominican priest and to join an order that emphasizes preaching.
He would eventually learn his calling was elsewhere.
In 1980, Rafique was ordained a priest and assigned to a parish in Bahawalpur, Pakistan. There he developed a love of going out and visiting those who could not hear Jesus’ message.
He journeyed to small villages and preached to them. He traveled more than 100 miles to remote villages by motorbike. Rafique stayed with them, ate with them, showered with them. For days on end, he would have no access to clean water.
“The saying goes, ‘If you want to know me, wear my shoes,’” Rafique said. “Only way I could know them is to be with them. It is very dear to me.”
For two years, Rafique served his parish in Bahawalpur. Then he was sent abroad to finish his studies. He spent a year studying at Angelicum University in Rome and two years in the United States studying at the Dominican House of Studies earning a master’s degree in Dominican Spiritual Theology.
After completing his degree, Rafique returned to Pakistan. The superior council, in charge of assigning priests their jobs, sent Rafique to be the student-master at Christ the King Seminary in Karachi, Pakistan.
“I asked them, ‘Can I have gray hair first?’” Rafique said.
Rafique thought it was important to have an age difference between the students and the student-master. The council agreed and assigned him back to his former parish in Bahawalpur for two more years. In 1987, Rafique was named a professor and student-master at the seminary.
Then, one day, a student asked him a question.
“Why aren’t the priests in the field practicing what you’re teaching us?” the student asked.
Rafique didn’t have an answer, but he was determined to find it.
“That question struck my mind and my heart,” Rafique said.
Rafique went to the Superior Council and asked the same question. Council members didn’t have an answer for him.
“I told them, ‘If I don’t get an answer, I won’t be student-master anymore,’” Rafique said.
Rafique was reassigned. For a year, he worked at a human development center that used grants to build homes for families without shelter and to give goats and sheep to families with no source of food.
“We give them two goats one year,” Rafique said. “Maybe next year, they can have many.”
In 1992, the bishops were looking for priests to go to the Philippines. Rafique volunteered. For three years, Rafique worked at Radio Veritas Asia as the coordinator for the Pakistani language. After three years, he returned to Pakistan.
It was then that he faced his biggest question.
Rafique had to choose whether or not to leave the order permanently. The question the student asked that day at the seminary still resonated in his mind. But was it really worth leaving the priesthood altogether?
Rafique prayed but still didn’t have an answer. He decided to talk to his spiritual director.
His spiritual director told him two things. “Joseph, if you want to stay in the order and speak, you will suffer,” his spiritual director told him. “If you want to be quiet, you will be OK.’”
Rafique had found his answer. “I will not be quiet,” he said.
Rafique wrote his letter of resignation and left for his sister’s house. When he arrived, he called his brother and sister in Kuwait, and told them his decision. His brother and sister had moved to Kuwait in search of better job opportunities.
Rafique felt lost. He thought about going to the United States and settling down, but his family convinced him to go to Kuwait instead. He took a job at a Pakistani college there.
In 1996, Rafique married his wife, Nosheen.
In 1997, Rafique received his visa to come to the United States. He arrived on July 31, 1997. He stayed in Maryland for five months. Then he received a job offer from a Greek Orthodox church in Lincoln. In 1999 he received an offer from a Methodist church to run their multicultural program.
Soon after, the church learned of his background as a Catholic priest. They asked him if he would like to become a member of the Methodist clergy. Rafique wasn’t sure. So he prayed. Sure enough, the answer came.
“I was ordained to preach gospel, not run multicultural program,” Rafique said.
In 2004, Rafique submitted his application to join the Methodist clergy. In 2005, Rafique was given two churches: Lakeview United Methodist and Roca United Methodist. He has since moved around to different Methodist churches in and around Lincoln.
Finally, in 2013, Rafique came to Aldersgate United Methodist Church.
He brought with him the preaching style of a Dominican priest. Not everyone was ready for that.
“He’s much more biblical, very Christian-oriented,” Kellenbarger said. “Some people wanted to focus more on social principles. With Joseph, you’ve got to listen and think.”
The church made it through the adjustment period, and Kellenbarger sees a stronger faith in the congregation. The people enjoy Rafique.
“He’s a great minister,” said Marjory Gloe, a member of the church. “We love Pastor Joseph.”
Rafique is happy, too.
“There are challenging days,” Rafique said. “But I’m very happy here.”