History in First Person: Marcia Lebhar

‘Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…’ Zechariah 4:10 NLT

I was asked for photographs to illustrate my season of directing CMJ USA. The thought of trying to choose made me smile. So often formative moments go unnoticed as they occur because we have no idea what they portend. 

There are no photographs of Theresa Newell praying for me at some early CMJ USA speaking event in Virginia, as I shadowed her and seemed engulfed in a passion for Jewish ministry which I had no idea how to implement. More than once she exhorted me, “Marcia, this is all just a matter of timing.” I was a young clergy spouse, home with children and foster children, and I assumed my role would be as a support to some future call for my husband. 

There are no photographs of a meeting my husband, Neil, and I had at Christ Church Jerusalem in 1981. We were there with a group led by Theresa, and we met with the rector at the time, David Price, in the garden. At that meeting, we were overcome with a sense of call to the CMJ ministry. 

Neil and Marcia Lebhar c 1981

Former Director Alfred Sawyer has described leaving his own post as rector of Christ Church in Jerusalem and coming home to oversee the CMJ USA ministry, changing its name to Shoresh USA. This reflected his confidence that the emerging Shoresh study program based in Jerusalem would prove pivotal for the development of US involvement in CMJ. Not long afterward, the American board called me from a school teaching post to oversee the American connection to the Shoresh Study Tour ministry in Israel.  

I do remember that I was relieved, prematurely as it turned out, not to be named Shoresh USA Director, but only called to oversee the tour ministry. 

I honestly have no recollection of when or how, in that first year, I was named Executive Director. My husband, Neil, and I don’t remember how we got the two huge Shoresh USA file cabinets home to Jacksonville, Florida, from their spot in the Walk Through the Bible ministry offices in Atlanta. 

What ignited the ministry under my watch was the convergence of some unique and sovereignly arranged elements: the vision of my predecessors, a zealous staff, and a remarkably engaged and sacrificial board of directors. As well, the Lord seemed to be breathing two initiatives into the global church at that time. 

Remembering our Jewish roots

Firstly, traditional and often antisemitic understandings of the New Testament began to be widely challenged in theological institutions internationally. The first-century Hebraic context of the texts was being seriously considered, maybe for the first time. Church leaders and teachers were eager to answer Shoresh’s call to study the ‘Jewish roots’ of the Scriptures in Israel. We lost count of the times we heard this refrain, Why didn’t I learn this in seminary? Many of us partnered together to position the program in Jerusalem to welcome serious theological students as well as Christian tourists hungry for deeper discipleship.

Romans 11 Olive Tree glass at Christ Church Jerusalem

David Pileggi worked with experts in the field, trained guides and oversaw all the operations of the Shoresh office in Jerusalem. Together we positioned the work to benefit from the growing enthusiasm of our American partners. Many early clergy participants in Shoresh study programs became eager tour leaders themselves and soon provided an open door for Shoresh USA to do follow-up teaching and training in local churches. The current Anglican archbishop, Foley Beach, was one of the first! 

Investing in the Global South

Secondly, and simultaneously, the Lord seemed to be clearly calling the Western church to invest in African, Asian and South American theological education in non-traditional ways. I had the decidedly unique task of persuading American Anglican church leaders to invest in sending international leaders to Israel for Shoresh study. The Lord blessed that effort and some of our first global Shoresh participants were then Bishop Henry Orombi of Uganda and Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda, both of whom brought back their priests on subsequent visits. Kenyan clergy followed, and deep relationships were fostered among church leaders. Shoresh leaders and teachers were invited to speak about Jewish roots and Jewish witness on several continents. Our ministry calling was Teaching Jewish Roots, Reaching Jewish People. 

Participants of a Shoresh conference in Santiago, Chile, in the 1990s.
First national conference in Chile with professor David Miller (center top), Bishop Colin Basley (top right). Marcia Lebhar (bottom left).
 

There were no photos of a Chilean Jewish grandmother recognizing Jesus as her Messiah and committing her life to him in the presence of her family after one Shoresh USA conference in Santiago. 

There were no recordings of seemingly random initial phone calls with Steve Engstrom of Zion, Illinois, or Linda Cohen at Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania, but both eventually responded to a call to the CMJ work in Israel. They profoundly strengthened both the Shoresh study ministry there, and its connection to the American church. And both were in place at a crucial moment a few years later. 

So too, was David Pileggi. During his tenure as Shoresh Study Tours director in Jerusalem, the American board was ably led by Bill Bugg, Dr. Bill Blackburn, Rev. John Rodgers, and Bruce Newell, among many others. They marshaled support for David’s studies at Hebrew University; he was ordained in Uganda by then Archbishop Henry Orombi and later called as rector of Christ Church Jerusalem. 

In the meantime, orthodox Episcopal leaders were organizing for what would eventually become the ACNA. There were a series of four conferences, called First Promise gatherings, designed to strengthen American relationships and resolve. Perhaps because many of the leaders were Shoresh study participants, and perhaps because I was the only lay woman leading a mission society at that time, I had the privilege of speaking at all four events. 

Long afterwards I had a call from a group of international bishops meeting in Nairobi. (Bishop Martyn Minns can still remember the name of the hotel and the room number!) Would I connect them to David Pileggi? They had an idea. The idea was GAFCON. Shoresh study and all that they owed to the program in Jerusalem fueled their desire to inaugurate the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem and to ask Shoresh to organize the event and Christ Church to host it. David, Steve Engstrom and Linda Cohen, all Americans, were ready.

A group photo of the participants in GAFCON 2008 on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem.
A group photo of the participants in GAFCON 2008 on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem.

 

Children's tours in Jerusralem by Shoresh Study Tours
We did a number of children’s tours. This is one favorite group of boys sitting on the steps at Christ Church Jerusalem.
 

The twin groundswells of passion for Jewish roots study and awareness of the critical role of global Christian leaders had shaped our work and prepared the CMJ ministries in many countries to encourage that historic event. On the day when a thousand bishops, clergy and leadership from many nations, assembled on the Mount of Olives, only a few of us remembered the small beginnings… the days of putting together a newsletter on our dining room table while children played underneath it… the days when we could barely breathe financially… before our incredible staff and budget grew… the days of the American board traveling tirelessly with us, making our case, the case for the priority of Jewish roots understanding and witness. 

Our teaching ministry in the US was built solidly on the foundation of Shoresh study in Israel. When the second Intifada raged through Israel in 2000, it virtually put an end to our participation in Shoresh Study Tours for a long season. A calendar of almost 40 trips had to be cancelled and the ministry rethought. At that time our efforts were divided between the Israel work and teaching in the US, and I had been director for almost a decade. The board divided, with one half reorganizing to continue to support the Israel work, and the other to focus on teaching in the US church. Cheryl Gonzales, who had served on staff with us for several years as an able teacher, took over as the next US director and continued the focus on domestic teaching. It was back to small beginnings, but no moment of obedience is insignificant, and the Lord’s call to remember his works fueled us for the days ahead. 

Marcia Lebhar has been actively involved in lay ministry since her college years with organizations like FOCUS and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, but first as a discipler of the saints under her own roof. She is married to Bishop Neil Lebhar and they have four children and eight grandchildren. Her books The Bare Branch and The Story of Benjamin’s Bread are available on Amazon. Learn more at thebarebranch.com. 

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Article published on 08/15/2022