History in First Person: Rev. Alfred Sawyer

The second director of CMJ USA tells how the Lord caught his attention in Israel, called him to be the rector of Christ Church Jerusalem, then called him to lead the US ministry and draw others to experience the Holy Land.
Topics: History

I first heard of CMJ in May of 1978. A friend of mine asked me to interview Walter Barker who was then the General Director of CMJ. I was working at the time as the religion editor of the Lexington Herald Leader and, as a lifelong Episcopalian, had no idea that there was any such thing as a missionary society in the Anglican Communion, much less one that was specifically trying to reach the Jewish people with the Good News that Jesus is their Messiah! I had become a believer in the early 1970s through the Charismatic Renewal as did many other Episcopalians. One of the first things that happened to me after coming to faith was that I developed a voracious appetite for Scripture. I had never so much as opened the Bible during my years of growing up in the Episcopal Church. As I devoured the Scriptures, it became evident that God was not finished with the Jewish people and that they would eventually recognize Jesus of Nazareth as their promised Messiah. 

Rev. Alfred Sawyer
Rev. Alfred Sawyer

Not long after coming to faith I heard two Messianic Jews from Miami give their testimony at a non-denominational gathering I was attending in my hometown of Columbus, Georgia. Their testimony resonated deeply within me and I felt that somehow I would be involved in ministry to the Jewish people. Shortly after that I met Avner Boskey and Liberated Wailing Wall with Jews for Jesus in Cincinnati. Again, I had the same sense of Gods calling to minister to the Jewish people. 

When I met Walter Barker in May of 1978, I had just been ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church and had accepted a call to become Vicar of St. Philips Episcopal Church in Hinesville, Georgia. My wife, Memory, and I had dinner with Walter that night after the interview and he casually mentioned that if we were ever to visit Israel we should go to CMJs church in Jerusalem called Christ Church. I filed the fact that CMJ had a church in Jerusalem called Christ Church into the back of my mind and thought no more about it. Had the same thing happened today I would have looked up Christ Church on the internet and read about it, but we didnt have that possibility back in the Dark Ages! 

We had no plans to go to Israel and certainly no money to afford such a trip. By this time, we were living back in Georgia where I had assumed my duties as Vicar of St. Philips. Out of the blue, a clergy friend called me and said he was taking a tour to Israel in October and that he believed the Lord wanted Memory and me to join him. I told him there was no way we could go as it was too soon after our arrival in Hinesville to leave, and besides, we didnt have the money.  This was in June of 1978. One morning in early August I was reading in 2 Kings 21:7 and I saw these words: Jerusalem which I have chosen. It was as if they jumped out of the page. Then I heard a voice, which was not my own, speaking deep within me. Out of all the cities on the face of the earth I have chosen only one and I have chosen you to go there. I thought that was confirmation that Memory and I should take the trip with my friend in October. It never occurred to me that there was more to it than that.

The money came in miraculously for us to pay for the trip. In October of 1978 we found ourselves in Jerusalem. One day we visited the Garden Tomb and heard a lecture from Orde Dobbie, one of the wardens. Orde mentioned that there was going to be a prayer meeting that night at Christ Church just inside the Jaffa Gate. Orde invited us to come. It was then I remembered what Walter had said to me months before, If youre ever in Jerusalem, visit our church. 

That night Memory and I took a taxi from our hotel on the western outskirts of Jerusalem to Christ Church. When we stepped into the church, we both felt, independently of each other, that we were walking into our own home. I dont have space to go into the details of what happened in the subsequent years, but five years later we returned to Christ Church where I served as rector from 1984 to 1991. Gods timing is always perfect. 

Christ Church Jerusalem

One of the best ways for the Lord to demonstrate to Christians the importance of ministry to the Jewish people is to get them to visit Israel.

Shoresh USA logo

We returned to the States in the summer of 1991. When I was appointed Director of CMJ USA, I quickly realized that selling the idea of ministry to the Jewish people was going to be difficult, to say the least, within the Episcopal Church. One of the ministries that we had developed in Israel was called Shoresh, the Hebrew word for root. It was designed to teach Gentile Christians about the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. We had seen numbers of very liberal and skeptical theological students become convinced of the veracity of the Bible simply by visiting the Land. I believed then and I believe now that one of the best ways for the Lord to demonstrate to Christians the importance of ministry to the Jewish people is to get them to visit Israel. So we renamed the ministry Shoresh USA in 1992. 

Reaching the Jewish people with the Good News that Jesus is their Messiah is not a peripheral issue. It is at the very heart of Gods plan for reaching the world. Its not only Romans 11 where the Lord promises that if the Jewish peoples rejection of Jesus meant riches for the Gentiles, that their acceptance of him will be life from the dead. It is also Acts 3 where Peter links their acceptance of Jesus to his return and to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh.

Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago (Acts 3:19-21).

Rev. Alfred Sawyer is the rector of Christ Church of Atlanta. 

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Article published on 07/14/2022