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First Presbyterian Church minister took long road to Fort Scott

Friday, January 14, 2011

Mansour Khajehpour took over as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in August.
(Ruth Campbell/Tribune)
Mansour Khajehpour has taken a long road to becoming pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Fort Scott.

A 44-year-old native of Mashhad, Iran, a pilgrammage destination due to it being the site where the eighth Imam of Shiites was killed and buried, Khajehpour grew up in a family of fundamentalist Muslims. By the time he was 14, he had accomplished a Muslim's three tasks -- praying 17 times daily, the annual 30-day fast for Ramadan and going to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

"In my town I was a serious Muslim," he said. "I was practicing (Islam) in a very serious way."

In contrast, now he is a serious Christian who has translated numerous books, including the bestselling work "The Purpose Driven Life," into his native Farsi and hosts a weekly TV show beamed to 100 million Farsi speaking people in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Along the way, he endured being jailed, disowned by his late father, who ultimately took him back, and not being able to return to his home country.

When he returned from his pilgramage to Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic, headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was a year old. Khomeni took over in 1979 after the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Khomeini promised to return the country to the fundamentals of Islam -- the way God wanted the nation to be, he said.

Khajehpour was among the throngs of people in the streets shouting "Death to the Shah." One of the opposition groups was denounced as infidels, and because of that, had to be wiped from the face of the Earth.

Obeying the call of the country's supreme leader calling the bookstore owners infidels, Khajehpour and his friends burned a book store.

Heading to his father's shop the next day, Khajehpour saw a beautiful building with a cross on top. "I saw the church and it stunned me," he said. He got off the bus and went into the church, but could not find anyone. Eventually, a woman came to the door and told him their pastor had died and been buried the previous day. From her accent, Khajehpour knew she was a Christian. She told him there was another church hidden behind the national garden with a pastor who spoke Farsi. There was a huge sign saying "God is Love" with a cross in the middle of it at the Presbyterian/Evangelical Church of Mashhad.

The pastor who emerged from the door was carrying a large stack of books. He had a Muslim accent. The pastor of the Presbyterian church gave Khajehpour a copy of the New Testament, which he read cover to cover in three days. He determined it was silly. For example, he recalled, it said a prophet of God turned water (something pure) into wine (something impure) and Khajehpour thought, "no wonder it's corrupted."

But Khajehpour returned to the church. He saw a man in a suit who introduced himself with the last name of "holy," literally translated. The man invited Khajehpour to come to church worship with him and see what the church was about.

The pastor put Khajehpour at the back of the church and told him not to speak and only stand up and sit down with the other congregation members. In Islam, Khajehpour said, one is a hopeless sinner, which is the rationale for the self-flaggelation that occurs. It was different in the Presbyterian faith, as with other Christian denominations, where you could be forgiven for your sins. Singing and clapping were part of the service, something with which Khajehpour was unfamiliar.

After the service, the pastor asked Khajehpour to join him in the fellowship hall. Khajehpour asked the pastor questions and the pastor explained things rationally. He invited Khajehpour back and he went back every Sunday for three months.

The occasion that changed his life was a visit by three older French Catholic nuns who served the people in the church. In his culture, Khajehpour said younger people serve their elders, plus the nuns were foreigners and guests making them all the more unusual.

The nuns hummed hymns, which were soothing to him. "I was not used to it. That was ground-shaking," he said. "... It was a feeling of blessings, a feeling that was new to me. It was mellow, soft and gentle."

He had an experience where he closed his eyes and thought if he opened them, he would fall. "It was a blessed, sacred experience to me," Khajehpour said. "That was the moment I felt it was time to give up."

Pretty soon, Khajehpour's behavior changed and his parents noticed he was was going to church. His father came to the church and told him to denounce Christianity or be disowned. He did not and was disowned. Six months later, the Iranian new year of March 21 came around offering a chance to reconcile.

His father was ready to welcome his eldest son back.

His father died at age 59, and as his oldest son, Khajehpour was supposed to bury him. But he couldn't go home. He has gone to many other countries, but he cannot cross the border into Iran.

"It's painful, but it's worth it. What Jesus has done is beyond worth. Jesus has changed my heart," he said.

Khajehpour has been in the ministry for 21 years, but was ordained in 1998. He has been in the United States since June 28, 1997.

He was arrested twice in Tehran for Christianity and advised to flee the country. He went to Greece and was there for a year. "As a refugee," he said, "you don't get to pick where you go."

After landing in the United States, he was given three options for a pastorate -- Receda Baptist Church in California, an Iranian Presbyterian Church in Silver Spring, Md., or starting a church from scratch in Seattle.

He chose Seattle, which was where he started Persian Church of the Good Shepherd. "We baptized a whole bunch of former Muslims from Iran and Afghanistan.

In 2005, Khahjepour went to study at Princeton Theological Seminary and started another Iranian church in Bryn Mawr, Pa. He received a call to serve at a Presbyterian church in Louisville, Ky., and then Seattle Presbytery hired him as coordinator for stewardship and mission. He was speaking every Sunday -- sometimes twice -- on those topics.

In November 2009, he realized his calling was to go back to the pastorate.

The Fort Scott church hired him this past summer. It was one of the few churches he found where he "could be challenged and encouraged," Khajehpour said.

"I believe God gives us gifts for a reason. I have translated and published several books," he said, referring to his translations of Christian books into Farsi.

His wife, Nahid, works for United Bible Societies as coordinator for new translations of the Bible. They have two children, 15-year-old Rebeka, who attends Fort Scott High School, and 10-year-old Matthew, a fourth-grader at Eugene Ware Elementary School.

Asked if all he's been through has been worth it, Khajehpour said, "It's beyond worth. What Christ has done for us is amazing. Being disowned by my family, becoming a refugee was nothing."

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Welcome to Fort Scott. Glad you decided to come to KS. What a wonderful testomny. Makes you wunder if as individuals here in America, where we have grown up with religious freedom. Would we take a chance on our beliefs if it meant loosing our home, family and country.

-- Posted by FtScott Mom on Fri, Jan 14, 2011, at 7:45 AM

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