Father Sharbel Bcheiry plays with his sons Gabriel, 5, and Emmanuel, 3, at his home in suburban Chicago. (photo: Karen Callaway)
Father Bcheiry organizes a parish social gathering after a memorial liturgy for Syrians massacred during the Armenian genocide. (photo: Karen Callaway)
A parishioner receives communion at St. Afrem Syriac Orthodox Church in northwestern Chicago. (photo: Karen Callaway)
The Rev. Sharbel Bcheiry’s sons watch from the pews as the priest celebrates the Divine Liturgy in his Chicago-area church. (photo: Karen Callaway)
The Rev. Sharbel Bcheiry stands outside the gate of the factory where he works as a machinist. (photo: Karen Callaway)
The Bcheiry family prays before a meal at home (photo: Karen Callaway)
As the city of Chicago prepares for bed, the Rev. Sharbel Iskandar Bcheiry prepares to head to work, not the work of a priest — visiting the sick or administering the sacraments — but that of a laborer in a factory, earning money to feed and shelter his family.
A priest of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Father Bcheiry, says some North American parishes can support their priest and his family. But, the 42-year-old priest says, “We have a small parish. We don’t have enough financial support.”
Having earned a doctorate in church history, he had originally hoped to find work at a local university.
“It’s not a choice to go to work in a factory. I have to do it. If not, there is no survival — not for the community, and not for us,” he adds, gesturing to his family.
So this husband and father of two travels an hour each day to work the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift at one of the world’s largest suppliers of forging die steels, plastic mold steels, die casting tool steels and custom open-die forgings.
He started out as a welder-fabricator working the day shift and is now a machinist. But he has not abandoned his academic pursuits; he continues to study and publish books and articles. Indeed, factory work even provides him with a distinctive view of theology.
“It’s the practical theology,” Father Bcheiry says. “How to deal with the daily life. Punch in. Punch out. You have bosses, this one or the other yell at you. There is no privilege.”
To spend a day with Father Bcheiry is to witness a life that might surprise those who imagine priests divide all their time between praying and preaching.
For Father Bcheiry, that is just the beginning.
“I was born in Lebanon,” Father Bcheiry says. The second of five children, the priest says his father greatly influenced his faith journey.
“I lived in a family close to the church,” he explains. “My father, since he was 18 or 19, woke up every day at 4 a.m. to pray before going to work.”
Even from a young age, he knew he wanted to be a priest.
“At 13, I went to Syria, to a monastery that belonged to the patriarchate,” he says. Five years later, he returned to Lebanon and studied theology at the University of the Holy Spirit in Kaslik, a Catholic institute founded by the Lebanese Maronite Order.
As part of the preparation for priesthood, he finished his graduate studies in Rome, where he earned his doctorate at the Pontifical Oriental Institute. He was ordained in Chicago on 24 November 2006 by Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, then the Syriac Orthodox archbishop of the eastern United States, who last year was enthroned as Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II in Damascus.
Following tradition, the young priest took a religious name, choosing as his patron St. Sharbel, the Maronite monk canonized in the Catholic Church in 1977.
Father Bcheiry’s priestly ordination took place just a few weeks after he wedded Nazo Adde.
“We met in New York. Nazo was born here in Chicago. Her father was the parish priest of Chicago for 18 years,” he says. Her uncle is also a priest of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the United States.
The couple has two sons: Gabriel, 5, and Emmanuel, 3. The family speaks Aramaic and English around the house.
As Father Bcheiry answers questions, sounds of his children playing in the background resonate throughout the house. His wife cooks dinner and chimes in on his interview from the kitchen. They are a team.
“I couldn’t succeed without her,” Father Bcheiry says.
When not busy as a husband, father, pastor or factory worker, he spends whatever time remains as a student.
“It’s in my blood. I like to study,” says the priest, who is working on another doctorate. His second will focus on Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East.
“To be honest with you, my obsession is for the academic life.”
Once a week he visits the libraries at the Lutheran School of Theology of the University of Chicago to research his dissertation.
“It’s his other baby,” says Nazo.
The fruits of this dedication are clear: Father Bcheiry speaks Arabic, Aramaic, English, French, Italian and Syriac. He has authored six books along with 15 articles in peer-reviewed journals. He teaches Arabic part time at the Lutheran School of Theology, and is working on a project for the United Arab Emirates studying the history of their country as documented in the libraries of Italy.
When he accepted his assignment in Chicago, he wanted to work in academia, but God had his own plans, Father Bcheiry says.
“For me this would be the beginning. I would be priest, serve my community and my family, secure myself financially,” he says.
“I did it for my babies.”
Father Bcheiry serves as pastor of St. Afrem Syriac Orthodox parish in Northlake, in northwestern Chicago. The community lacks its own church, instead renting a Melkite Greek Catholic church shared by several Christian communities each Sunday.
The parish is small, numbering about 120 people, most of whom are recent immigrants from Syria.
“In 2009, a new parish was formed under the supervision of the same archeparchy to serve the newcomers, the new immigrants coming from Syria,” Father Bcheiry says. When the archbishop gave him the choice, he volunteered to serve this community.
During the Christmas and Easter seasons, Father Bcheiry makes home visits to parishioners around Chicago and the suburbs. He also routinely visits the sick. Sometimes these visits cause him to go without sleep before he returns to his shift at the factory. But it is worth it, he says.
“It’s more than church; it’s a church family.”
Father Bcheiry’s congregation knows firsthand the situation of Christians in the Middle East, especially in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. He and his parishioners have family and friends back in their mother countries who relate the current conditions without the usual filters.
“It is a critical situation, especially in Syria and Iraq,” he says.
Many of St. Afrem’s parishioners came to the United States to escape the violence in Syria.
“They are happy they have arrived here, but they are stressed because some of their family is still there,” he says.
In Iraq, the priest says, the Christian community has virtually disappeared. “There is hope in Kurdistan that they will reorganize themselves,” he adds.
“In Syria, the situation is very bad,” he says, explaining that concerns are not just about war but also its aftermath.
“This is a story of another 20, 30 years. Even if Syria will have peace, real peace, they will need another 15-20 years to recover.”
Even when Syria was one of the most stable countries in the region, thousands of Syrian Christians left the country each year.
Imagine the current situation lasting another 20 years, Father Bcheiry adds.
“We are becoming a weaker and weaker Christian community in the Middle East.
“We are witnessing, for real, a chapter of a dying Christianity in the Middle East.”
During the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in early May, St. Afrem remembered the Christians massacred in the Ottoman Turkish Empire exactly 100 years ago.
“This is our real tragedy because it’s well known as Armenian. And Armenians were the majority who died, but also hundreds of thousands of Syrians died,” Father Bcheiry says of the Middle East’s Syriac Christian community known as Aramaean, Assyrian, Chaldean or Syrian.
According to records compiled by the patriarchate, one-third of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the Middle East perished in 1915, the “Year of the Sword.” Those who survived were deported or fled, many seeking refuge in Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Mosul. Many of these families later settled in North America’s burgeoning industrial cities.
“Syrians, they were just peaceful people living in peaceful villages,” he says, adding that they did not have a political agenda beyond living their daily lives. “We were not even against the Ottomans. We were just cut from the world and nobody mentioned it.”
Father Bcheiry does not tell his colleagues at the factory that he is a priest.
“In the end, I am going there for work,” he says.
However, he cannot help but do a little quiet ministry. For example, if he discovers someone is a Christian, he says, he chats casually about the faith, asking questions and listening intently.
Occasionally, coworkers discover his vocation.
“They will say, ‘We know you are priest. You wrote a book. Why are you working in a factory?‘ ” he says, laughing.
“I’m coming from the world of theories,” he says. “We celebrate the Eucharist but we see it under the form of bread and wine. Our life is around faith, things we don’t see. In fabricating, we are dealing with things that you touch in your hand.”
And this line of work is changing him, and helping him to develop his “practical theology.”
“For a priest, working in a factory affects his theology; you appreciate so much the practical things.”
“To make a living, it’s not an easy thing,” he continues. “This is real life, working in a factory not by choice. I believe God chose this in order to teach me exactly what priesthood is,” he says. “It’s a cross I have to bear.”
An eternal student, he has taken this lesson well. “It is beautiful,” he says, “but it is not easy.”
Joyce Duriga is editor of Catholic New World, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.