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Seta Saleh: Seeing the New Picture

by Annette Ensz on December 30, 2013 in Articles

“Sixty to seventy percent of Iranian churches are populated by women,” according to DTS alumna Seta Saleh. Born in Beirut to Armenian parents, Seta now lives in Los Angeles, but she frequently travels to the Middle East to help equip Iranian pastors to minister to women. “The mutual respect is a beautiful thing,” she said. “Men and women partnering for the sake of the gospel….”

Iranian Christians carry two pictures in their wallets.

The first time an Iranian woman walked up to Seta Saleh (MA[BS], 2009) and pulled out her money and I.D., Seta scanned the room for help. She felt trapped by the intense look in the woman’s eyes, but others around didn’t notice and huddled in their own conversations. Seta turned back to the woman, prepared to protest if she offered money for the ministry received at an Iranian church leadership training conference. But the woman surprised her. She pulled out two photos and held them up side by side for Seta to see. The subjects seemed vaguely similar. One was a smiling portrait of the woman herself. The other seemed familiar but haggard, maybe a relative.

“This,” the woman held up the picture of the unknown woman, “is me before I knew Jesus.” She slid it behind the other photo and beamed at Seta. “This is me now.”

Training a Trainer

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, to an Armenian family, Seta Saleh now ministers to the growing population of Armenians in southern California. Whether she hikes in the Sierras or reads in a nearby park, Seta will strike up a conversation with anyone who speaks Armenian and invite the individual to coffee or dinner. She and her guests often end up discussing the orthodox apostolic tradition of the national Armenian Church over home-cooked meals at Seta’s kitchen table. Seta then turns the exchange from the topic of priestly intervention to a personal relationship with Christ.

Sharing her faith used to be hard for Seta. Ten years ago, she and her two children had followed her husband to Dallas, Texas, when his job changed. She touted an MBA and thirteen years’ experience in corporate America. The girls, then six and eight, tried to adjust to elementary school in a new place. “The last thing on my mind,” Seta said, “was teaching people the Bible on a full-time basis.”

Her peer group included people who were curious about Christ but uncomfortable going to a church. They loved to get together, eat dinner, and talk, however. And their need intersected with Seta’s favorite pastimes, which include playing hostess and making cookies. She thrives on welcoming people into a comfortable environment. And as she came to recognize her friends’ spiritual hunger, she realized they needed her to teach them.

“I knew I needed more training,” Seta said. “I was thirty-seven years old, and I had never taught the Bible. I knew the basics, but when secondary and tertiary questions would come up, I felt unequipped to answer them.”

She applied to Dallas Theological Seminary, hoping to take a couple of classes whenever she could fit them in. Five-and-a-half years later, she had completed a degree in biblical studies.

Fit for Service

Toward the end of her time in seminary, a friend called Seta and took her to a church meeting about a mission organization focused on Iran, Elam Ministries. This mission strengthens and expands the church in Iran and neighboring countries through leadership training, church planting, and discipleship. Seta sat with her mouth open as she listened to stories of mullahs receiving the Bible after having dreams telling them to wait on God. She also heard stories of women praying to know in which closed cities they should share the gospel and plant churches.

After the presenter found out Seta had studied at seminary and grew up in Lebanon, the organization offered to bring her to a conference at a location near Iran to teach a session. Since Iran has thirteen neighboring nations, all allowing friendly border stipulations—similar to those between the United States and Canada—trainers travel to an adjacent country and pastors leave Iran and join them to get training. Once Seta had arrived, she found that the Spirit gave her empathy for the plight of Iranian Christians. Since then, she has answered multiple invitations to return and teach. 

Teaching Christian Living

Elam Ministries designs its work around education. When Seta attended her first overseas seminar, she found that the pastors present knew Bible exposition and could interpret the Bible “with their eyes closed.” Since they were so well-equipped in handling the Bible from years of personal study, mentorship, and training, Seta’s teaching ministry focused on a different need: understanding of practical Christian living.

In the United States, the Ten Commandments form a basic moral law, even for people who deny any belief in them—no stealing, no killing, no lying. But in Iran, the absence of Judeo-Christian values affects converts who struggle to live like Christ without any framework against which to measure life in the Spirit.

Speaking of those she has trained, Seta observed, “Even though people meet Christ, become Christians, and follow Christ, it takes time to understand the character of a Christian. What does it mean to make decisions like a Christian? What does it mean to live like a Christian, or raise your children as Christians?” Noting that as human beings, we often revert back to what we saw in our families—such as how our father treated our mother—Seta said, “It takes education to realize that sometimes there were issues there and maybe we shouldn’t copy them.” 

Unlikely Pioneers

Through Seta’s work she has heard numerous testimonies from believers in a “closed” nation. These brothers and sisters speak of God’s working in supernatural ways to comfort his people and to bring fellow Iranians to faith—such as a prayer walk during which two women carrying Bibles ended up delivering a copy to a mullah who had waited all day to hear from God.

Most of Seta’s work has focused on equipping women to practically support and expand the church. “Some of these women are major church planters,” Seta said. “They go from city to city. It’s unbelievable. A woman will be all covered up in a veil and then”—Seta flips her fingers back over her head and laughs—  “off comes the veil and there stands this amazing  evangelist.”

Ministering to Pastors

One Iranian pastor told Seta, “Thank you. I used to think I knew all about women.” He laughed and said, “After hearing you speak, I realize I know nothing about them!” 

Until six months ago, Seta taught only the females in the church. But when Elam developed a gathering for pastors and church leaders on the topic of ministering to women, Seta had information they needed. Difficult subjects such as childhood sexual abuse and drug abuse can stump these pastors because of the disconnect between their faith and their culture. So Seta helps them apply Bible passages that address God’s view of how to treat others and how to treat our bodies. Then she gives her learners tools for identifying and confronting such problems in their congregations.

“Sixty to seventy percent of Iranian churches are populated by women,” Seta reported. “You have male pastors taking care of those congregations. They know their Bibles and theology very well. But how does a woman think? How do different abuses affect women? They don’t know.”

She continued, “I was standing there the first day in a room full of former Muslim men whose culture has taught them not to consider their wives any more important than their furniture, and they all listened to me talk to them very openly about sexual matters. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, they were able to hear, learn, and ask questions.”

The conference opened Seta’s eyes to a harsher culture than she had suspected. The pastors were dealing with abuse in their congregations. More sobering, however, was the realization that several of these pastors had themselves grown up in abusive homes and needed help to overcome their own emotional wounds. Seta has also observed that in families where the men are given all the authority, those with such power have “the license to engage in all sorts of perversion. So we give them a chance to confront that past and find healing so they can minister well.” 

The Reality of Freedom

In hundreds of wallets across an area steeped in spiritual bondage, pairs of pictures testify to the reality of freedom in a culture known for its vice-like control. “It was so odd for me the first time I saw someone take out two pictures and show them off,” Seta recalled. “The darkness and oppression of that country weigh on them. The hopelessness is so heavy that there are actual physical changes in people once they come to Christ. Some of them look twenty years younger. If I hadn’t believed in life-change before, I would now: Christ is alive. He truly, totally changes lives.”

Indeed, Seta has seen it. God transforms women who lived in fear of their husbands into bold evangelists who approach people on the streets. God empowers pastors to work in their Iranian cities, and then travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan, carrying the gospel. God is at work in the Middle East. 


Visit the Table podcast webpage to access the podcasts Living as a Woman in the Middle East, and Life and Ministry in the Middle East.

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