Interview with Tony Deik
The Head of Online Education for Bethlehem Bible College, as well as an Instructor in Biblical Studies, Anton (“Tony”) Deik is a native of Bethlehem, with a family history going back at least a thousand years here. His ancestors were olive wood carvers—a tradition passed from one generation to the next—and he grew up just down the road from the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus Christ was born. Recently, we were able to sit down with Tony and hear about a powerful encounter with Jesus Christ that upended his life and showed him the true nature of God; his vision to reach the wider Arabic-speaking world through BBC’s e-learning program; and how his experiences growing up in Bethlehem have shaped his theology and who he is today.
Mercy Aiken: Tony, it is intriguing to think of you as a little boy growing up in Bethlehem. Whenever I take people to the Church of the Nativity, I love to mention that it is my friend Tony’s home church and that you were an altar boy there! Tell me about the spiritual foundation of your childhood.
Tony Deik: As a child, I was very religious—I was a believer and had a relationship with God in the Roman Catholic Church. When I was between the ages of 11 and 13, I was reading the Bible every day—not that I understood it! But I always felt a calling from God. As a child, I wanted to be a Franciscan priest.
I haven’t talked about this much, but I sometimes felt that God was speaking to me. I have a distinct childhood memory of hearing Him call me to lead people to the kingdom of God by following the narrow road—and He showed me the wide and narrow roads.
But in my teenage years, I started drifting away. By the time I was at Birzeit University, I was an agnostic/atheist.
Let’s talk about your spiritual journey: How did you come to the place you are at now? I know you walked away from a previous career track to follow the Lord.
In 2009, I was at Birzeit University majoring in Computer System Engineering; I was part of a small team that was working to establish a new research venture in Computer Science. One day, my friend since childhood returned from Lebanon and began to share how his life had been changed by an encounter with Jesus. As he was sharing his story with me, my mind was flooded with memories of my childhood. The lyrics and melodies of old hymns surfaced in my memory. I was almost in tears—but I was not ready to surrender to the Lord. I was determined to focus on my career.
Then in 2010, everything changed. One evening, I was hanging out with a friend in my apartment. We were partners in the Computer Science research venture. At that point, I was very influenced by New Age thinking. I had just read the book, “The Secret” and I was sharing the concept with my friend. I was telling him that he needed to just believe in himself; to visualize his success and receive it. I told him, “You can do anything, if you just believe in yourself.” He was interested in hearing more, so I put in the film, “The Secret.” As it was playing, I started thinking about my life and my mind began drifting away. I thought, “I am successful. I have what I want. I am happy; I believe in myself, I can do anything!” As my thoughts progressed, I thought, I can do anything I want—and therefore I am god. Anyone who believes in himself/herself—who has faith in himself/herself—is god … and therefore … there is no God!
The very minute I came to this conclusion, I saw the Cross in front of me! I was shaken as if heaven was open above me and pouring over me. I heard a Voice deep inside say, “Go away from your faith in yourself. This kind of faith is not the attribute that makes God, God! What makes Him God at the very core is His LOVE—love revealed in the cross!”
I was just struck! Moments after this revelation, my heart began to beat faster; I was sweating and could not breathe easily. My first thought was that I wanted to stop everything and become a monk!
Just like you wanted to be when you were a child!
Yes! For me, it was the utmost idea that represented consecration to God. After I snapped out of this experience, the first thing I said to my friend was, “I’m sorry, but I can no longer work in the project with you. I need to withdraw from university (I was in my 5th year), and I am going to be a Franciscan Priest.”
Two months later, I started reading the gospel of John. And this became another great turning point in my life. I remember so clearly: it was a Friday afternoon. I had been reading John from the beginning and I was now in Chapter 13, where Jesus is washing the feet of His disciples. As I read this, I began to weep and weep and weep. For the first time I looked at my life and realized that I was a sinful human being. I had been active in human rights campaigns. I cared for the oppressed. I thought I was a good person. But when I looked at Christ and His perfection and humility, I realized for the first time how arrogant and prideful and sinful I am, and how humble is our God—the One who created the whole universe! That moment changed my entire life, as I was repenting and surrendering my life to Christ.
My next step was to enter into a period of questioning where I fit in church. I was a believer, but I was without a local fellowship. I was mostly learning through the Internet and TV. But I was shocked at some of the things I was hearing! I would listen to a great sermon—and at the end they would preach about supporting and collecting money for Israel! I could not imagine how Christians could believe in the loving Christ I had encountered—and at the same time support the Israeli military occupation under which my people had suffered for so long. Many nights I went to bed weeping with bitterness and despair. Until I had my experience with the Lord, I had assumed that Christian Zionism was a small cult at the periphery of Christianity. I was surprised to see that it was a mainstream idea amongst Evangelicals. And so I kept my distance from the Evangelical world. Though I was living in Ramallah at the time, I only went to church when I came home to Bethlehem—my childhood church, the Church of the Nativity.
I know your Roman Catholic background is special to you—but how did you begin to also identify as an Evangelical, especially considering the emotional obstacles?
I remember walking past many churches in Ramallah … I was passing Quakers, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans … and I was crying to the Lord, “Where is Your true church? Where do You want me to be?”
Shortly after this prayer, I discovered BBC’s Christ at the Checkpoint conference, and for the first time I realized that one could be evangelical without necessarily supporting the oppression and injustice that we experience in Palestine. I finally realized that Christian Zionism was not necessarily “part and parcel” of Evangelicalism. I was so encouraged by people like Yohanna Katanacho, (one of the speakers at CATC and at that time the Academic Dean of BBC). I finally felt free to start attending an Evangelical church in Ramallah, where I began to grow very quickly and was baptized. Going to this church was another important milestone for me.
How did you end up in London?
It goes back to when I first had the vision of the Cross. After my first encounter with the Lord, one of my first thoughts was that I needed to study theology. When I gave up the idea of being a Franciscan monk, I started looking for theology schools. I knew He was calling me to full-time ministry. However, at that time, the doors to study theology seemed to be closed. Instead, the Lord opened the door to serve in missions with Operation Mobilization on the Logos Hope ship. I worked with OM for a year and half and we travelled on that ship through the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand and Cambodia. This was the first time that I had the opportunity to be involved full-time in evangelism, preaching, helping the poor, ministering in prisons, etc. I found my calling as a preacher when I was with OM.
While I was serving on the ship, I applied to London School of Theology and began my studies in 2013, where I achieved my MA in Biblical studies.
And of course, it is also where you met your lovely wife, Sara, who is from Bolivia.
What drew me to Sara was her passion for Palestine. She was quick to understand our struggle. She has a heart of compassion and justice. She understands the struggles of oppressed and minorities.
I agree; she is amazing! Tony, on another note, you are also an anointed worship leader. I may not understand the words, but I always feel the Holy Spirit when you are leading worship. How long have you been involved in that ministry?
I played the guitar as a child and abandoned it. When I came back to the Lord, I picked it up again. I only know how to worship on the guitar. I don’t know any other songs. I used it mainly just as a personal devotional instrument, and I gradually started leading in small meetings. Eventually, I became a worship leader in a small OM church plant in London.
Tell me what you learned in London. What was your favorite part of being there?
My favorite thing about living in London was the study itself—I learned how to read Scripture more carefully, how to exegete the Scripture. This skill greatly enhanced my preaching and my relationship with God!
Tell me a little about the distance learning program you are putting together for BBC.
After I gave my life to Christ, I assumed I needed to quit working in IT and Computers—I was in a way trying to run away from IT work. However, God never allowed it! Now I understand that God wants to use every single bit of our talents and abilities. He wants to use ALL of it for His kingdom! He even made me do IT work on Logos Hope!
Haha! So, how did a guy running away from IT work end up overseeing BBC’s E-Learning program?
Jack Sara told me about BBC’s dream to start an E-Learning program for the wider Arabic-speaking world. I thought, OK, this is not my passion, but I will help out for a while. However, now that I have been working on this project, I am persuaded that I cannot leave it. I am excited for the opportunities that e-learning can open. We can proclaim God’s word and truth to the Middle East and beyond. By next September, we will be ready to launch an Online Diploma Program in Biblical Studies. We will be focusing on Biblical knowledge, and not necessarily ministry skills, since there is another seminary in Lebanon with a similar program that focuses on that. Our emphasis will be teaching people how to read and understand the Scripture.
What does your family think of what you are doing now?
They are happy now, but they were troubled when I decided to abandon my career—which is normal for any parent really. I left a promising career. We had just inaugurated an Institute for Computer Science research at Birzeit University and I had just been given a PhD scholarship in Computer Science. They were shocked that l left all of this to volunteer on a ship. But now they see I am stable, married, and working. They are really supportive.
Tony, I know that you have a passion to see a just peace established in this Land. How old were you when you became aware of the conflict?
The 40-day invasion of Bethlehem was a turning point in my early life. This was in 2002 and I was 15 years old. We live quite close to Manger Square and there were Israeli tanks in our streets and IDF snipers in our neighborhoods. The whole town was under curfew.
Most nights of the siege, my family slept near the kitchen area, but one night we decided to move to our bedrooms, because it seemed calm. But that very night, massive bullets from a tank came shooting into my room, just a few centimeters from my head. They were shooting towards the Nativity Church, because there were Palestinians who had taken refuge in there, the oldest extant church in the world under siege! It was the most frightening moment of my life. I honestly thought it was my last night to be alive.
Were you allowed to leave the house at all during this time of curfew?
Every week or so, we were allowed to go out for a couple of hours to buy food and run errands.
What did you do to pass the time when you were confined to the house?
Well, I was 15 years old, so it was the beginnings of my awakening as an activist. We moved our computer to the floor to avoid snipers, and I remember sitting on the floor teaching myself PowerPoint and putting together a presentation on the conflict. We also had an old VHS camcorder and I tried to film a documentary, sneaking carefully to the side of the windows and trying to film what was going on outside!
Haha! That’s exactly what I would have been doing if I had been a 15 year old in your shoes!
You can read all about this event in a book written by Pastor Mitri Raheb called “Bethlehem Besieged.”
If you could say anything to the young men demonstrating out on the street, what would it be?
These kids are courageous. However, they are like sheep without a shepherd. Unfortunately, we don’t have visionary leadership in Palestine. We don’t have a clean, nonviolent vision and strategy from our leadership. Many of these kids are destroying their lives. We need to go to the streets peacefully and non-violently—in big numbers, starting with the leadership, not just teenagers and children.
Ultimately, I would like the Lord Jesus to come and bring an end to all suffering and injustice. I would like to see His Kingdom reign on this earth—God vindicating the oppressed, the truth revealed, justice and mercy and peace reigning in this Land.
How has the revelation of the love and humility of God changed how you view the situation in Palestine and Israel?
Encountering God in this way was a huge encouragement for me. My encounter with God and His love for the lowly, oppressed and marginalized convicted me even more to defend other human beings who cannot defend or speak for themselves. Because of the things I was reading in the Bible, I became more courageous and active in speaking out about what is right and wrong. I was filled with a greater desire to be salt and light in this earth. One of the verses that spoke to me early on is Psalm 82:2-4, in which God speaks of His anger towards His people for their complacency and tolerance of oppression:
“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Before I committed my life to Christ, I was much more timid. I was active within comfortable circles, but now I want to speak out even more clearly and loudly on these issues—even where it is not comfortable—because I see it is the heart of God Himself.