Pastor Sharif, Fifth Avenue and the Holy Spirit

“Where are you going?”

The voice spoke from out of a cold fog. Khurshid Sharif was walking a deserted road at night, lost. He had missed his stop at Brook Avenue in the Bronx and was making his way on foot to the Shell station where he worked the late shift.

“Everything was dark,” he remembers. “I was depressed. Worried. I had no idea about my future. About my family. I was scared. I was shivering. But when I heard that voice, I stopped and turned around.”

It spoke again. “Come. I’ll show you the way.”

Sharif is a man who recognizes the presence of God in his life. Long before that night in the Bronx, he remembers a time in his teens when Jesus picked him up on a motorbike and got him safely to church—often a dangerous trip for a Christian in Pakistan.

Now a Presbyterian pastor, and a refugee, Sharif credits the Holy Spirit with guiding him to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

During the three and a half years we have known Sharif and his family, the church has helped them get an apartment and meet their monthly expenses. Over the summer, a member of the congregation helped the Sharif’s daughter, Merab, enroll in a nursing program at Westminster College and secure financial aid.  

The senior pastor keeps us all up to date on the progress of the Sharif family.

Now it’s time to learn the rest of his story—and how he survived that cold, dark night on the roadside.

Khurshid Sharif was born into a Christian family in a largely Muslim nation. His great-grandfather converted in the early 1900s, a time when Presbyterian missionaries were active in the Punjab, where his family lived. After the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the family moved to Karachi, one of the largest cities in Pakistan, where Sharif and his four brothers grew up.

He was baptized and confirmed, sang in the choir, joined the youth group. But like a lot of young men in their 20s, he drifted spiritually. Then God set a timeline.

Sharif at his ordination in Pakistan, 1998.

“I knew I was called to be a pastor,” he recalls. “I also knew that 1998 was the year. This was my deadline to serve.”

First he needed to graduate from his secular high school (14 grades, in the Pakistani system). Then he needed his bishop’s support to get admitted to St. Thomas Liturgical College. He left his job as a medical lab technician to study full time, with little financial help available. “It was a tough time for me,” he says. “But God is great.”

By 1998—right on time—Sharif had his bachelor of theology degree. He also had his first child when Merab was born. (Sharif and his wife, Noshaba, had married in 1995.)

And he had his first church, in the village of Mirpurkhas. There he demonstrated an ability to draw large numbers of non-Christians into his congregation. He did the same thing at his second church, in a village called Nawabshah.

His success got the attention of church leaders, who eventually brought him back to Karachi. In 2011, he was put in charge of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, the third-largest church in the city. At the time, the church was drawing about 150 people to Sunday worship in a sanctuary that seated 300. Within a year, the pews were full, and the church had added 300 plastic chairs to accommodate the overflow. By 2013, worshippers were lining the walls.

Once again, Sharif was getting attention—not all of it welcome. St. Andrew’s stood across a park from a prominent mosque. Initially there was a good relationship between the two communities, with members and clergy often crossing the park to attend worship with their neighbors. But as St. Andrews continued to grow, and local politics became more militant, the situation grew tense.

“If you are a Christian,” Sharif says, understating it, “it is not an easy job in Pakistan.”

At an Easter sunrise service in 2014, Sharif preached a sermon that reflected on the founders of the world’s major religions. Among them all, he said, “there is one empty tomb. For he has risen.”

After that sermon made the local press, Sharif was charged with blasphemy by the Taliban. Within the next two weeks, he had fled, and his wife and three children had gone into hiding.

Sharif grows quiet when his story comes to those two weeks. He speaks only of “very dangerous things,” then says no more.

Through friendly contacts at airport security, and with a multiple-entry visa to the United States, Sharif was able to leave the country. He found a place to live in Jamaica, Queens, and his service-station job in the Bronx.

Disconnected from his family and his church, his life seemed at a standstill. Until he heard that voice in the fog. “Come. I’ll show you the way.”

He began visiting churches and waited for guidance. After a first visit to Fifth Avenue, “my heart told me to come back.” On his second visit, he met the Rev. Kate Dunn.

One Sunday morning, in August 2014, Kate was greeting members and visitors after worship. Sharif approached and told her his story. Kate helped connect him with a refugee program at The Riverside Church and with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.

Eventually Sharif and his family were granted religious asylum in the United States through the assistance of Human Rights First. In September 2016, Noshaba and the children (daughter Merab and her brothers, Shaleem and Ashban) flew from Karachi to Newark. After two years apart, the family was reunited.

Sharif with his family on their arrival to New York, 2016.In 2016, Sharif was commissioned to serve as pastor to the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan, USA, in Philadelphia. He now works part-time shepherding his small congregation and part-time as a warehouse laborer.

Fifth Avenue is one of several congregations (including our neighbor Saint Thomas Episcopal) that have supported the Sharifs in their resettlement. Fifth Avenue paid the security deposit and first month’s rent on the Sharifs’ apartment, sent a big box of presents for their first Christmas in the United States and contributed toward Merab’s college tuition.

But it’s not the tangible assets that Sharif is most grateful for.

“When I asked him what we did that was most helpful,” Kate says, “he said it was that we listened to his story and gave him hope that people cared.”

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church hosts a fundraising dinner for Pastor Sharif and his family on Tuesday, May 29, at 6 pm in Bonnell Hall. Tickets are $50. RSVP by Friday, May 25, to Lance Hurst ([email protected]). This article was originally published in the Winter issue of The VOICE, the magazine of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

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