When Ray and Sharon Sanders married in 1973, they had no idea they would someday abandon their comfortable lives in Illinois to begin a worldwide ministry in Israel intent on blessing Jews.
Christian Friends of Israel (CFI) came into being at Latrun, Israel in December 1985, 12 years after they married. From that beginning, with the Sanders working out of their small apartment in Mevaseret Zion, CFI now has offices on six continents, having not only beneficially impacted the lives of thousands of terror victims and Holocaust survivors in Israel, but also having changed the way that Christians everywhere think of the Jewish people and their homeland.
“CFI received a sobering prophetic word in the beginning of the ministry,” Sharon told KNI. “I, particularly, had to fight it because of my background. I sang my first song in church at age three. At 17, I was chosen to tour Europe with an orchestra, concert and chorus. So my flesh wanted to go wherever there was an opportunity to perform. Ray is the opposite and did not have to fight that same, fleshly pull. I mention this because it may be important to others who may struggle with the same thing.
“We were worshipping on Shabbat at the Baptist House in Jerusalem the year after we arrived in Israel. Three French ladies in attendance that morning asked us to talk with them, saying, ‘We have a word for you.’
“Our experience at that time was that every prophetic word we had heard had come to pass so, of course, we were eager to listen. Their word was, ‘Christian Friends of Israel will not explode into the heights, it will work in the depths.’”
The Sanders thought at length about what the ladies had said and what their words had meant. “It happened as they had prophesied,” Sharon said, “we did work in the depths, within the private lives of people who don’t normally open their arms wide in welcome when a Christian knocks on their door. But they opened their arms to us. All of CFI’s efforts have been relationship-based from the beginning, all over Israel in 55 cities.”
Among an ambitious list of goals, CFI encourages Christians to understand the Jewish roots of their faith, deplores anti-Semitism, promotes intercession on Israel’s behalf, provides support for Israelis in need and assists Jews in making Aliyah, but perhaps the organization’s crowning achievement is that, after thirty-two years of striving in the land, they have truly become what they originally chose to call themselves, Christian friends of Israel.
Early in Ray and Sharon’s ministry they met Yaacov Youlus, an Orthodox Rabbi in Jerusalem. He had knocked on the door of their ministry’s second office, two small rooms at the Anglican School in Jerusalem, after reading the sign on their door.
“Christian Friends of Israel?” Youlus asked. “I didn’t know we had any.”
Youlus stepped inside and began talking with Ray.
“They spent quite a long time together,” Sharon said. “We learned things from the Torah and eventually he asked us questions. We fell in love with each other. He was bound and determined to remain an Orthodox Rabbi and we intended to remain who we were, yet it turned into a wonderful, 18-year relationship.”
Later Youlus and the late Norman Feingold, founder of Christian Friends of Magen David Adom, characterized the source of the Sanders’ unique accomplishment, attributing their success in befriending Jewish people by going “beneath the soil,” into their hearts and homes.
“During the Gulf War, we had incoming rockets from Saddam Hussein, our first time as Americans to experience war in Israel. When the war was over, Rabbi Youlus told us he had mentioned us in his diary. ‘During the Gulf War,’ he told us, ‘a lot of people left Israel. I wrote just two words about you two in my diary, They stayed.’”
Though they had received hints from the beginning that they might not lead ordinary lives, the Sanders harbored no early ambitions toward the Middle East. They saw themselves as career people, not unlike most young, ambitious Americans. Sharon fell in love with Ray “the first time I saw him.”
“We met in Bloomington Illinois. We were both working. He had this Yamaha motorcycle so he thought he was pretty hot stuff. I liked that motorcycle too. It was a neat looking dirt bike.”
But God was at work in the Sanders’ lives well before they seemed to notice. Hal Lindsey’s landmark book, The Late Great Planet Earth, came out the year they married.
“And it seemed that everybody was reading and talking about it,” Sharon said. “We got our copy and I couldn’t put it down. Ray read it too… We had been attending full-gospel businessmen meetings. Ray had become a bit disenchanted with his work at that time and one night, at one of these meetings, the speaker called him up and said, ‘You have the call of God on your life and one day you’ll be in full-time ministry.’”
“Well, that wasn’t what Ray wanted to do. He didn’t just take it and run with it.”
After graduating from Iowa State University with degrees in Dairy Science and Business Administration, Ray had begun working for the largest agriculture co-op in the United States, the FS Companies.
“We were both career-oriented,” Sharon said, “Ray in agricultural business. I had started working for lawyers and judges. My goal was to be a paralegal and I had this big dream of going to the Pentagon one day and working there but, of course, God stopped that fast.”
When Ray left a second job at Doane Agriculture he began to wonder again if he had failed. One Sunday while attending church, Charles and Paula Slagle were, as Sharon put it, “gloriously singing prophetic words.” The couple suddenly stopped singing and Charles pointed at Ray.
“He said, ‘Most of that word was for you. You will never fail again. The Lord has opened a door for you more than ever before.’ And Ray and I started to cry,” Sharon recounted.
“The word spoken over Ray really hit him but he didn’t know what to do with it. Hal Lindsey had said that Israel was important, so we said, ‘Let’s go to Israel,’ and we came on a ten-day tour. This was during the Lebanon war. We didn’t know anybody in Israel but I had heard of the Jerusalem Post so I wrote them and asked for a pen pal, someone to write to so that, when we got there, we could meet them.
“A few months later we received some letters with postage stamps from Israel, then more letters and even more. We were confused, at first, about the Israelis who were writing to us but eventually understood what had happened when one of our writers included a clipping from the Jerusalem Post with his letter. Instead of simply connecting us to a pen pal, the Post had published our letter and Jewish people from all over Israel had begun to write. We heard from over 50 Israelis before we arrived.”
Ray and Sharon visited Israel carrying all the letters they had received and continued to correspond with their newfound pen pals for ten years more while they lived in the states.
“I’ve still got all the original letters here, at home in a box,” Sharon said.
After he had received the prophetic word of “God’s open door,” Ray became convinced of their calling.
“I think God wants us to sell everything and go to Bible college,” he told Sharon.
They owned a home and some properties in Chicago.
“We said, ‘Okay Lord, if you sell the house and the properties, we’ll know we have confirmation.’ We had two lakefront lots, side-by-side, among 400 others also for sale. One of the lots sold two weeks later. Shortly after that, the second lot sold.”
After selling their home they gave everything else away or simply asked people to pay them later.
“Picture us sitting in this big, empty house,” Sharon said. “We kept the piano, put that and all our other belongings into a van and went off to Bible college, Christ for the Nations, in Dallas, Texas.”
Final confirmation of the decision that led to the birth of CFI came soon after.
“The van was ready to go,” Sharon said. “We had locked the door behind us. Almost everything we owned had been sold or given away and, just for a moment, I got cold feet. I said, ‘Lord, I hope we’re doing the right thing.’
“I got in my Honda behind Ray in the van and spotted a little devotional on the passenger seat beside me. So I stopped and looked up the verse of the day, for the day we departed, and it said, “… every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” (Mat 19:29)
And so it began.
Christian Friends of Israel, now an internationally known and revered ministry, was originally conceived 32 years ago as a small mailing and coordinating office to help educate Christians around the world about Israel’s people and the land.
“But we couldn’t stop the growth,” Sharon said. “Within a year after we began CFI we began traveling. We eventually visited 55 nations all over the world. And we came home with mailing lists.”
“They believed in us, were our advisors from the beginning and remained our advisors until they died.”
“We appointed representatives around the world and they promoted Israel. They were the hardest years of our lives, but they were the best years,” Sharon concluded.
Christian Friends of Israel continues its ministry in Israel under the leadership of the Sanders’ son-in-law and daughter, Kevin and Stacey Howard.
Ray recently retired from his daily duties at CFI after successfully battling Parkinson’s Disease for two decades.
Sharon remains involved part-time with the ministry by writing and teaching. She is currently writing the story of their lives, its working title, “Standing between Two Worlds.”