Abu Dhabi: When the UAE was formed in 1971, Reverend Carl Sherbeck was certain religious freedom would be guaranteed in the country.
He had been leading prayers of a small Christian group in Al Ain since 1966.
"Five years after enjoying religious freedom in Al Ain [1966-1971], we didn't have any apprehension about the new country," said the pastor who founded the Evangelical Church in Abu Dhabi in 1972.
Sherbeck, who is now 74, came to Al Ain in 1966 with his wife Barbara, 72, from the US.
President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who was then the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, offered full support for constructing the church, Sherbeck said.
The couple returned to the US in 2002 after retirement.
They spoke to Gulf News while visiting Abu Dhabi last week to attend the inauguration of a new worship centre at the church.
Barbara remembers how the local population from remote deserts in Oman came to the Oasis Hospital, riding on camels for several days.
Snail mail was the only way to communicate with the outside world and it took two weeks for a letter to reach the US, she said.
The couple witnessed the rapid development of the country from vast deserts without the latest amenities to a modern nation with world-class facilities.
"It was difficult then, but we have fond memories of that time as we enjoyed the calm and quiet life very much," she said.
There was no power supply, so no air conditioners, but they had evaporative coolers to escape the scorching heat.
Generators provided electricity to a select few houses in Al Ain. Most of the locals were staying in tents in the desert and travelled on camels. Abu Dhabi-Al Ain road was constructed after the Sherbecks' arrival.
They feel people were happier in those days although material comforts were limited.
The happiness and peace in life erodes with the growing complexities of modern life, Sherbeck said. Technology and related advances can bring material comfort only, he added.
Barbara said women in this part of the world have already realised the limitations of material wealth.
"I have heard several women talking that everything except happiness can be purchased with money."
During the late 1960s, the couple worked with Oasis Hospital in Al Ain and led the prayers of a group of about 30 Christians.
This was the beginning of the first Evangelical Church in the UAE.
Most of them were hospital staff including the British and other Europeans, Americans and Indians.
Apart from leading the prayers, Sherbeck also worked as a government relations official of the hospital.
Barbara taught Bible at Sunday school. She also led women's Bible studies groups.
After moving to Abu Dhabi to establish the church in 1972, the prayers were conducted at the homes of worshippers in the beginning.
"Later the church was in a rented building but the landlord tried to quadruple the rent in 1974. We approached Shaikh Khalifa who allocated the land for the church," Sherbeck said.
In the beginning, around 70 people attended, most of them bachelors, recalls Barbara.
Now the church has more than 1,000 members and about 4,000 people from 25 other congregations join the service at the church.
Most of the bachelors were Indians and Arabs. Many of their families were in their native country due to financial constraints.
"Bachelors used to come together for dinner on some occasions," Barbara said.
It was not a burden as they all used to come early to help prepare the food, she said.
"It was like a family and all used to share their joy and grief," she said.
The most painful experiences were when somebody's dear ones died back home.
"On several occasions some of them lost their children in accidents back home. It was tough to console them in such situations," she said.
Unfortunately, people don't have much time to talk to each other due to faster pace of life now, the couple said.
Oasis Hospital in Al Ain
Doctors Pat and Marian Kennedy of TEAM (The Evangelical Alliance Mission) had established the Oasis Hospital in 1960. TEAM is an American organisation that sends Christian workers around the world.
TEAM was asked to start the Oasis Hospital in 1959. The mission also helped establish the Evangelical Church.
The hospital offered the first modern medical care in Al Ain, and a strong bond was formed with the rulers of Abu Dhabi.
Many members of the royal family were born at the hospital, including General Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
Children ‘helped cross cultural divide'
The five children of Carl and Barbara Sherbeck — four boys and a girl — made their interaction with Emiratis easier, the couple said.
"We learned Arabic soon [in late 1960s]. That helped us to interact with locals."
"Our children were also an attraction to the locals…," Barbara said.
Some of them used to look curiously at the blond hair of the children and ask: ‘Did you bleach their hair?'
After experiencing the warm hospitality of Emiratis, the couple stopped praising anything at their host's home.
Barbara said exclaiming over a painting would immediately prompt the host to hand it over.
Once, our home was flooded with fruit for the same reason, Barbara said.