Comfort My People
by Lisa B. Culpepper
It was four years ago that I sat with Lina and Salwa on a curb of the retreat center in Dhour Schweir. We were overlooking a beautiful and peaceful mountain range as they told me of their war-torn lives. It was quite a culture shock for me, and I could not relate to their stories.
I did not know what it was like to have bombs exploding in my neighborhood or what it was like to operate a household on a few hours of electricity per day.
I did not know what it was like to lose my livelihood because the pharmacy I owned was destroyed or to send my husband out on an errand not knowing if he would be killed or be conscripted into the army.
I did not know what it was like to have my 4-year-old remind me during intense shelling, “Mommy, remember how you told us to pray?” Or to sleep with my children in a closet for safety reasons.
I did not know what it was like to have the church in which I worshiped become a target of tunneled bombs and ultimate destruction.
As I listened to them, I realized that I had no idea what it was like to almost get trampled upon distributing clothing and food to 100,000 people who had fled the shelling in East Aleppo, taking shelter in abandoned industrial warehouses.
Indeed, I did not know what all of that trauma was like… but Lina and Salwa knew. And it was in the midst of war, on the curb of a retreat center that they offered me an invitation, “Come to Aleppo,” they said. Theirs was a gracious invitation offered in all sincerity, notwithstanding that their lives and neighborhoods were being serially destroyed. Indeed, even a war couldn’t dampen their generous hospitality.
So, I held their words in my heart, until four years later when God opened the door for me to respond to their gracious invitation.
I suppose that any time one leaves home, but particularly to a country at war, there are questions that beg to be answered, the least of which is, “Why is God calling me to a place where many have fled, and many others struggle to survive?” Before leaving, I received this message from Scripture, Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40: 1-2).
And my response? It was similar to the response that is heard in this passage where we hear a voice of struggle and doubt. A voice says, "Cry out." And I said, "What shall I cry?" "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass.” (Isaiah 40: 6-7).
In other words, “Are you kidding, Lord? Why must I travel 4000 miles away to bring comfort to suffering people? In the scheme of so great a devastation, it seems pointless. What difference can I make?
And to these doubts and questions, the Lord responds, The grass withers and the flower falls but the word of the Lord our God endures forever. You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, "Here is your God!" (Isaiah 40:8-9).
And indeed, God was in Aleppo and had been there throughout the 8 years of conflict, giving strength to his faithful church in that city. Yet, the destruction in that great city was the most shocking landscape I had ever witnessed. I had never witnessed such horrific devastation as in East Aleppo where remnants of concrete buildings limped for miles and miles, and where piles upon piles of wounded stones buried memory and hope. It would have been a dark and unbearable devastation, if not for the presence of the church, an ember that persisted in its glow.
It was among the mortal wounds of Aleppo that we worshiped in the sanctuary of the National Presbyterian Church that had been built two years prior to replace the original church that now lay in rubble. It was rebuilt, while intense war was still raging, as a witness to the power of the ever-present God whom no manner of threat could extinguish. As we worshiped, voices lifted up and tears flowed down. “Thank you, thank you, for coming to Aleppo,” they said. “Thank you for coming to be with us. This is your church.”
Breathing through my tears, I had finally come home to my church where kisses decorated my cheeks and loving arms embraced me. There in the great devastation of Aleppo, was a church strong and vibrant, yet tender and compassionate. And it was there among God’s people who had suffered much that I found comfort. In the midst of suffering, an invitation was given, “Come to Aleppo and comfort my people”… and that is exactly what they did.