I live in Atlanta and, like most Americans who spend a lot of time in their cars, I am well aware of how long it takes to drive to other cities where I sometimes go for work or even vacation: it is about a four-hour drive, north and west, to get to Nashville; in the other direction, it is about four hours east and south to get to historic Savannah. I was recently in Hasakeh, Syria, where that “four hours away” analysis recalled an unsettling reality: four hours to the west was Raqqa, the self-proclaimed “capital” of ISIS in Syria; four hours to the east was Mosul where, even now, the Iraqi army is attempting to drive out ISIS from the city they had hoped would be their “capital” in Iraq. Connecting Raqqa and Mosul is a swath of fertile farmland where, in the middle, stands the city of Hasakeh, smack dab in the center of the area which was targeted to be the “heartland” of a new ISIS caliphate.
If you were a Christian living in Hasakeh, and in such proximity to danger, would you be “too close for comfort”?
The answer to that question came, inspiringly, in the form of the National Evangelical [Presbyterian] Church there, where my husband Mark and I, in the company of the Rev. Joseph Kassab, General Secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, had come to observe Good Friday. It is one of the 18 Presbyterian churches in Syria – which are led by eight pastors and two recent graduates of the Near East School of Theology who are on their way to ordination.
South Sudan has been in crisis since December 2013 because of a civil war which has devastated the land, killed tens of thousands of people, and driven millions into Internally Displaced Person camps inside the country or into refugee camps outside the country. The Outreach Foundation has re-framed our mission with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS) to rebuild hope among the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled to camps in Ethiopia.
One of those refugees is John Jock Gatwech. I met him in 2013 when he was a teacher at the leading school of the PCOSS, Good Shepherd School in Malakal. John also worked in the Department of Education of the PCOSS. In addition to being trained as an educator, he has also studied theology.
The next time I met John Jock was in Gambella, Ethiopia in 2015. He had fled for his life when the civil war reached Malakal, headquarters of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan. Living in Gambella with an uncle, John had no income and had lost most of his belongings. But John wanted to make a difference through his calling as a teacher.
After we met John Jock on our initial visit to the refugee camps, he sent us a proposal to establish preschools in three of the parishes of the PCOSS that had been established in the camps. The target group would be almost 400 children. Additionally, adult literacy classes would be started. All the classes would be taught by volunteer teachers.
Just after Thanksgiving last year we got a text message from our leadership at Presbyterian World Mission: “Don’t buy your tickets back to Congo yet. We need to talk.” In the ensuing conversations with our leadership we learned that our church partner, the Congolese Presbyterian Community (CPC), had asked us and another mission co-worker not to return to Congo because of instability in the country and conflict within their denomination. There were discussions between Presbyterian World Mission and CPC through December and January to see if the door might still be open for us to return as planned. In February, it was concluded that the door has indeed closed, and we would not be able to return. If you receive the e-mail version of our newsletter you should already know this news, but we wanted to say it again for those who get only the print version.
God has given us peace and hope in the midst of uncertainty during these months of transition. Plenty of other emotions have also hit us. We grieve having to give up our Congo home and leaving friends we had grown to love. On the other hand, we also felt relief when the decision finally became clear. We are grateful for the prayers and words of encouragement and comfort received from so many of you who have heard this news. We worry and grieve for our friends in Congo living in the challenging reality of conflict.
Oh, my goodness is it April already? I know there are still Christmas cookies in the refrigerator, what is happening to the speed of time?
Time has flown by because we have been busy. We had a wonderful trip to Covenant Presbyterian Church in West Lafayette, Indiana. This church has been supporting missions in Mexico faithfully for many years. While there our hosts Alan and Barbara Bartelt took us to the LOUDEST Christian rock music concert this side of Jupiter – a group called Casting Crowns. To give you an idea of the number of decibels hurled towards us, we watched the man in front of us take out his hearing aids then stuff cough drops in each ear. Not satisfied, he then added half the printed program and a sock to each ear. That seemed to help because many others seemed to follow the example. In all seriousness, we were happy to see the enormous Purdue Auditorium sold out to people wanting to see a Christian band with a strong evangelistic message. Casting Crowns shared the gospel very well.
We recently had a great visit from Eileen McAvoy of Westminster Presbyterian in Durham, NC. She led a two-day conference on Non-Violent Communication (NVC). The conference was given to a combination of city lawyers and social workers and a few non-profit agencies – all people dealing with the difficult day to day work of serving dysfunctional families. Please look up the work of NVC online. They have a lot to offer.
It was November, 2014, and a small group of American Presbyterians had traveled to Syria with The Outreach Foundation to be with our Syrian brothers and sisters. We arrived in Homs that day, not long after it had been liberated from the extremists who held it for more than two years, destroying buildings and lives. Coming from the Midwest, we see pictures of destroyed places regularly on the news during tornado season. Yet I had never seen anything like this. Block after block, street after street, five-, six- and seven-story buildings lay in heaps of broken and pancaked concrete. Homes. Businesses. Hotels. Mosques. Churches. Nothing was spared. How does a city go about rebuilding when seemingly nothing is left and most of its population had fled elsewhere? This was the picture that would be in the dictionary illustrating the word hopeless.
Today is our last full day in the Holy Land. Words can't begin to describe what a profound experience this has been...and we're saving the best for last. The Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus pronounced the characteristics of blessedness in the Kingdom of God, Church of the Multiplication where he fed the 5,000 Jews then 4,000 Gentiles, capped off by a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. My deepest thanks to The Outreach Foundation and our wonderful leader Marilyn Borst for the experience of a lifetime.
The stones we've seen are good and worthy of remembering, but they are dead stones. It is the people here, Palestinian and Israeli alike, who witness to the risen Lord that are the living stones. And it is their story of hope and constant faith with which we return, and from which we draw strength for our witness and walk.