Shoeless in Syria

For the Team, Marilyn Borst

We were five pastors and five lay leaders who came from Oregon, Indiana, Nebraska, California, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. As the team leader, I was the only person who had actually met everyone before we gathered in Lebanon and then headed into Syria for 10 days and 9 nights to meet with congregations and pastors of the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church. On either side of our time in Syria, we spent days in Lebanon meeting with Outreach Foundation partners who are doing ministry with Syrian refugees, or, as is the case with Near East School of Theology, training the next generation of leaders to serve the Church in Syria. The ten of us quickly became a family,

Impact: Divine, Human

For the Team, Julie Burgess

 

On our second to last full day on this most amazing of trips with The Outreach Foundation to Syria and Lebanon, we found ourselves in Tyre. You can read about King Hiram of Tyre in 1 Kings 5. Marilyn shared that story with us as we walked the ancient ruins of the place, but that is not the text that came to my mind for that day. What came to my mind was something I had read at the Nicholas Sursock Museum in Beirut at the beginning of our trip.

In a room filled with old photographs of Egyptian archaeological digs I found this explanatory sign on the wall. “The Human Scale: In the second half of the 19th century, photographic expeditions to Egypt multiplied, with a view to making an inventory of the Orient. Photography thus became a precious tool for archaeologists and scientists. 

Jesus Loves His Children

For the Team,  Ron Gatzke

The last leg of our incredible journey began as we left the oldest occupied capital city in the world, Damascus, behind us and headed back to Lebanon in our three-car caravan. Sadly, we left old and new friends behind. Looking back we see a people bruised physically and emotionally by the ravages of war, but expectantly hoping for better days ahead. The young especially struggle with their future and we saw how some seek ways to bring some semblance of life back through music and the arts. One of our members remarked that he was watching the faces of the young women at the restaurant yesterday while several from our group started dancing to the music – they enjoyed what they saw and soon joined in for a taste of life that has passed them by the last six years.

Loving One Another

For the Team, Rob Weingartner

“Lord, you are great, in your love, in your faithfulness, in your liberation,
and in your healing power as well.”

When a refugee from South Sudan leads a group of Americans in a Damascus church in singing in Arabic the chorus above, something very special is happening. It felt like a gift. The refugee is Johnson George, the name he gave to himself after coming to faith in Christ eighteen years ago. Active in Christian ministry in the Middle East, several years ago he was denied entry into Egypt and sent to Syria. When South Sudan was founded and Syria refused to recognize the new nation and his passport expired, he became a man without a country, one of hundreds of South Sudanese “stuck” in Syria. But how we were blessed by his testimony, the songs he sang, the hope he shared.

Spiritual Presence

For the Team, Allen McDonald

Today was a special day for me with new encounters beyond description. As usual we followed Assis (Rev.) Nuhad and his nephews Tariq and Bashar – who have been our gracious drivers, guides and protectors – into the old city. First we walked through souqs (markets) selling crafts and necessary daily items like food and spices. From there, we came to a destination for many for the past thousand years or so, the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. It stands across the square from a Roman temple of Jupiter. Prior to its present expression of spiritual presence, it was a Byzantine basilica dedicated to John the Baptist. In the seventh century AD, it became the Great Mosque. It is clearly the product of countless hours of planning and execution.

Grace Is In the Church

For the Team, Julie Burgess

The hardest part of making these trips, and this is my eleventh overall to this part of the world, is saying good-bye. Every time we arrive at a place and exchange hugs and kisses with those we know and those we just met, joy overflows. There is surprise at recognizing Syrian faces and that same surprise when our faces are recognized. But then comes the end of our visit at a place, be it Latakia, Yazdieh or Mhardeh. And those good-byes are tender and tear-laden. It’s hard.

Today we said good-bye to Rev. Mofid Karajili in Homs, and although we exchanged those same joyful hugs and kisses, it was hard to drive away. But drive away we did, through the streets of Homs, past buildings untouched by war…and the rubble that said something used to stand there. Over the speed bumps, around craters in the road, with security in front of us and behind us, we made our way less than thirty minutes down to Fairouzeh.

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There's No Place Like Homs!

For the Team, Ed Hurley

Late Tuesday afternoon saw our Outreach team to Syria and Lebanon traveling into the massively war devastated city of Homs. As we approached this metropolitan area and provincial capital, previously with a population of 1.2 million, we saw, more commonly than not, block after block of bomb-shattered five to seven story buildings, tightly built areas, with their upper floors open to the air or crumbled in a heap. Exterior walls were often knocked down, as if skin ripped off a human body, revealing ruins of interior rooms where once families lived and small businesses operated. I tried to imagine my own city of Birmingham, Alabama with a similar size population and the mile after mile of ruin. Military checkpoints are every few blocks. Sunday I had used Lamentations 3 as the first Scripture reading in the worship service in Latakia; now I was seeing the sort of area of which the prophet Jeremiah cried, “I have been deprived of peace. I have forgotten what prosperity is.”  (Lamentations 3:17

The Berm Between

Rev. Dr. Mark Mueller, For the Team

Our travel to Mhardeh on Wednesday had two bookends. The first that ended the previous day was the stimulating conversation we had with Rev. Ibrahim Nseir, the pastor of our Presbyterian church in Aleppo. The other was the massive destruction we witnessed at the end of our day as we drove at sunset into Homs. It was within these bookends that we traveled in the early hours of Wednesday into Mhardeh to visit with the faithful church of that region whose witness and perseverance we had heard.

Whereas the fighting between the government troops and the terrorists is largely complete in Homs, it is anything but finished in Mhardeh. I could tell we were getting into a more troubled area simply by the regular stops we made to acquire more national guardsmen for protection. Our first stop added three vehicles with nine armed men. Our next stop saw the addition of three 50-caliber gun trucks, where the tarps were taken off the guns by men in military fatigues. “We are headed into trouble,” I thought. Our last stop involved adding a special police force similar to the FBI in the States. Those charged with protecting us now outnumbered this American team 3:1.

From Ancient Stones to Living Stones

by Graig Flach

After Sunday morning worship, much of the group traveled to a nearby archaeological site known as Ugarit. Here we were channeling Old Testament themes as we traversed the stone remnants of an ancient “Canaanite” civilization. But our journey has much more to do with the living stones of God’s courageously faithful flock in Syria.

“Like living stones you are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood.” 1 Peter 2:5

Over and over again we are experiencing the holy priesthood of Syrian Christians of all ages, who form an indestructible spiritual house even when their personal houses are destroyed.

After a second worship service at the Latakia church, full of music and inspiring reports of what God is doing through the congregation’s ministries, we hustled off to a reception by the governor of Latakia governorate, Ibrahim Khodr al-Salem. It was an hour that carried with it a civics lesson and an articulate reminder of the virtues of Bashar al Assad’s regime, along with an expression of gratitude for the contributions of Christian missionaries and educators since the mid-1800s.

God With Us

by Rev. Dr. Jack Baca

One of the key affirmations of Christian faith is that, in Jesus, God came to be with us. The angel said to Joseph that the child to be born would be called precisely that: Immanuel, God with us. We Christians take our clues for how we are to live from what God did and does in Jesus, and so we, too, go to be with others. This is an expression of love: to do what it takes to be with others. Border crossings can be tricky, as can be the business of getting permission to enter Syria at all, given the current conditions here. But all went well. Representatives from the church met us at the border, and we were welcomed by the two-star general in charge of the border post, ushered into a reception room, and given tea and warm conversation while our papers were being processed. They knew that we were making a hard trip. They appreciated the fact that we had come to be with them.

A Day for Weeping

by Ron Gatzke, West Hills Church, Omaha, Nebraska

John 11:35 – Jesus wept.

I wept today as I listened to the stories of three Iraqi Christian women who shed numerous tears while describing their journey from a normal life in and around Mosul to a life of insecurity, fear, pain, suffering and depression as refugees in Lebanon. They are victims of the evil that is ISIS. Wafa described her journey as “incomprehensible,” but it could apply to all of them. These women and their families had to flee their homes suddenly in the middle of the night with nothing other than the clothes on their back and pocket change. They had no water or food as they walked 60 miles to Erbil. Churches took them in, but the accommodations were less than ideal. Hala’s family stayed in a church’s open air courtyard for months; these proud, hard-working Christians now needed to depend on the limited resources that these churches could provide. Her 15-year-old daughter soon contracted a nasty skin disease due to unsanitary water.

Joining in the Harvest

by Juan Sarmiento

Guatemala
Fourth and Final Reflection

The youthful congregation of Antioch Presbyterian Church in Coban sang with great gusto a popular praise song as the praise band, with Hector at the keyboards:

Lift up your eyes and look, the harvest is ready
The time has arrived, the fields are ripe
Arise and shine, get up and preach to all the nations that Jesus is the life.

Hector arrived at this new congregation only four months ago. He confesses for almost 30 years he played the keyboard in parties. 

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