Deep and lasting relationships in Southern Mexico... and beyond

by Juan Sarmiento

Raised in a Presbyterian home in the Mexican state of Tabasco, Loida became an influential elder in the congregation that we set out to plant in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. The feel of our new church was definitely different from the one she grew up in. We had people from eleven Latin American countries, the largest constituency being children and youth born of immigrant parents. Loida, however, was a great inspiration to us all by generously giving of her time, talents and treasure in service to Christ. Since we last saw each other fifteen years ago she has returned to her paradisiacal home town called “Paraiso” and employs her beautiful voice in the church choir.

Through the years, Mexico has been a blessing to me in many ways. Being the country with the highest number of Spanish speakers in the world, much of the media and literature that I grew up with came from there.

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Lebanon/Syria Day 13: Gifts and Graces

We are home. Two weeks on the road together establishes some pretty amazing bonds. I cannot get out of my head the short but potent confession we make in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in…the communion of saints…” Yep. I do, now more than ever. And I am enormously grateful for a particular (peculiar???) group pf saints who accompanied my colleague, Nuhad Tomeh, and me on this Outreach Foundation journey: Steve and Julie Burgess, Jack Baca, Lisa Culpepper, Marshall Zieman, Jack Haberer, Mark Mueller.  Your humor, compassion, spirituality and generosity was only exceeded by your flexibility as each day morphed into yet-another-new-plan when our dreams to enter Syria and be present with Presbyterian family there slowly evaporated. 

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Lebanon/Syria Day 12: Bursting at the Seams

We began this day driving down to Tyre to visit the Presbyterian church there. As we approached Tyre, we saw many groves of trees laden with ripe oranges and bananas. Then we began to see trucks filled to overflowing with this fresh fruit, and then the fresh fruit and vegetable stands with fresh produce spilling out of crates and baskets.

With these images before our eyes, we arrived at the church in Tyre. It is a small church with a few rooms, the sanctuary and the pastor’s house. Every nook and cranny of the church had been converted to classrooms for Syrian refugee children. Just when we thought there could not be any place left for other activities, we were taken up the stairs of the house to the roof. There was a small room accessed from the roof that had been converted to a classroom for sewing and cosmetology training. In here the Syrian women create wonderful textile objects and other artistic decorative projects. After our tour of the ministry of this small church, we sat on the roof having coffee, tea and sweets, while we listened to some of the women describe their projects and teaching methods.

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Lebanon/Syria Day 11: Seeing the Future and the Past: A Trip to Anjar and Baalbek

Marshall goes back in time…

With our hearts and minds crammed with information after a full week of hearing from Syrian pastors, today we again ventured across the Bekaa Valley, only a few minutes away from the Syrian border. The purpose of today’s trip was to visit another school for refugee children from Syria and also visit the ancient city of Baalbek, one of Lebanon’s premier attractions.

Located in the town of Anjar, this school is the sixth school for refugee children opened by the Synod of Syria-Lebanon. This school is a partnership with the local Baptist Church nearby. The current school is housed on a floor of an old office building, which has been divided up into four classrooms of about twenty-five kids each. With a current enrollment of 214 students, the school runs a morning 9-12 shift and then more students come for the afternoon shift. The school has vans that pick up the children from nearby refugee camps. Even with a space heater, the classrooms are still cold, and the kids all wear their coats during school. There is construction going on there, which will bring a new building for the school this summer. 

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Lebanon/Syria Day 10: The Power of the Spirit

Today was supposed to be the day of worshiping and bringing encouragement to the saints in war-ravaged Aleppo. A day-by-day wait to receive the elusive visas has kept us pursuing our Plan B – which featured four days of conversations at the seminary here in Beirut with the Syrian pastors, given their greater ease with crossing the border into and out of Lebanon. In fact, all of them came our way and the resulting conversations were stunning in the variety of experiences, profound in their depth, overwhelming in their witness to God’s power-amid-harrowing-circumstances, and, intermittently, accented with laughter.

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Lebanon/Syria Day 9: Perfect, Purposeful Ambiguity

On day eleven of our trip to Lebanon and Syria it is increasingly likely that we will not venture into Syria. While our group remains hopeful that we will make a mad dash into Syria, with each passing day our chances diminish. It is not without trying. We have prayed fervently for the granting of a visa. The Synod of Syria and Lebanon has contacted ambassadors, friends and clerics to help us, but nothing has happened thus far. We seem caught in a political chess match based upon current administrative policies that have their origin in the United States. Hence, we are left to reflect upon what God has done and is doing in our midst.

I am reminded of the Apostle Paul in Acts 16: “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.”

Scholars have pondered why Paul was not permitted to go to Asia. No one really knows. Perhaps the people of Asia were not ready to listen to Paul. Maybe it was too dangerous for him. Obviously God had another plan.

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Lebanon/Syria Day 8: I Believe in the Remnant

Since we are still in Beirut awaiting in the visas to Syria that we trust will come, we have some extra non-programmed moments. Today Steve and I, like others have done, strolled down through the campus of the American University of Beirut (AUB). It is a lovely campus and if you go far enough west, you will come to the side that is right on the Mediterranean. We don’t have views like this in Omaha! Today we came across this ancient olive tree. Bearing the scars of a long life, it grew there in the spot it must have been planted in long before Presbyterian missionaries founded this school, and even centuries before that. At first appearance, it seemed lifeless, as there were no spreading branches like the other trees we had seen. But it begged the photo as there were these little sprigs of new growth that said, “Wait! I am not done with life yet. I am still here and green and growing.” I tried to find out information about such old olive trees and here is the result:

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Lebanon/Syria Day 7: A Vision for Tomorrow

I come from the land of too much to the land of limited resources to discover that I am the pauper. For two days I have heard amazing stories of faith from amazing churches in Syria: Yazdieh, Latakia, Fairouzeh, Qamishli, Hasakeh, Malkiyeh and Aleppo. They are stories of needs met and sometimes unmet, stories of courage and vision that have left me awed and overwhelmed. To be sure, I have been uplifted and inspired, but I have also seen the depths of my spiritual poverty. I know this is not a competition, but I find myself wondering how I would deal with the staggering threats and the towering needs.

I come to help and to encourage, but I find that I am the one who needs the help and encouragement. And I have found it in the words and deeds of the churches in Syria. Nowhere have I seen a more vivid realization to Paul’s words: “We are afflicted in every way, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)

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Lebanon/Syria Day 6: Love Without Borders

“For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”  Philippians 1:8-11

Wednesday is a day that began with longing in my heart: longing for permission to visit a country that I have come to love, longing for the chance to learn how things are since our last visit, longing especially to see the faces, hear the voices, and share in the lives of Christian sisters and brothers whose journey through life is indeed taking them through some very dark valleys. Such longing, of course, is born of love, the love Christ that flows into us and then the love for each other that is the fruit of Christ’s love.

Without visas for our group we moved to an alternate plan. If we could not go to Syria, then at least some of the Syrians could come to us. And they did.

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Lebanon/Syria Day 5: Trust

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3: 5, 6

This passage of scripture is familiar and often quoted, but do we really believe it?  It is Tuesday, January 9, the deadline day for which we were to hear of visas into Syria.  The paperwork has long been submitted; conversations have happened; advocates have spoken on our behalf and this request reached the presidential palace about five days ago.  Yet we have not received a response, not a “yes,” or a “no.”

So this day of our journey began with an exercise of trust.  We are called upon to trust in our God and submit our wills to God’s plan.  For us, it is the initiation of plan “B,” to bring our pastors from Syria to Lebanon to speak with us and be our link to the church in Syria.

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Lebanon/Syria Day 4: Love Never Ends

“Love never ends.”  1 Corinthians 13:8

After spending yesterday with the local church in Tripoli, Lebanon, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, today we headed over the snowy mountain pass east of Beirut into the Bekaa Valley, the breadbasket of the country, to the city of Zahle, near the border with Syria. Today’s visit focused on refugee children. We were able to interact directly with Muslim children and families who have fled their homes from ISIS in Syria and found lifesaving refuge among the Christian community in Zahle.

Near Zahle, in the village of Kab Elias, the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Synod of Syria and Lebanon has converted its former school building into a school for refugee children. When I visited this place in 2013, the idea at that time was to use it as housing for refugees fleeing nearby Syria. Since then, the United Nations has provided for refugee camps nearby, and so the Synod instead has wonderfully chosen to turn the old school back into a school, but this time for refugee children.

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Lebanon/Syria Day 3: Little Is Much When God Is in It 

“Little is much when God is in it.”  So said Pastor Lisa Culpepper in her sermon this morning. Her exposition showed that truth in a miracle story from the life of Elishah. But for the worshipers gathered at the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Tripoli, Lebanon, the evidence was all around. 

The congregation, the only Presbyterian church in this city of about one million, brought energy and enthusiasm to the worship. And we, the guests in attendance, thrilled to see it.

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