The word is familiar to us in the church, because it is a Greek word that is used in various ways for church. According to one source it is the body of Christ scattered across the earth, and its Greek root means called out. So we think of it in our Christian lives as the body of Christ called out in the world; called out for a purpose. And the purpose of this group traveling together to Lebanon and Syria is to join up with the body here in the east, to encourage them and learn from them and to remind those of you in the west that they are here. And they are here for a purpose. They stay put in dark and difficult times because as we have heard over and over again from Assis Mofid, Assis Feras, Assis Ibrahim, “God has put us here for a purpose.” As said in an earlier blog, NEST student Mathilde Sabbaagh reminds us that God did not give her a word for Canada, he gave her a word for Syria.
So The Outreach Foundation team found itself in Damascus, traveling the short distance from Beirut, crossing the border on Friday. Reflecting on Acts 9, it is not hard to imagine Saul traveling on a similar road through the rolling hills and arid land on his way to Damascus to persecute the ecclesia, only to be confronted by the Lord, blinded and left helpless, tended to by the healing hands of the one he came to persecute, and changed, transformed. Baptized as Paul, he has been called out to join the ecclesia and to be a full participant in spreading the good news.
Here in Damascus, we have spent rich and precious days with the Presbyterian church. Although the days have been few, we have been offered glimpses into the faithful lives of brothers and sisters who minister to those who live here and have fled here for safety. And these glimpses are filled with light and with hope.
Friday afternoon we were greeted at the steps of the hall of the church by a singing group of 80-100 children, ages 6-18, led by a committed group of young people in their early twenties. Many of those leaders are medical or dental students, engineering students, who grew up in this same children’s program. George, in particular, made a decision while still in high school that his goal was to give back to his church for all it had given to him. He has been called out to serve in this place. He gave us a tour of the facility where every Thursday and Friday these young people gather to learn and to pray together. Because this is a safe place for kids to be, some of their non-Christian neighbors send their children here to be with their Christian friends. Together – as in the schools we visited in Lebanon – they learn how to live together and to love each other as children of God.
On Saturday morning we had an appointment with a patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church, one of the many Catholic and Orthodox communities in this ancient city. He is a native Syrian who served as the bishop of the east part of the U.S.A. (in New Jersey) for many years before being installed as the bishop just two years ago when the previous patriarch died. There was no hesitation to return to Syria, now a land deep in war and destruction. This is his call, and his purpose is to serve here. About 40% of Christians – including the Syrian Orthodox – have fled to safer places, but he ministers to and leads this flock now scattered across the globe. We learned that one of the largest parts of his community resides in India, a church planted there in the 300s. This, too, reminds us of the history of the ecclesia, called out of places to spread the gospel. The mission of the apostles, and Paul himself, was to go and preach, teach and heal. Those ministries are still vital and happening globally.
And finally on Sunday, where else would we be but in worship with our brothers and sisters? We joined with this community in the lower level of the church hall building. Their sanctuary was hit by three mortars last August while Assis Butros Zaour was in the U.S. with his wife, Wafaa. As they repair the building, they are actually increasing its capacity with a balcony, so more may enter. This is an act of faith and hope that we have seen in other places like Homs and Aleppo. So as Rev. Jack Baca reminded us in his sermon on Romans 12, as a body, we mourn with those who mourn, but we rejoice with those who rejoice. And this is one of those moments to rejoice: the body remains, and although struck down, it rises anew.
So this is Damascus. Most of our group is on its way home at the writing of this epistle on Monday morning. Marilyn and Julie remain to visit other cities and churches in Syria for the next few days. Please pray for travel mercies for them and greet them with big hugs as they come back to you. And join them and us as we raise our voices with brothers and sisters here in this Arabic anthem we have sung together:
Anta athemon, athemon, athemon ya Allah. Athemon, fi mahabatica, athemon, fi amanatica. Athemon, fi tahririka, athemon, aydan fi, shi faika. (Lord, you are great, in your love, in your faithfulness, in your liberation, and in your healing power as well.)