The church, The Church, THE CHURCH
Confession: This last post from our trip to Lebanon and Syria will be written in first person. I (Julie) have had several days of traveling time with Marilyn and Nuhad. On the curvy narrow roads from Damascus to Homs and then to Mahardeh, there has been a lot to reflect on between speed bumps, or “sleeping policeman” as Rob told us they were called in parts of Africa. Every time I have traveled on an Outreach trip, Marilyn has been my leader and teacher and her words ring in my ears, but never as much as this time. These trips are not about our faithfulness, our bravery, or anything that is preceded by the word our, but they are about the church, The Church, THE CHURCH! In times of peace, in times of war, the church is here. It remains and we have come to stand with it and be embraced within it. Since the rest of our team returned home, we have been with three faithful parts of the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, his church.
Last summer, Marilyn and I spent several days beyond the women’s conference at Dhour Choiuer to travel to Syria and visit a church she had never been to. Our visas were not granted and so we have waited an extra nine months to finally visit the Presbyterians in Bloudan. Bloudan is a village of about 5,000 permanent residents that in normal times expands to 400,000 as summer residents come up the mountain to escape the heat of the valley cities for its cool breezes, summer homes and restaurants. It is a mere 50 miles from Damascus, so the drive is short. Well, the drive was short. Now, the last nine miles up the road once you’ve turned off the main highway require ten different checkpoint stops. This little village is surrounded by five other villages, one of which is Zabadani. Last summer when we tried to get here, Zabadani was the scene of pitched battles between radicals, Hezbollah and Syrian army forces. Similar battles were fought in all five of the cities, and as we made our way slowly up the road, one of those cities was still cordoned off by razor wire as the battles still rage.
Upon arriving (finally!) in Bloudan, we were greeted by the faithful elders and members of the Presbyterian church. There have been five years without electricity here. Five years when precious little supplies have made it up the road. Five years of shelling, some of which have hit and killed, including the son of one of the elders. But in five years this faithful church without a pastor has not missed worshiping the one we call Lord. Indeed, we had an impromptu worship service led by Kamishly pastor Feras Ferah who is from Bloudan. The little children from the KG processed in and recited Psalm 100 from memory, sang us a song and then all bowed their heads and prayed. And as we sat there in this church together, we were reminded that they might not have electricity but that the light of Jesus shines brightly in and through them all. In solidarity with the other Christians here who are Greek Orthodox, they will all celebrate Easter together on the Eastern calendar day of May 1. And they were teaching the children this word in song: Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed!
This is the church!
After a refreshing drink from the spring that flows from this mountain place, we headed back down the road, through the ten checkpoints, past the razor wire and the pancaked buildings and back to Damascus for our final night there. Saying goodbye to Assis Butros and his wife Wafaa, we headed to Homs.
When Marilyn and I last visited Homs with a group from The Outreach Foundation it was November, 2014, and Homs had only been relieved of its near three-year siege for about five months. We visited seven different churches in the old city, which once was home to about 60,000 Christians. The churches, including the Presbyterian church, had all suffered destruction in different degrees. We gathered together as a group with the newly minted confirmation class under a cross-shaped hole in the roof and they sang hymns of joy for us in the promise that this church would be repaired. Now standing inside the beautifully restored church on an April day in 2016, the promise is indeed fulfilled. God is good. All the time. Elder Abdul Almessieh Salta, a civil engineer, pointed out the beautiful wood ceiling panels. Most of them are original but some are made of new materials to replace the damaged ones. The craftsmanship used on the new ones makes them indistinguishable from the original. Assis Mofid and his wife Michelline also walked us through what will be the pastor’s home once it too is repaired and refurbished.
Refurbished homes in Homs was our next order of business. Although there is still much destruction all around on a massive scale, people are returning to this place. We were told that about 2,000 of those 60,000 Christians have returned to the old city. Driving through the narrow streets, we saw small shops and restaurants where hopeful people wait on those few who are back. And there is reconstruction going on. The Presbyterian church identified 39 homes of church members that could and should be repaired so people could return home. With several gifts, including one from The Outreach Foundation, a number of those 39 have been completed or are in different stages of completion. We visited the home of Michelline’s aunt Mona where workmen were busy. Although the rear of the fourth-floor walk-up is still open to the outside, structural posts and beams have been replaced, tiles have been laid in the kitchen and bathroom, and six rooms are defined. In my mind I can see Mona back here with her husband.
From there, we drove a short distance to the home of elder Najwa, who had been our constant companion on this visit in Homs. We had first met her on a video at the consultation of this home-rebuilding project in Homs. She was the first one from the church to return to her place and begin rebuilding it even before this project was put in motion. She was a teacher and a principal in a government school, and before the war lived in this apartment with a sister and two brothers. They had precious little time to leave before ISIS came storming in. These radicals had moved all of her beautiful furniture out of the sitting room and just sat on the floor. Before they left, they burned most of it and stole the rest. Now sitting here with her sister and brother (one died before he could return), it was like every other beautiful home we had been invited to on these trips. Pictures on the walls. Rugs on the floor. Reminders of life all around. And one precious original chair, which had somehow survived.
We enjoyed lunch at a newly opened restaurant called Cello, owned and operated by yet another Presbyterian church member named George. It had always been his dream to have a real restaurant in Homs, more grand than his former fast-food operation, and here we sat. Ninety would be here later this evening for dinner and karaoke. Dream realized. Life renewed.
This is the church!
From Homs we headed back to the road. Faithful Assis Nuhad drove through more unfamiliar roads on a roundabout way to Mahardeh, our final destination in Syria. Through small towns and farm fields, even where all seems peaceful, there are reminders of war. Besides the numerous checkpoints we stop for (maybe 30-40 on this part of our journey) we drive by gas stations where empty pumps stand. We know when a station has fuel because there will be a long line of cars, trucks and motorcycles waiting, sometimes as long as six hours, for maybe five gallons. Nuhad stops periodically at roadside stands. “Benzene?” he asks. As we watch the fuel gauge drop to about a quarter of a tank, his question is answered in the affirmative and a 20-liter container of gas is brought to the side of the car with a funnel and hose. A quick transaction and we return to the journey, but this is daily life here.
Mahardeh. Sitting peacefully on the terrace of Assis Ma’an and his wife Gwath, I have my own dream come true. Six years have passed since I first made this journey with The Outreach Foundation, Marilyn and a group of faithful U.S. Presbyterian women. Sipping a cold beverage, I take in the blooming beauty of roses, onions and parsley in the garden and a view of the church where Ma’an’s father served before him. As we speak about how the war has affected this place in Syria, the only 100% Christian town in the whole country, we hear about the 6,000 mortars and shells that have rained down since the beginning back in 2011. Claude, a young man without family here now except for this church family, obediently retrieves an unexploded shell that had implanted itself in the garden bed right next to the terrace.
A bright beautiful morning greeted us after a peaceful night’s sleep in the Bitar’s home. Breakfast of fried eggs right from the chicken, homemade zatar, dried figs, birthday cake (another story!) and coffee gave us strength for this day. If you think our energy tanks were empty, we quickly had them filled with a visit to the kindergarten (KG) run by this church and led by Gwath. 70 precocious children had arrived in the church yard and were standing in lines organized by age groups, singing a welcome for us. Dark hair, blond hair, brown eyes, blue eyes, some in their official KG uniforms, they said in unison “Good morning! We welcome you! Thank you for everything!” This vital ministry has never stopped and its importance cannot be over emphasized. These children will be the reconcilers of this land in the future as they learn the ways of Jesus.
Looking a little closer beyond the group to an individual, we look into the deep dark eyes of three-year-old Fala. Clutching her rolled up bread sandwich, taking intermittent tiny bites, her eyes never leave Marilyn’s face. We are told that her father suffers from mental illness and the church has tried to help him find a job, and to supervise his taking his medication so he can remain stable. This KG is a place of peace and solitude for this precious little girl and all the Falas like her.
Finally we spend some time with about twenty men of Mahardeh who have organized themselves into a kind of national guard unit to protect this place. They have 13 separate points around the city where they take turns on patrol and duty. When shells do hit homes and buildings in Mahardeh, they immediately repair the damage because they are determined that they will remain in their homes. We walk to a place where we can look just a short distance down into the valley and see how close the front line is. All of these men are volunteers with every day normal jobs: contractor, painter, carpenter, engineer, teacher. They are men of the churches – four Greek Orthodox and one Presbyterian. They are men with families, and their families have suffered loss, but they remain constant and determined. One man named Simon who acts as the leader, invites us into his home and we are served refreshing lemonade and the always present cookies by his wife Reema. And before we leave, in solidarity as brothers and sisters in Christ, he gives us each a Russian icon of Jesus which reminds us that we are one in the Lord.
This is the church!
This is the joy I have as I travel with The Outreach Foundation: the church, The Church, THE CHURCH! I am humbled to be a part of a global body, to be present with them in times of war and in times of peace. To mourn with them. To rejoice with them. To walk with them and to sing with them and to dance with them. I pray it for each of you who reads this: to lift them up daily and see their faces when you close your eyes to pray. They are you and you are them, and we are one together in Christ.
West Hills (Presbyterian) Church, Omaha, Nebraska