Catching Up with Our Partners
It is Thursday afternoon in Beirut and our team has grown to four with the arrivals last night of Juli from southern California and Rev. Nancy from Washington, D.C. Today Marilyn, the two Juli(e)s and Nancy jumped on the bus for visits with two ministries doing the hands and feet work of the church serving in the name of Christ in Beirut. Beirut is a very large and dense city in a tiny country. When you drive through the streets there are many tall and modern buildings squished together with older, smaller and more traditional buildings in various states of repair and reconstruction. As your eyes are drawn upward to the tops or forward down the narrow streets and alleys, it is hard to imagine the stories of the people who are condensed into this small space. Come with us as we venture out and into the streets.
Our first stop was a visit with Grace Bustani and the Our Lady Dispensary (OLD), a ministry begun in 1983 to serve the poor and needy and migrant population suffering in the midst of the civil war. Grace is a social worker whose family emigrated from Beirut in the war years. Grace returned to serve and this is her ministry. We took a short tour of the second floor of this nondescript building where the ministry of OLD is housed, including a small room holding hygiene items all bagged up for distribution to some of the 1,000 refugee families – Iraqi and Syrian – that Grace and OLD serve monthly. The room was Grace’s office but there was no office furniture. No problem there: Grace rarely sits in a day busily visiting the families who are crowded into small apartments in this area.
A number of people were waiting patiently in another room for their turn to see the doctor who was volunteering that day, just one of the ways OLD serves. While we were hearing the story of the ministry, an elderly woman wandered in and joined us. Shmuney is 73 and fled from Hasakeh in the northeast of Syria in 2012. She lives with 12 members of her family in a small apartment. After four years here in Lebanon, she has been accepted to go to Canada, but her son and his family have not. This is just another tragedy of a war that has sent families fleeing for safety. Not only have they had to leave their homes and everything behind, when sanctuary comes for one, it doesn’t come for all. This sweet, elderly Syrian Orthodox woman will have to navigate this decision.
Grace then walked us up the street to visit with Nawal and her family who arrived in Beirut in July, 2015, from Baquba, Iraq. Nawal, her husband and three of her children (25, 20, 15) lived and served at the Chaldean Catholic Church in their city and were some of the very last Christians to leave as ISIS advanced to this area north of Baghdad. They opened the church door one day to find a warning sign to them: a severed head. Decision made, they left their home. Living in a small two-room apartment for the last two weeks, it is palatial compared to the one room they had before. For this home they pay $300 per month, and because of the laws, they are not allowed to work. With family in Australia, they are hoping to be able to go there in a year if the system works. Life for this family consists of existence from day to day. The two sons did not even rise from their sleeping cushions: sleep is the great escape. The faces of this family expressed hopelessness, but Grace and her ministry (supported by The Outreach Foundation) shine a light to keep some of that darkness at bay.
A short ride from OLD brought us to another of those cramped and crowded street scenes where we visited the Philemon Preschool Project (PPP). Where we had just come from a place of hopelessness, despair and waiting, we had arrived at a colorful, joy-filled preschool that serves 65 beautiful big-eyed kids whose lives have just begun. PPP has a new director, Mireille, and a new school nurse who have completely captured the vision of this ministry begun in 2013. The children they serve here are the outcast and neglected of Beirut: migrant worker families, poor Lebanese and Syrian refugees. The pro-social program of PPP is working not only to help develop the young minds of these children from ages one to four (crucial years for learning!), but they also impact families in skills for childrearing and family building, thus effecting a conversion needed in this culture. And even beyond those two important functions, they also employ 16 women in good jobs, in a safe place, which addresses another social concern here. And did I mention that they are not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ? This is a place where God’s love is made manifest. There is skin in the game here: the incarnation of Jesus in the middle of noisy, crowded Beirut.
Hearts burdened, hearts filled, we headed to our final stop of the day, the Near East School of Theology or NEST. Having graduated a class of four MDiv students just in May, it is quiet now for the summer. Dr. George Sabra, the president, provided us a much needed rest and lunch as he explained the history of NEST and its many and varied programs which go beyond seminary classes to pastor sabbaticals, annual seminars, and especially the important interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims. There is not a better place to get a grounding in the context of the Middle East than to sit here at NEST listening to Dr. Sabra. This place has trained 85% of the Protestant pastors now serving in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine and continues a long tradition of providing education for pastors in the west in the area of the history and tradition of the Eastern Church and in Christian-Muslim relations.
God is at work here in this busy place, and it is our privilege to share his story.
West Hills (Presbyterian) Church, Omaha, Nebraska