Grace Is In the Church

For the Team, Julie Burgess

                                               Julie, Pastor Jaccoub, Mark and Marilyn

                                               Julie, Pastor Jaccoub, Mark and Marilyn

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.

                                                    The Presbyterian Church in Fairouzeh

                                                    The Presbyterian Church in Fairouzeh

And here is where the title of this day’s blog comes from. We were coming to the happy part of these meetings: the greeting at another of our sister churches, the Presbyterian Church of Fairouzeh. Today is Thursday, and you would expect to find people at work, children in school, and only the pastor there to be the greeting party. But you would be mistaken… Standing on the steps of the church was almost the entire congregation to meet us! Rev. Jaccoub Sabbagh was there with his elders right outside our car. Since it was Thursday, we didn’t think we would see his wife who is a teacher and the Syrian schools are in the midst of mid-term exams. After making our way through the reception line and up the steps, we made it inside. And there she was: Grace – Jaccoub’s wife – was in the church. Beautiful and sweet as are all the women of Syria, she was at the front of the church to receive us and give us the kisses that are part of a Syrian welcome.

After a short but sweet worship service where Jaccoub shaved his promised three-hour sermon to five minutes, we lifted prayers and lit candles and sang in response:

Arsel Min Rohika, Iminah Salamaka: Send your Spirit, Grant your peace.

Grace is in the church.

Following an exchange of gifts, we made our way down to the fellowship hall for tea and manaish, a small traditional folded bread with cheese or zatar, a blend of spices. Sitting in small groups, we shared life even through the barrier of different languages. Smiles, hugs, tears and laughter are the same everywhere! Sitting with one of the members of the congregation whose name is Shamseh Khalaf, we learned that she knows the history of this church back to its founding by missionaries in the 1850s. They will eventually get this written down and even translated to English. But her spirit just exuded the love of Christ that we all share and she broke into song, a haunting Eastern melody that I recorded to remember this day.

Grace is in the church.

I also spent a good time speaking with a new friend, Maysaa, who was standing with her uncle. Her uncle will be leaving soon for San Bernadino, California, to join his wife and four sons whom he has not seen for four years. That now transplanted family includes his first grandson, Brian, whom he has never met. Maysaa would also like to emigrate, but so far has been denied. The sadness of this place which is about to mark the sixth anniversary of the start of the war and the beginning of the seventh, is that many of the people in this room would rather be someplace else. All I could do was hug her and pray that God’s will would be done in all our lives. But even though she would like to leave, she continues to serve her church by taking charge of the media ministry, updating their website and Facebook page with the continuing ministry life of this church.

Grace is in the church.

Getting another chance to speak with Pastor Jaccoub, a dear friend of previous visits, I learned that his heart was torn this morning because of the health of his wife. Grace had not come down to the hall with the rest of us because she herself should have been in bed. Sharing this news with our team, Marilyn, Rob and Mark gathered around Jaccoub and prayed for this precious family.

Grace is in the church.

Grace is the unconditional and undeserved love poured out from the cross of Jesus Christ for the sake of us all. We have found it on the road in safe travels. We have found it at the communion table in the bread and the cup. We have found it in hugs and in kisses. We have found it in the broken places of Syria. We have found it here.

Grace is in the church.

Julie Burgess
West Hills Presbyterian Church, Omaha, Nebraska

 

                                               Maysaa and Morhaf Elias in Fairouzeh

                                               Maysaa and Morhaf Elias in Fairouzeh