Loving One Another

For the Team, Rob Weingartner

“Lord, you are great, in your love, in your faithfulness, in your liberation,
and in your healing power as well.”

                              South Sudanese refugee Johnson George with Rev. Dr. Rob Weingartner

                              South Sudanese refugee Johnson George with Rev. Dr. Rob Weingartner

When a refugee from South Sudan leads a group of Americans in a Damascus church in singing in Arabic the chorus above, something very special is happening. It felt like a gift. The refugee is Johnson George, the name he gave to himself after coming to faith in Christ eighteen years ago. Active in Christian ministry in the Middle East, several years ago he was denied entry into Egypt and sent to Syria. When South Sudan was founded and Syria refused to recognize the new nation and his passport expired, he became a man without a country, one of hundreds of South Sudanese “stuck” in Syria. But how we were blessed by his testimony, the songs he sang, the hope he shared.

Earlier, we gathered with the congregation of the National Evangelical Church of Damascus, led by Pastor Boutros Zaour. Some of us know Boutros and his wife Wafa from a previous visit to Damascus or from their recent visit to the States. As the congregation arrived for worship, for those of our team in Damascus for the first time it was like meeting brothers and sisters we did not know. Oh, we knew of them, but what a joy it was to embrace them and to join together in lifting our voices in praise to God.  After worship, our Outreach Foundation group formed a line in the Fellowship Hall and the rest of the congregation came through to greet us one by one. There were so many smiles and not a few tears.

It was my privilege to be the preacher for the day, and my texts were Psalm 27 and Mark 2:1-12. The psalm reminds us that the Lord is our light and our salvation; we need not be afraid. And when we do fear, the psalmist reminds us to seek the face of the Lord. The familiar story from Mark tells of four friends bringing a paralyzed man to Jesus. It is where we must go with our hopes and fears and joy and tears — to Jesus. Sometimes we are the man, and sometimes we are the friends. How we have been encouraged, even carried, by the faith and trust of our brothers and sisters here!

And not only in the Presbyterian Church. We visited the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, and because the Patriarch was traveling in Lebanon we met with His Grace Bishop Efraim (Malouli) of Seleucia, Patriarchal Vicar. His warm welcome and winsome faith helped us to feel at home, and that is precisely how Boutros described the Patriarchate. Boutros affirmed the Greek Orthodox Church, the largest denomination in Syria, is great in its love and great in its giving.

     Damascene and American Presbyterians sharing food and fellowship at the Mona Lisa Restaurant

     Damascene and American Presbyterians sharing food and fellowship at the Mona Lisa Restaurant

A member of our group asked Bishop Efraim if he had a message for the church in the United States. Without hesitation he replied that his message is the same message that Jesus gave to the disciples at the Last Supper: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) Clearly, our new friend was a disciple of Jesus.

This Lord’s Day was for us a day of discovering relationships and making connections. Much of our afternoon was spent enjoying a delicious, leisurely meal with the Presbyterian congregational leaders at a restaurant nearby the church. Can you picture Muslims and Christians dancing and singing together out of love for their country? We can. We saw it. Just another step on this journey that continues to surprise and bless us.

Thank you for your prayers.

Rob Weingartner, Executive Director, The Outreach Foundation