Shoeless in Syria

For the Team, Marilyn Borst

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6: 2

We were five pastors and five lay leaders who came from Oregon, Indiana, Nebraska, California, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. As the team leader, I was the only person who had actually met everyone before we gathered in Lebanon and then headed into Syria for 10 days and 9 nights to meet with congregations and pastors of the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church. On either side of our time in Syria, we spent days in Lebanon meeting with Outreach Foundation partners who are doing ministry with Syrian refugees, or, as is the case with Near East School of Theology, training the next generation of leaders to serve the Church in Syria. The ten of us quickly became a family, and, in turn, we were just as quickly engrafted into our family-by-faith in Syria and Lebanon as we ate and worshipped together; shared tears and stories and many, many small cups of aromatic Arabic coffee; prayed together for peace and for a hedge of protection around the Body of Christ while thanking God for that Body’s faithful work and witness over these past years of war. The photos show our team (Jack Baca, Julie Burgess, Ed Hurley, Don Hudson, Mark Mueller, Allen McDonald, Rob Weingartner, Graig Flach and Ron Gatzke) with some of the friends we made or met along the way. These were sweet, tender and often poignant encounters…

Shortly after gathering our team in Lebanon and, as preparation for our entry into Syria, I shared a story which, I prayed, would remind us all of the “why” behind our journey….

Many years ago, when I was teaching Ancient Art History, I spent time on several archaeological digs in Egypt. One summer, we lived and worked in Luxor, but adjacent to a small village right next to our site. Over those weeks we saw a lot of the daily life of the inhabitants of Nag Al-Fukani. One afternoon we heard, at a distance, the high pitched tongue trill (called ululation) of the women that usually signals a celebration. We spotted a procession of villagers coming from town, with the trill growing louder as they approached. We soon realized that this was actually a funeral procession, with a wooden coffin carried aloft by a half dozen men. As they passed by houses, men would come out and run over to the coffin, jostling for a chance to help carry it, which they would do for a hundred feet, and then hand it off to others to do the same. It was explained to me that this was a local custom which allowed friends and neighbors to, quite literally, help the mourning to carry their burden in this enacted-symbol of solidarity. Over the years, this image has come to mind when I am asked the question of “what do you do on a short-term mission trip….”. In a few days we will share life with scores of people who have lost much, seen terrible things and, even now, are often in fear for themselves and their families. It will be our privilege, like the villagers in Nag Al-Fukani and for those days together, to shoulder those burdens with them…this will be holy ground. Prepare to take off your shoes.

So, now we are home, back in familiar beds and surrounded by family and friends and slowly returning to the routines of our lives. But we were changed – transformed by those encounters on that holy ground. The complexities and demands of discipleship seemed oddly simple in Syria: just carry someone’s burden with them. Footwear, optional…

Marilyn Borst, Associate Director for Partnership Development