Lebanon/Syria Day Seven: On the Journey
by Julie Burgess, for the team
Come with us as we drive from north to south…
Good evening from Damascus, where it is 9:00 p.m. and we are gratefully behind the doors of the historic Beit Alwali Hotel, tucked into comfortable rooms in three traditional Damascene homes combined into one hotel. When you walk into a hotel and the staff greets you with roses and cool drinks, you almost feel like royalty. We are tired. We are spent emotionally. But we are at home!
Our day began at 7:30 this morning as we packed up our bags and left Aleppo for the south, with a planned short stop at Mahardeh, followed by the drive to Damascus. In two cars, we sped down the roads and highways, stopping only at the numerous checkpoints along the way. Once in a while a scene could be captured, like this flock of sheep. Sometimes those flocks come to and even walk on the road, but I am happy to report that we were not responsible for fresh rack of lamb being served anywhere tonight! The checkpoints are a reminder that land is still being contested here and people are still losing their homes and their lives. For six American Christians to show up in this place at this time is a great encouragement to the church and we hear it wherever we go. In turn, and maybe even more so, we are encouraged by the strength of their faith and their acts of faithfulness as they stay in the place where God has planted them. This is the place where the church was born, and two millennia later, it remains. Thanks be to God!
Our journey to Mahardeh took us through Hama and by the ancient noria, the water wheels that still turn. Centuries ago they lifted the water up to aqueducts to send water into the city. Though there has been much damage in this area, and there are still hot spots, to see the noria doing what they have done for centuries was a sweet sight to the eyes.
After three and half hours on the road (somehow a four-hour drive goes faster when you hit speeds I won’t mention) we arrived in the courtyard of the National Evangelical Church of Mahardeh, greeted by Rev. Ma’an Bitar and his amazing wife, Ghwath. We spent precious moments with the children of their KG (kindergarten), a ministry that The Outreach Foundation has supported through the crisis. There are about a million photos of this on each of our cameras but these kids are just the definition of cute. I give you this one because this young man introduced himself to each of us along with his friend. “Hi, my name is Louis. And this is my very best friend, Shadi.” There are puddles of melted hearts that we left in Mahardeh.
We were escorted into Mahardeh by the local national defense force who have kept this town of 23,000 Christians safe since the crisis arrived in 2012. Mahardeh has given 82 martyrs, from the very young to the very old. We were honored to meet with General Simon, a man some of us have met before. As always, they are thankful for the prayers we lift for Syria, and especially grateful that we choose to return. And they especially give thanks for Rev. Ma’an, who has helped lead the effort to get people to remain in this unique place in Syria. Their words to us: “We will live. We will stay. We will not despair.” May God bless and keep them safe.
Our time in Mahardeh was too short. After a quick lunch prepared by Ghwath, we got right back on the road. Three more hours of bumpy roads, lightning speeds, many checkpoints, and a serious dust storm – we arrived in Damascus. Tired as we were, we walked out the back door of the hotel into the open door and open arms of the National Evangelical Church of Damascus and dear Rev. Boutrous Zaour. On a Wednesday night (!) we were amazed at a full church who turned out to greet us. And because we are the church, there was worship of the one we all call Father, whose son bled and died for our sins and was raised to new life, overcoming death, and who left us the Holy Spirit for counsel and comfort. The room was filled with spirit as Marilyn and Jim offered greetings from the team and Julie presented our gift of a cross, the symbol that binds us together.
I know this is too long; I just can’t help it, there is too much to tell you and the surface has not been scratched, but there is one more thing I’ve got to get down before closing. Mrs. Collette Khoury, whose grandfather was the first prime minister of an independent Syria and an original delegate at the United Nations, was with us at the church tonight. A Christian herself, it was quite an honor to this road-tired group to be received by her. And she left parting words with us which I would like to share. “The truth is a fire. When you try to stomp it out or smash it down, it only spreads.” Our job is to be here with the church and let you all know the truth: God is the God of us all and he is here in Syria. His light, his truth, are held high by his church and we are grateful to raise that light with them.
West Hills Presbyterian Church, Omaha, Nebraska