Lebanon/Syria #8: The Light of the Gospel

by Lisa Culpepper, for the team

On this Lord’s Day, February 10, we are awakened by the light of a new day in the biblical city of Damascus. I had waited for thirteen months to be here. Traveling with The Outreach Foundation to Lebanon in January, 2018, we were not granted visas into Syria.

Turning in my Bible to Acts 9:3-9, I read of the light from heaven that flashed in brilliant life changing mercy for both the apostle Paul and the waiting world, and now the morning light had greeted me with a word of welcome to the narrow cobblestone streets that wound around tattered awnings and ancient doors.

Just five minutes walk from the Beit Al Wali Hotel is the Presbyterian Church of Damascus where Reverend Boutros Zaour shepherds 700 people. Before 2011, the beginning of the war, this church boasted over 800 people, yet the conflict has taken its toll on all of Syria’s Christian families.

As our team of eleven take our seats for worship and the pews begin to fill, we hear tongues of men and of angels (in Arabic which has a familiar ring to my Lebanese ears). As the liturgy is read and prayers are voiced, I pick up words such as salam, meaning peace, and Yassouh El Messieh, meaning Jesus the Messiah.

Indeed the light of Christ is in this place as the word from Philippians 2:1-5 and John 17:20-26 is illuminated by the Holy Spirit. We listen as Reverend Rob Weingartner preaches, reminding us that the church’s witness to the world is our shared life of grace, love and forgiveness. Indeed, in the darkness of death and destruction the church is the light of the gospel. “In seeing the church,” Rob said, “the world will see what God intends for all humanity.” As I listen to Rob’s words, the light through the stained glass window reflects its colors on the chancel below and speaks to me of this church’s witness of faithfulness in very difficult times.

After the service many hugs and smiles greet us in rich fellowship, yet I realize that these are also bearing the weight of eight years of trauma and loss. Reverend Zaour then takes me to the court room of the church where a bomb fell, yet didn’t explode. He also tells me of driving down the streets of Damascus with bombs exploding all around, and checking in with his family to assure them that he is okay. As I listen to his recollection, I realize that I have no place in my heart or mind to put such an unbelievable reality.

Meals in the Middle East are long and leisurely and after a 2-½ hour lunch, we walk down the street called Straight and descend steps to visit the home of Ananias. In the silence of the chapel, I hear a voice reading, “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’”

“In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias . The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes Lord,” he answered. (Acts 9: 4,10)

Indeed, the church in Damascus has heard the voice of the Lord and seen his light and responded, “Yes, we will go for you. We will be the light in the darkness and the exhibition of the Kingdom of God to the world.”

My brothers and sisters in Damascus have endured severe persecution over these past eight years and are still traumatized by displacement, loss of family, friends, jobs and homes, yet they continue to sing, “Faith of my fathers living still, we will be true to thee till death.”

Rev. Lisa Culpepper, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Hemingway, South Carolina