Lebanon/Syria #13 - Beads and Seeds

by Julie Burgess, for the team

“Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’” Matthew 19:14

This is a day to share the stories of ministry to children and youth. We have shared in previous posts about the precious Sunday school children and their sweet smiles singing their songs of JOY. It is one of the enduring ministries of the churches here. We have seen much on this Friday, but the thread that strung our stops together like the beads on the prayer chains you see being rubbed by so many here, was the ministry for children and youth.

While traveling with Rev. Nuhad Tomeh last summer, he told our group of faithful women that he and two partners were opening a KG – a kindergarten – in his village of Yazdieh, Syria. The purpose he said was twofold: to minister to children in this village and to provide jobs for local women who were widowed by the war or its effects. God’s word commands us to love, to teach, to heal, and this brand new Love and Hope Preschool was doing all three in bright new surroundings. We met Sylvia, formerly a housewife, who is now the director. She was asked if she liked this transition, and her reply was a definite YES! Ten of the thirty-three children enrolled here were out sick on this day, but the balance of 3-5 year olds enchanted us with their shy smiles and their singing. We did the hand motions along with them especially as they sang M-O-M-M-Y, a song for their mothers on Mother’s Day. This school employs Sylvia, six teachers, a health aide and a bus driver, and in a small place in a big country full of needs, God has provided through the hands of church members.

We could have stayed hours in this bright spot, but after only thirty minutes we had to hit the road for Banias. Marilyn and I had met women from there at a previous women’s conference. With an invitation extended in prior years, we were finally able to accept it to spend time with this grace-filled church.

Banias Presbyterian Church began about thirty years ago as Presbyterian church members from another part of Syria came here to work in the oil industry. With no established Presbyterian church there, they began meeting together. They rent a flat in a building, which houses their cozy sanctuary and the necessary fellowship hall for after service coffee and cookies. Friday is their regular day for worship and Sunday school as it is the first of the two weekend days, so we gathered with the faithful to hear Rev. Jack Baca bring us the word from Psalm 119. Jack is a great preacher, don’t get me wrong! But the highlight of this worship was when the youth group sang for us and then was joined by the children. Unlike other churches where the Sunday school is made up almost entirely of Christians, this group was composed of mostly non-Christian background kids. Unabashedly singing out songs of Jesus as king and Lord in English, it was a most blessed morning. It was a reminder that we are but planters of seeds. We don’t bring the growth and we may never experience the harvest, but our call is to plant and Banias has planted.

After worship, after fellowship with coffee and cookies, we were invited to lunch by the elders and dear Rev. Salam Hanna who shepherds this flock. We ate in a restaurant perched just below the centuries old castle on the high point overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I don’t know if young people, college and high school age, in your congregations are willing to sit with older generations after Sunday worship, but again I must point out their presence and their engaging conversations. Not to mention the fact that they are experts at taking selfies! In this way we can document and share their faces with you.

As hard as it was to leave Banias and the elders we have come to love, Georgette and Richard, we pile back into the cars and head back to Yazdieh for an informal worship with this church, now led by Elias Jabbour and his wife Petra. They have only been married for less than two years, but they make a powerful team of ministers. It is hard to step into a place led by one pastor for forty-two years, but they have brought a new young energy here to give new strength to a team of seven elders. One of their greatest gifts is in liturgy and music and it was quite evident on a Friday night. A choir of beautiful young women, eleven strong, presented a rocking version of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and other selections from Christmas. On a February night the incarnation was made new again by our Arabic singing sisters.

Again, the reminder of long-time disciples planting and nurturing new seeds is one to be lifted up. These young women are university students or professionals working in their chosen fields. They will become the pillars of the church here and continue to spread the seeds of God’s word. They will be Sunday school teachers. They will be elders. Some might even become pastors: We met a young woman named Suhad who asked us to pray for her as she contemplates studying theology at the seminary in Beirut.

KG students loved into the kingdom. Non-Christian children and youth singing of Jesus. A choir of angels on a dark night in Yazdieh. Seeds planted for the future harvest. Bead by bead, strung together on cords of faith, strengthened by grace, this is the story of God’s church in Syria. May its length increase in years to come as the children continue to come to the Lord.

Julie Burgess, West Hills Church, Omaha, Nebraska