Lebanon/Syria #1: The Privileged Presence of Grace

by Julie Burgess, for the team

Whatever you do, don’t travel with The Outreach Foundation. 

I know. Those are shocking words to open up the day one blog for a trip with The Outreach Foundation but stick with me for a few paragraphs and hear the words of one who is making her fifteenth trip with Outreach. In the end, you will know that if you love Jesus, you will not heed my words, but instead you will wonder why you stayed at home for this trip! So gird your loins. Steel your heart. Prepare to enter holy ground with this team.

I finished a course in the history of Christian spirituality last fall where I studied many traditions through 2,000 years of our faith. One of those streams of spirituality was the one defined by St. Vincent de Paul, whose work with the poor and marginalized of his time allowed him to experience the “privileged presence of grace.”  The poor became his masters and teachers; in his words, he turned the medal or coin over and saw the face of Jesus.

Those words struck me as our leader Marilyn Borst read an email to three of our team on our way to Blessed School, a ministry to the blind begun by English missionaries in 1868 here in Beirut. (We arrived one day early; the other members of our team arrive this afternoon.) This school, which is tucked away in a very poor area of Beirut still has students who are blind, but most of the 70 plus students served here are on the autism spectrum, have Down’s Syndrome or are mentally handicapped in some way. It is led now by one of the amazing graduates of the Near East School of Theology (NEST) Linda Maktaby, a longtime partner of Outreach.

Linda wrote about “a Lebanese student with autism. He is nine years old, very smart, and can memorize a whole tv show after listening to it just once. He was living with his father and two siblings under a bridge, where their mother left them and sold the house and did never ask about them again...after I saw the child Ali, I asked that he come to my school and be part of our Blessed family.”

Hearing that as we drove through the always traffic-packed streets here, my heart returned to Vincent’s words: the privileged presence of grace. I was about to see once again, as I have on every trip here, that God’s hands and feet are moving in and through his servants and it would be our privilege to experience that grace from a front row seat.

From Linda we took in the history of Blessed School and her own personal history of coming to this place. Oh, how she resisted when she was first offered the role of executive director! “Give it a year,” her mentor told her. “If you don’t like I will hold your job with me open.” On her first day at Blessed she had memorized the names of every student and every staff member, something that astounded her about herself. Five years later, she walked us through every classroom introducing each student and each staff member by name, that former position now well in the past.

Most of these students are young adults. At Blessed they learn reading and writing for sure, but also life skills like cooking and cleaning. They have craft shops where they learn basket weaving, caning, woodworking skills and baking, and the items they produce are sold for their benefit, including small amounts of pocket money. “It is not fair for them to see other people buy these handmade items, and not be able to experience that for themselves,” she explained. They also learn music, and we were treated to a concert led by Fadi the music teacher. With Fadi on the keyboards, a great group of percussionists joined in as a lovely young woman sang to us of the love of God in the words of Khalil Gibran.

We walked through this place of grace and saw the rooms where the resident students live during the week before heading home for the weekends. All the beds were neatly made, and the bathroom was spotless. The students here are taught how to care for themselves and to keep their spaces clean and neat. We saw the Braille lab where documents are produced in Arabic for those few students who are blind. They can learn to output their own reading materials in this language where reading is done by touch. In a darkened room we met Michel, an 83-year old man who developed the Arabic Braille language. He was teaching a much younger blind and mentally handicapped man how to read. Michel, blind himself, has lived at Blessed School since he was 12 years old.

Along the way we met a much older couple, both blind, who had fallen in love at Blessed School as students. Their desire was to marry and now they are.

We had begun that trip in the car hearing about Ali and his life of abandonment on the streets of Beirut. We did meet Ali and heard him sing our English A-B-C song, while loving arms held him and encouraged him. The ongoing story of his family is still difficult, but in this place, he was more than accepted; he was held in the arms of grace.

My husband Steve who is part of our team asked Linda, “Did you have any training for this position?” Her answer was “No, you just have to know how to love.”

I think this is what Vincent de Paul experienced as he flipped the coin over. On one side is the face of Linda. On another coin is the face of Ali or Michel or any of the other students we met. But flip any of them over and you will find the face of Jesus, the face of love. That is the privileged presence of grace. This is the journey, and you should come.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.” Matthew 25:40

Julie Burgess, West Hills Church, Omaha, Nebr.

P.S. Our full team has safely arrived in Beirut. As we enjoyed a dinner the good news came that our visas to Syria have been approved. Onward we go...