Lebanon/Syria #5: A Dream, a Calling, a Family
by Rob Weingartner, for the team
It seems to me that one could return to this place countless times and always experience a deep sense of privilege and awe, privilege for the opportunity to be with God’s people in such a difficult place and awe at the Christian’s commitment to bear faithful witness to the Gospel.
Yesterday (Friday) began with a visit to the Presbyterian School at Qamishli with 800 students from Grades 1-9. The school has grown during the war as other schools closed and as pressure mounted from the Kurdish leaders who control this area in an agreement with the Syrian government. The Kurdish leaders are seeking to close the schools and impose their culture on all in the region.
The students swarmed around us – we felt like rock stars – as they eagerly smiled and tried out their English and invited us to be in their “selfies.” The dedicated teachers stood back a bit, smiling, but they loved talking about the importance of what was happening at the school. Most of the students are Muslim, and the church sees schools such as this as a vehicle for showing Christ’s love and teaching about love and peace. We saw Jesus’ love in action.
It was a powerful moment when one of the schoolgirls stood and recited Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. We pray that all these children will have good and godly dreams for their country, and we pray that we can work with church in ways that reveal God’s dream for all the peoples.
Our first visit upon reaching Hasakeh was with the newlyweds Mathilde and Issa in their welcoming apartment. A graduate of the Near East School of Theology, and a daughter of the congregation she now serves, Mathilde shared quite openly about the challenges of being a pastor in a nation besieged by was for more than seven years. She is not yet ordained, that is a three year process, but she is pouring her life and faith into the people she serves. This is not easy work. She said most of the people feel at times as though they themselves are bombs ready to explode at any moment. It was a privilege for our group to surround Mathilde with our prayers.
About half of the Christians have left this part of Syria, and Mathilde reported that her congregation is now down to about eight families. People had begun leaving in the 1980’s, but the emigrations mounted during the recent years of war. Many people from the other churches in town come, drawn to her engaging ministry with children and the Protestant service.
“If I didn’t have a calling,” she affirmed,” I would leave. If there were only ten Christians left, I would stay.” The room in which we gathered felt like holy ground.
During the afternoon we were buoyed by the friendliness of the children in the church’s school, with 900 students, the commitment of the teachers who work for tiny salaries, and the zeal of the Sunday school students who danced and sang to “Father Abraham,” Arabic praise songs, and “Baby Shark.” The children danced with joy and a few members of our group were even seen tapping their toes in rhythm to the music!
We gathered for worship with the believers in Hasakeh before departing, and Lisa Culpepper shared a thoughtful, moving sermon based upon Isaiah 40, about finding comfort even as we wait upon the Lord with broken hearts and hard questions. It was a message for each one of us.
We returned to a waiting congregation for a time of worship in Qamishley, blessed by the family of faith that welcomed us. Following worship in the sanctuary, we adjourned to the Fellowship Hall where we met and got to know brothers and sisters whom we had not met before. What a gift, to be God’s family together!