Lebanon #3: 48 hours in: What we’re learning about showing up and being present

 by Susan Parker, for the team (John Knox Presbyterian Church, Seattle)

The ministry of presence might be defined as the ability to communicate value, regard, worth and respect. It is the ability to make people feel significant, honored, and esteemed. It is about being with someone, without the need to do something for them or even to say the right thing—or maybe anything at all. It is also about receiving—because being present to someone else inevitably enriches our own lives.

We are here at Dhour Choueir among 85 women; some from Lebanon, but the vast majority have come from Syria—some from places I know, like Damascus and Aleppo, and others from places I’ve never heard of like Latakia, Mhardeh, and Homs. Each of these 85 strong, persevering women of faith has a story and I wish I could hear them all!

Here are just a few of the things I’m learning from being with these precious women:

1. To be present (in a non-patronizing way) is to posture myself as a learner.

I’m learning a new Arabic phrase or two every day and then using it as often as I can. Of course, most of the women speak at least basic English so it isn’t really necessary for me to learn how to say “good morning,” or “how are you?” or “my name is Susan” but you would be amazed at how this simple act seems to warm hearts and open doors of opportunity to be with people.

2. To be present is to lay down what I thought I knew and to be open to the knowledge and perspective of others.

This morning our team heard informally from Dr. Mary Mikhael, president emeritus of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut. She shared how proud she is of First Lady Asma al Assad, who announced this week that she has beaten breast cancer, talking openly about her year of medical treatment and urging Syrian women to be diligent about self-examination. Dr. Mary believes that Mrs. Assad’s transparency will de-stigmatize cancer and as a result save many lives.

Later, I heard from another woman how President Assad protects Christians and gives them the freedom to worship and to pray not only in their churches but also openly in the streets and public places, which is not always the case in Muslim majority nations. She also told of how Mrs. Assad is well known for her acts of charity and care for the poor. My new friend expressed concern that because of my nationality, I would not agree with her views, but I assured her that I am here to listen to those like her with a front-row seat.

3.  To be present is to hang in there when the going gets tough.

I had both lunch and dinner today with a lovely woman from one of the Syrian towns routinely being shelled by bombs. She struggles with English but was eager to tell her story. It was quite difficult to track, but we both refused to give up. Speaking and listening cross-culturally sometimes takes a lot of effort, but what a gift we have been given to be among these beautiful women, to hear first-hand and to be encouraged by their perseverance and of God’s faithfulness in their lives despite present circumstances.  

This is a glimpse of what it looks like to show up and be present here in Lebanon. If I close my eyes, I can almost hear the Apostle Paul’s prayer to the Colossians prayed over us as we gather together – representatives of the Church of Syria, Lebanon, and the United States:

“My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-4).