Syria Appeal - August 2016
But thanks be to God...
In late July, I brought a team of eight women from the U.S. to participate in a week-long conference in Lebanon which was sponsored by the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. Held in the mountains north of Beirut at a retreat center owned by the Synod, it gathered in more than 100 women for rich days filled with Bible study, worship, fellowship, recreation and learning – the “stuff” which comprises similar events everywhere. But there was one major difference: most of these women had come from the Presbyterian churches in Syria and had traveled over dangerous roads, endured long waits at border crossings and left loved ones behind in the midst of war. They routinely live with shelling, power cuts, massive shortages, sky rocketing inflation coupled with extreme devaluation of their currency and heart-rending separation from family and friends who had fled the country. Many have seen their churches severely damaged in the conflict; some have had to flee their towns and seek shelter in another place; all had once been financially comfortable but they and their families had either seen their jobs destroyed or now drew tiny salaries which did not come close to covering the basics of living. They had every reason to be depressed and sorrowful. But we found them to be quite the opposite – in the late evening “skits” which included such “theater” as a mock wedding or a hilarious lampoon of the ill-fated field trip we took one day; in the endless selfies and group photos which were filled with laughter and hugs; in the “Great Hat Decorating Project” which inspired an amazing expression of flair, creativity and oh-so-many photo-ops!
It did not take long to perceive that there was a profound spiritual depth to these women, a confidence in who they were as followers of Christ, their assurance of God’s providential care and a deep commitment to “be the Church” in Syria – even now – that was profoundly moving for all of us. Fellow team member the Rev. Nancy Fox, who also serves as a trustee of The Outreach Foundation, reflected beautifully upon this:
In one of our team devotional times, we talked about how the over-riding impression we had of the women, in spite of their great losses and daily dangers, was not distress or grief but rather joy and even humor. That observation reminded me that in the various brief conversations I’d shared with women about their lives, there was almost inevitably a common concluding remark: “…but thanks be to God.” At first, it felt rote to me, or trite – and it would have been if I, as an outsider, had said it to them. But as I heard it again and again and realized these women were holding on to the assurance of God’s goodness in the midst of their suffering as to a lifeline, I began to see the phrase as a declaration of faith like our weekly recital of The Apostles’ Creed. I sense that the phrase functions for them as a sort of spiritual discipline. The women are willing to share their grief and their suffering; they are not in denial about that, or belittling it, but they are choosing to give God’s goodness the last word rather than their situations. They are obeying the frequent New Testament charge to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Though they have lost so much, they trust in God and that is where they fix their attention. Oh, such hardships, “…but thanks be to God.”
One evening, Sandy O’Meara and I joined the table of women from Mhardeh for dinner – Maggie, Hanaan and Nagham. Language was a limitation, but they did share with us a bit of their story. Mhardeh has been nearly surrounded by rebel groups. They had been the last church group to arrive at the retreat; we had worried about them because there is only one road still open in and out of their city. As it turned out, they were held up at the Syria/Lebanon border for hours, and one member, whose papers turned out to be inadequate, finally had to return to Mhardeh and miss the retreat. When the almost nightly fireworks started in a nearby town, they jumped just a little – Hanaan’s nine-year-old niece had been killed by a mortar shell. They explained that their families used to be well off. Life was comfortable, and they used to have fireworks to celebrate weddings, graduation, and any happy event. For the last five years, there have been no fireworks; the sounds of explosions are no longer an expression of joy. The siege has ruined the economy, and now they, like nearly everyone in the city, survive on emergency supplies. They enjoyed the wonderful fresh food at the camp! One of them shared, “We try to keep the Christians from emigrating.” These ladies want to keep their church strong, to maintain the witness to Christ in Syria. It is a hard message, though, when they do not see any signs of an end to the war “…but thanks be to God.”
The Continuing Need
As The Outreach Foundation now enters its 5th year of this Syria Appeal, we remain dependent upon and enormously grateful to you, our donors, who have supported our Presbyterian family in Syria during these trying times – often with multiple gifts! Because of these gifts, joined with the gifts of other Reformed Church partners around the world, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon has been able to provide life-giving support to families in its congregations like the one in Fairouzeh pastored by Rev. Yacoub (Jacob) Sabbagh, and, through those churches, to neighbors in need. Priorities continue to be fuel for generators, rent subsidies for those displaced from their homes, medicines, food, clean water and school fees. Recently the Rev. Joseph Kassab, General Secretary of the Synod, shared this:
The situation in Syria continues to be “without form and void,” as Genesis 1 refers to pre-creation and “darkness [is] upon the face of the deep.” However, “the Spirit of God” is still “moving over the face of the waters.” What a promising hope which keeps the Church of Christ going on! We want our people to stay in their homeland; we want to create an atmosphere of reconciliation…we want the story of Jesus to be lived and acted out in the midst of this pain.”
We thank God that you continue on this journey with us alongside the faithful, witnessing Church in Syria until peace is restored. You may send an additional gift to our office or make an online gift by clicking HERE. Please designate your gift for the “Syria Appeal.”
Associate Director for Partnership Development