I am in Beirut, Lebanon, for the fourth time since 2010, when I first came and was introduced to my Presbyterian brothers and sisters in this small country by the Mediterranean Sea. We spent about four or five days here on that trip visiting various expressions of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), whether the leadership of the synod, the pastors and churches, a beautiful mountainside elder care facility or a brand new school in the Bekaa Valley. These are amazing, resilient, intelligent and educated people. The evangelical, or reformed, church took root here in the 1830s as American missionaries came in the great movement of that century.
We also spent a week in Syria, visiting the ancient cities of Damascus and Aleppo and the Syrian parts of NESSL, as well as historic places such as the Street called Straight and the Ananias House (see Acts 9), the Grand Ummayyad Mosque in Damascus, and the ancient maze-like souq and the citadel in Aleppo.
These are old places bearing the marks of an ancient church as well with names like Chaldean, Maronite and Melkite Catholic, and Greek, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox. Christians have walked here since the first Pentecost after the resurrection.
In 2010 in Lebanon we learned how the church had a prominent role in offering hope and witness during the civil war here that lasted from 1975-1990, and we also saw how the church in Syria offered that same hope and witness to refugees who had fled from the Iraq war to their east, beginning in 2003.
Returning to Lebanon in 2013, there was a completely different set of circumstances. The new war being fought was in Syria and had been going on for two years at the time of that trip. Refugees from that war had found their way to Lebanon as well as being internally displaced in Syria. And what we found was that same church offering hope and witness anew.
Now, in November, 2014, the crisis has increased ten and maybe a hundredfold. There seems to be no end to the streams of people being forced out their homes in one place, carrying only what their hands can hold, and setting out in a vast migration to a new place. And hopefully one where they can find at least a semblance of peace. Syrians – maybe a million or more – have come to Lebanon, a country of only four million people. They live in tents. There is really no infrastructure for their children to go to school. There are no jobs. But at least the war and the bombs and the killing machine are on the other side of the mountains.
But one thing that is common on both sides of the mountain is the church. It is a common and constant presence in Syria and Lebanon. The church is here. God is here. Hope is here.
In 2013 we had the chance to visit one of those places of hope. NESSL was refitting an old, now unused school to become apartments for refugees from Syria. Rooms where once uniformed students learned reading and math and science, would be transformed into bedrooms and kitchens and bathrooms. There was even a small church here and that would remain as a weekly gathering place to come together and worship the God of peace and salvation and to study his word in the Bible.
Walking up the hundred-plus stone stairs of this multi-level compound, we saw workmen installing kitchen equipment and making bathrooms for the families who would eventually call this place home. All of those items needed for daily living – sinks, toilets, cooking stoves, refrigerators, heating stoves – had to be hauled up those stairs that had been worn by years of small feet going up and down to learn the lessons of life. Now they would be trod by families who had learned the lessons of war and fear, and would find peace in this place of God.
Yesterday upon my return here, I met three of the families who have found refuge here.
There was Ziad from Homs, who was sharing his apartment with another young, single man who was not there when we arrived. Homs is a city that had been under siege for a full three years, having been liberated just this past May. I am sure if we had more time and more ability to communicate, we could have heard some horrible stories from Ziad, but also stories of escape and survival. His simple room contained a small bed, a chest with a television on top and some meager mementos from home. It looked like a college dorm room. Young men really don’t need much, do they?
Another room was occupied by Dunia, who had come from Safita in the northwest. Her apartment was much cozier, made so by a beautiful rug on the floor, a couch and chairs in the living room and a few more reminders of her home. Her son was living there with her and he has been recruited by a local Christian leader in helping others. He has applied for admission to the Near East School of Theology in Beirut with the hope of studying to be a pastor. These are seeds of hope being planted for the future of his land.
Climbing to the very top level of this vertical compound we met Elder Moussa from Aleppo and his daughter Fibi. Elder Moussa was an electrical engineer by trade and one day his skills will be needed desperately as a city of two million people will have to be rebuilt. We have heard that 55% of Aleppo has been destroyed; ISIS is active there and soon the government forces will try to surround them and deprive them of weapons and supplies to snuff them out. There is more tragedy still to be experienced in the months to come. There is still an active Presbyterian congregation there meeting in a fifth floor apartment with no electricity or water, led by a courageous pastor named Ibrahim Nsier. But that is another story.
Let me tell you why Moussa and his daughter Fibi and her sister Grace were in this apartment at the top of the stairs. They had not fled Aleppo in fear for their lives. Indeed, they were a part of that congregation still meeting there in an equally high place at the top of five flights of stairs. Moussa is an elder there (and I most likely met him in that church in 2010). He is a leader, seeing to the spiritual needs of that congregation. But his wife had cancer. Oh, how I curse cancer! His wife had cancer and there were no longer working hospitals or even doctors in Aleppo. (Think about that for a minute. In a city of two million people, what used to be a modern 21st-century city, there were no working hospitals.) Moussa and Fibi and Grace left with wife and mother to find treatment in Latakia to the west.
Moussa’s wife died two months ago. This man, who is probably only in his early 60s, this educated electrical engineer who owned his house and raised his family with a wife of decades, now lives with his daughters at the top of the former school. A widower, he can look out the window to the mountains, knowing she is not buried in her homeland, but that she is in the arms of a loving God.
A loving God, who has led him to this place for this time.
A loving God who will see him come home, either to Aleppo to help rebuild or to one of the mansions in his father’s house.
A loving God who walks up the stairs with him to the top of the school, now made home.
A loving God who walks among the thousands of tents in the valley below.
A loving God he worships in the small church a few flights below.
A loving God embodied in the churches and pastors and flocks of this place.
I pray a prayer of thanksgiving to this loving God for allowing me to enter into the lives of these people who are living in a place prepared for them by brothers and sisters of mine and yours.
And I pray to this God for peace in this land.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.