I love long car rides, the kinds we used to take as kids when Daddy would load us all up in the Suburban and head up to Ponca State Park. Some years he would take the speedy, less scenic route up I-29 on the Iowa side of the river. But the best trips happened when we drove up on the Nebraska side of river: highway 75 to 77 to 20, the two-lane roads.
I learned to appreciate the two-lane roads later in life as well when taking road trips with my brother Mike. Mike’s idea of a good road trip is to eventually get off the two-lane road with a shoulder, to a more narrow road with no shoulder, and eventually to a dirt track that just ends.
The two-lane roads take you through small towns and you have to slow down when you reach them. Slow down and observe the life in the towns, that’s what driving on a two-lane road asks you to do. Don’t speed by and miss the park, the churches on each corner of the main intersection, the old brick school (or perhaps they have passed a bond issue and have a new, technologically up-to-date one!), the front porches of houses that have seen generations of families lazily enjoying the porch swing on a warm summer day. You will see people living lives uninterrupted by the cars who have slowed down to pass through on the two-lane highway that is their main street.
Observing life on the two-lane road has become a point of grace for me in a over-scheduled family/church/job world.
And so I found the trip we made in Syria a couple of weeks ago a reminder of the two-lane road vacations we used to take.
But something was different on this one.
We had headed out from Homs after walking the Stations of the Cross through seven ruined churches and worshiping with the still active Christian community in that devastated place. We were on our way to the Wadi al-Nasara, the Christian valley, to visit and worship with others, Presbyterians like ourselves, who were living in or had relocated to this relatively safer area.
We were on a two-lane road, through farmlands, just like the old highway 75-77-20 route to Ponca. Steve rode in the front with Nuhad, and I was in the back with Marilyn, our leader from The Outreach Foundation. There was another car with the rest of our group plus the car with our military escort to keep us safe…that surely was different from any family vacation I had ever been on.
We drove along under blue skies with the nice fluffy white clouds Bob Ross used to paint on that old PBS show. I was wondering why I didn’t have sunglasses with me. There were beautifully tended fields around us; bucolic, I think that is the word I am searching for here. We sped along, slowing only for the occasional checkpoint, which we were mostly waved through due to our escort.
We headed up the more circuitous mountain roads which would eventually take us to the Krak de Chevaliers, an old Crusader castle still in amazing shape. (That will be another blog. Watch for it.) And here is where we came to the towns on that two lane road. They kind of ran together and it was hard to tell where one stopped and the next started.
And here was where it was different.
There were homes and churches and mosques and businesses and schools, to be sure. Or at least they used to be those things…
Now they were empty of life. There were no people. Anywhere.
Not only were they empty of life, but they were open to the outside. Walls blown out, doors hanging from hinges, broken blocks with broken glass windows. Some had sandbags still stacked in the openings to protect from the bullets and mortars that had surely been lobbed at them.
Some looked just like random piles of dominoes, or like card houses that had been built by children and then fallen down, crazily stacked up pieces of walls and ceilings.
Bits of lives formerly led in these towns could be seen as we continued down the two-lane road:
- a sink
- an empty suitcase
- pink tiles on a bathroom vanity
- colored bits of glass
- a shoe
- empty shelves
- the sign for a dentist’s office
Bits of life not seen or heard:
- cats – they’re everywhere else in this country
- children walking to school
- women in the market
- church bells
- the muezzin’s call to prayer
We drove like this for miles until we came to the castle. And when we left the castle, we drove for miles more. Broken houses. Broken stores. Broken houses of worship. Broken lives. Broken country.
We eventually arrived at our destination, the Presbyterian church of Amr Hosan, where a mid-week worship service was going on as they awaited our arrival. We heard stories from these people of their losses; perhaps their stories even came from those towns we had just come through. They had made their way to a safer place. They had found community in their loss, and they welcomed us in. They are in need of money for rent, money for food, money for fuel, as winter is upon them.
They shared their lunch with us.
I met Toeh, from Homs, who had been a student at the university there, working to become an English language translator. Her family had to flee with nothing to find this place of safety. She cried as she told me they didn’t even have time to grab the photos of their lives before the war. Pictures of her as a little girl were gone. Signs of their life as a family were just strewn about on another street in another part of the country. And there were more stories like Toeh’s. Everyone at this gathering had one.
This was very different than any other two-lane road trip that I had ever been on. But, this was why I had come. This is why Steve came with me. We had come to bear witness to the story of the church in Syria as it goes through this nearly four-year war. We had come to show up, to encourage, to stand with, to stand for. We had come to hold and to comfort, to pray and to mourn, to wipe away tears and to shed our own for these people we now know and love.
And sometimes tears are all we have to offer.
I know a new day will come for Syria. I know God loves this place and these people just like he loves the whole of creation. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world…” I believe that.
I believe that the people of Syria will rebuild their lives and their country, the big places and the small ones on the two-lane roads. They have lived together here in peace before and they will again. I believe God will honor his promise of resurrection and new life.
For God so loved the world. He sent his son. He sends us.
And even if all we have to offer are our tears, we will bring them back as we travel the two-lane roads of Syria.
(You can read more about our trip to Syria on the link posted below. You can also help by responding to the Syria Appeal at the end of the post.)