Remembrance and Community

After a full Saturday, I ask that you walk through it with us in reverse, for that is how I found the message of today that birthed the title of this blog.

Marilyn, Grace, Reem (refugee from Mosul, Iraq, who serves at OLD), Sheryl, Evangeline, Rola, me

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages[a] and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you,[b] and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14:3-9)

We ended our day at a beautiful treasure in Beirut, the Beirut National Museum. Like many museums housing artifacts of the ancient world, the treasures housed within its stone walls remind us of just how old the world is. Civilizations left markers – remembrances – that people have walked these lands for way longer than the average attention span of smart-phone-wielding 21st century folk would care to think about. We are people who live in the moment. Yesterday’s news is, well, yesterday’s news. But even as we have marked our days here on this trip with data-draining amounts of photos on those smart phones to remember, the ancients left markers as well so they would be remembered.

Tombstone of Theoros and Alaphatha, Beirut National Museum

From a Roman period tomb, these words are carved in the lid of the sarcophagus: “Theoros. Alaphatha who purchased and built [this tomb].” Clearly, Theoros and Alaphatha wanted to be remembered, and on this day some twenty centuries later, they are. In a museum, a place that stands filled with what has happened in the past, we remember: Here is a marker that is witness to the fact that Theoros and Alaphatha walked this earth in this place.

Two-sided sheet of Syriac hymns, ink on paper, Beirut National Museum.

There are mummies in this museum that date to the 13th century, CE, found in a nearly inaccessible cave. Not only the mummies themselves, but due to the climate in that area, clothing and even paper items with ink writings were preserved. There apparently was a community of people who left a nearby region due to the clashes between Crusaders and Muslims for the control of that area and settled in these caves for safety. The finding of these tombs and relics helps us to fill in a bit of history and remember them. We may not know their names like Theoros and Alaphatha, but we know they could read, they could write (hymns!), they could sew and embroider, they sought refuge in times of crisis, and they lost children at a very young age.

These things struck me as I wandered the museum because we had just come from a visit to the Our Lady Dispensary (OLD), a ministry partner that is supported by The Outreach Foundation. Founded in the 1980s during the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, it is located in a second-story apartment in a Christian area of Beirut that houses the very poor. If Jesus was walking the earth today instead of first century Palestine, this is most likely where he would have pitched his tent! In the more than thirty years since this ministry moved into this neighborhood, they have served waves of poor refugees who have knocked at their doors. Where once it was Lebanese trying to survive in the conflict that raged from 1975-1990, now it is more likely Syrians who started arriving in 2012 and Iraqis in 2014.

Knock on the door and you will meet Grace Boustani, the social worker who is herself a survivor of the Lebanese war. Her family fled to Canada, but Grace felt the call to return to her homeland to serve. An angel of God if ever there was one, no one has been more aptly named. With support from ministry partners, Grace and OLD have provided relief for up to 1,000 families monthly over the past six years. Rola al Kattar, another angel of God, serves along with Grace at OLD in providing trauma recovery programs for women and children.

Today Grace and Rola introduced us to two Syrian families. Khadija from Raqqa and Aisha from Aleppo have been in this poor neighborhood for two years and one and half years respectively. Each woman has two sons. Both Muslim, they did not know each other except that one lived on the first floor of an apartment, and one lived below. The community they have formed, almost combining families really, came out of tragedy. Khadija’s then less than two-year old, Sami, got hold of a lighter and lit the crib of his baby brother on fire, burning the baby severely. As with most refugee families, there are limited resources. Fathers find only day work in Beirut. There is no health insurance. Daily bread is not assured. How would they get treatment for this severely burned child?

Aisha, whose home and family were also impacted by the fire in the building, stepped forward to help. She would care for Sami, along with her own two sons, Mahmoud and Abed al Kadr, while Khadija went north to Tripoli to find emergency care and surgery for the baby. “I put myself in her shoes: What if this had happened to me? Would anyone step forward to help?”

Looking at these two women who have endured so much in a world where it seems that everyone around you is only thinking of self-survival, there was a bond of community – of family – that reminded us of the empathy, the compassion, that Jesus modeled. Aisha, a woman with nothing, gave all she had to care for Khadija’s Sami.

The reason we can know – and remember! – their story is because of OLD. Aisha came seeking medical help for her own sons, caring also for the son of another. When Grace heard the story, she and OLD have provided the small relief they can. In a poor community in the midst of a refugee crisis where so many need so much, OLD stands in the gap where it can to serve the Khadijas and Aishas of this world. Praise God for the faithfulness of this ministry and those who support it! As the woman in that passage from Mark is remembered by us today for something more beautiful and sacrificial than a tombstone in a museum, Aisha’s love and the love of Grace and Rola and OLD will be remembered by the God who created them. We remember them with this story and are grateful to carry it to you.

Rev. Najla breaks the bread in remembrance

I said we were walking this day in reverse. We began it this morning with the culmination of the women’s conference as we gathered for a communion service led by Rev. Najla Kassab. Marilyn read the words of institution for us from 1 Corinthians, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Rev. Najla lifts the cup in remembrance

We celebrated communion this morning with the community of faith, the same community of faith that has birthed ministries like OLD and serves through the hands of people like Grace and Rola and Najla in the name of Jesus, whom we remember in the breaking of the bread and covenant of the cup. The only marker is a simple plate and plain cup, not a painted tomb in a museum. The words remind us. The community remembers. May it ever be.

P.S. This is a long narrative, but I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you a bit more about Reem. She is a refugee (with her family) from the Mosul area of Iraq who has been in the neighborhood for three years. They are stuck here, refusing to return to Iraq (there is nothing to return to, all is lost there for them) and rejected for emigration by other countries. It is a difficult existence for people like Reem.

Even in such difficult conditions, Reem, who was embraced with small bits of hope from OLD, now serves with OLD as a kind of right-hand to Grace. She knows and reaches out to hundreds of Iraqi families in this poor neighborhood. Grace to grace, that is the story of Reem and OLD.

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