The church, The Church, THE CHURCH

Confession: This last post from our trip to Lebanon and Syria will be written in first person. I (Julie) have had several days of traveling time with Marilyn and Nuhad. On the curvy narrow roads from Damascus to Homs and then to Mahardeh, there has been a lot to reflect on between speed bumps, or “sleeping policeman” as Rob told us they were called in parts of Africa. Every time I have traveled on a TOF trip, Marilyn has been my leader and teacher and her words ring in my ears, but never as much as this time. These trips are not about our faithfulness, our bravery, or anything that is preceded by the word our, but they are about the church, The Church, THE CHURCH! In times of peace, in times of war, the church is here. It remains and we have come to stand with it and be embraced within it. Since the rest of our team returned home, we have been with three faithful parts of the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, his church.

The Presbyterian church in Bloudan, Syria.

The Presbyterian church in Bloudan, Syria.

Last summer, Marilyn and I spent several days beyond the women’s conference at Dhour Choiuer to travel to Syria and visit a church she had never been to. Our visas were not granted and so we have waited an extra nine months to finally visit the Presbyterians in Bloudan. Bloudan is a village of about 5,000 permanent residents that in normal times expands to 400,000 as summer residents come up the mountain to escape the heat of the valley cities for its cool breezes, summer homes and restaurants. It is a mere 50 miles from Damascus, so the drive is short. Well, the drive was short. Now, the last nine miles up the road once you’ve turned off the main highway require ten different checkpoint stops. This little village is surrounded by five other villages, one of which is Zabadani. Last summer when we tried to get here, Zabadani was the scene of pitched battles between radicals, Hezbollah and Syrian army forces. Similar battles were fought in all five of the cities, and as we made our way slowly up the road, one of those cities was still cordoned off by razor wire as the battles still rage.

The Bloudan church elders and women's leaders on the chancel of the church. Assis Feras Ferah, who is pastoring the churches in Hasakeh, Kamishli and Malkieh in the northeast, is from this church. Many of these people are family to him. His mother is embraced by Marilyn Borst in the center.

The Bloudan church elders and women’s leaders on the chancel of the church. Assis Feras Ferah, who is pastoring the churches in Hasakeh, Kamishli and Malkieh in the northeast, is from this church. Many of these people are family to him. His mother is embraced by Marilyn Borst in the center.

Upon arriving (finally!) in Bloudan, we were greeted by the faithful elders and members of the Presbyterian church. There have been five years without electricity here. Five years when precious little supplies have made it up the road. Five years of shelling, some of which has hit and killed, including the sone of one of the elders. But in five years this faithful church without a pastor has not missed worshiping the one we call Lord. Indeed, we had an impromptu worship service led by Kamishly pastor Feras Ferah who is from Bloudan. The little children from the KG processed in and recited Psalm 100 from memory, sang us a song and then all bowed their heads and prayed. And as we sat there in this church

The Bloudan KG kids lead us in worship.

The Bloudan KG kids lead us in worship.

together, we were reminded that they might not have electricity but that the light of Jesus shines brightly in and through them all. In solidarity with the other Christians here who are Greek Orthodox, they will all celebrate Easter together on the Eastern calendar day of May 1. And they were teaching the children this word in song: Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed!

This is the church!

After a refreshing drink from the spring that flows from this mountain place, we headed back down the road, through the ten checkpoints, past the razor wire and the pancaked buildings and back to Damascus for our final night there. Saying goodbye to Assis Butros and his wife Wafaa, we headed to Homs.

Michelline Koudmani in her Aunt' Mona's house which is currently under reconstruction.

Michelline Koudmani in her Aunt Mona’s house which is currently under reconstruction.

When Marilyn and I last visited Homs with a group from TOF it was November, 2014, and Homs had only been relieved of its near three-year siege for about five months. We visited seven different churches in the old city, which once was home to about 60,000 Christians. The churches, including the Presbyterian church, had all suffered destruction in different degrees. We gathered together as a group with the newly minted confirmation class under a cross-shaped hole in the roof and they sang hymns of joy for us in the promise that this church would be repaired. Now standing inside the beautifully restored church on an April day in 2016, the promise is indeed fulfilled. God is good. All the time. Elder Abdul Almessieh Salta, a civil engineer, pointed out the beautiful wood ceiling panels. Most of them are original but some are made of new materials to replace the damaged ones. The craftsmanship used on the new ones makes them indistinguishable from the original. Assis Mofid and his wife Michelline also walked us through what will be the pastor’s home once it too is repaired and refurbished.

Elder Najwa's home in Homs, now fully restored. This chair is the only one of her belongings to survive ISIS, but her home is filled with the love and light of Jesus, as she lives here with here brother and sister.

Elder Najwa’s home in Homs, now fully restored. This chair is the only one of her belongings to survive ISIS, but her home is filled with the love and light of Jesus, as she lives here with here brother and sister.

Refurbished homes in Homs was our next order of business. Although there is still much destruction all around on a massive scale, people are returning to this place. We were told that about 2,000 of those 60,000 Christians have returned to the old city. Driving through the narrow streets, we saw small shops and restaurants where hopeful people wait on those few who are back. And there is reconstruction going on. The Presbyterian church identified 39 homes of church members that could and should be repaired so people could return home. With several gifts, including one from TOF, a number of those 39 have been completed or are in different stages of completion. We visited the home of Michelline’s aunt Mona where workmen were busy. Although the rear of the fourth-floor walk-up is still open to the outside, structural posts and beams have been replaced, tiles have been laid in the kitchen and bathroom, and six rooms are defined. In my mind I can see Mona back here with her husband.

From there, we drove a short distance to the home of elder Najwa, who had been our constant companion on this visit in Homs. We had first met her on a video at the consultation of this home-rebuilding project in Homs. She was the first one from the church to return to her place and begin rebuilding it even before this project was put in motion. She was a teacher and a principal in a government school, and before the war lived in this apartment with a sister and two brothers. They had precious little time to leave before ISIS came storming in. These radicals had moved all of her beautiful furniture out of the sitting room and just sat on the floor. Before they left, they burned most of it and stole the rest. Now sitting here with her sister and brother (one died before he could return), it was like every other beautiful home we had been invited to on these trips. Pictures on the walls. Rugs on the floor. Reminders of life all around. And one precious original chair, which had somehow survived.

We enjoyed lunch at a newly opened restaurant called Cello, owned and operated by yet another Presbyterian church member named George. It had always been his dream to have a real restaurant in Homs, more grand than his former fast-food operation, and here we sat. Ninety would be here later this evening for dinner and karaoke. Dream realized. Life renewed.

This is the church!

Assis Ma'an Bitar and wife Gwath Hanna of Mahardeh. Ma'an also pastors the church in Hama which is nearby.

Assis Ma’an Bitar and wife Gwath Hanna of Mahardeh. Ma’an also pastors the church in Hama which is nearby.

From Homs we headed back to the road. Faithful Assis Nuhad drove through more unfamiliar roads on a roundabout way to Mahardeh, our final destination in Syria. Through small towns and farm fields, even where all seems peaceful, there are reminders of war. Besides the numerous checkpoints we stop for (maybe 30-40 on this part of our journey) we drive by gas stations where empty pumps stand. We know when a station has fuel because there will be a long line of cars, trucks and motorcycles waiting, sometimes as long as six hours, for maybe five gallons. Nuhad stops periodically at roadside stands. “Benzene?” he asks. As we watch the fuel gauge drop to about a quarter of a tank, his question is answered in the affirmative and a 20-liter container of gas is brought to the side of the car with a funnel and hose. A quick transaction and we return to the journey, but this is daily life here.

Mahardeh. Sitting peacefully on the terrace of Assis Ma’an and his wife Gwath, I have my own dream come true. Six years have passed since I first made this journey with TOF, Marilyn and a group of faithful US Presbyterian women. Sipping a cold beverage, I take in the blooming beauty of roses, onions and parsley in the garden and a view of the church where Ma’an’s father served before him. As we speak about how the war has affected this place in Syria, the only 100% Christian town in the whole country, we hear about the 6,000 mortars and shells that have rained down since the beginning back in 2011. Claude, a young man without family here now except for this church family, obediently retrieves an unexploded shell that had implanted itself in the garden bed right next to the terrace.

The children, teachers and staff of the Mahardeh KG. The little five-year-olds on the far right will graduate in May.

The children, teachers and staff of the Mahardeh KG. The little five-year-olds on the far right will graduate in May.

A bright beautiful morning greeted us after a peaceful night’s sleep in the Bitar’s home. Breakfast of fried eggs right from the chicken, homemade zatar, dried figs, birthday cake (another story!) and coffee gave us strength for this day. If you think our energy tanks were empty, we quickly had them filled with a visit to the KG run by this church and led by Gwath. 70 precocious children had arrived in the church yard and were standing in lines organized by age groups, singing a welcome for us. Dark hair, blond hair, brown eyes, blue eyes, some in their official KG uniforms, they said in unison “Good morning! We welcome you! Thank you for everything!” This vital ministry has never stopped and its importance cannot be over emphasized. These children will be the reconcilers of this land in the future as they learn the ways of Jesus.

Looking a little closer beyond the group to an individual, we look into the deep dark eyes of three-year-old Fala. Clutching her rolled up bread sandwich, taking intermittent tiny bites, her eyes never leave Marilyn’s face. We are told that her father suffers from mental illness and the church has tried to help him find a job, and to supervise his taking his medication so he can remain stable. This KG is a place of peace and solitude for this precious little girl and all the Falas like her.

Finally we spend some time with about twenty men of Mahardeh who have organized themselves into a kind of national guard unit to protect this place. They have 13 separate points around the city where they take turns on patrol and duty. When shells do hit homes and buildings in Mahardeh, they immediately repair the damage because they are determined that they will remain in their homes. We walk to a place where we can look just a short distance down into the valley and see how close the front line is. All of these men are volunteers with every day normal jobs: contractor, painter, carpenter, engineer, teacher. They are men of the chuches – four Greek Orthodox and one Presbyterian. They are men with families, and their families have suffered loss, but they remain constant and determined. One man named Simon who acts as the leader, invites us into his home and we are served refreshing lemonade and the always present cookies by his wife Reema. And before we leave, in solidarity as brothers and sisters in Christ, he gives us each a Russian icon of Jesus which reminds us that we are one in the Lord.

This is the church!

This is the joy I have as I travel with The Outreach Foundation: the church, The Church, THE CHURCH! I am humbled to be a part of a global body, to be present with them in times of war and in times of peace. To mourn with them. To rejoice with them. To walk with them and to sing with them and to dance with them. I pray it for each of you who reads this: to lift them up daily and see their faces when you close your eyes to pray. They are you and you are them, and we are one together in Christ.

The two-lane journey

Worshiping at the church in Amr Hosan with Syrian families who have been displaced from elsewhere.

Worshiping at the church in Amr Hosan with Syrian families who have been displaced from elsewhere.

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.

This is a typical picture of what it looked like driving down that two-lane highway through destroyed and empty towns.

This is a typical picture of what it looked like driving down that two-lane highway through destroyed and empty towns.

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.

This man is an electrical engineer in a place that receives only four hours of electricity per day. (Amr Hosan)

This man is an electrical engineer in a place that receives only four hours of electricity per day. (Amr Hosan)

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.

This is me  with Toeh (on the right) with her mom (in the middle). These are middle class folks, just like me and my family.

This is me with Toeh (on the right) with her mom (in the middle). These are middle class folks, just like me and my family.

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.)

http://www.theoutreachfoundation.org/updates/2014/12/12/syria-relief-update

 

 

Reunion in Lattakia

Julie Lamis Bitar and Marilyn at Latakkia churchTraveling to the Middle East has been a life-changing experience for me. I have gone to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq a total of seven times since August, 2010, when I traveled for the first time with The Outreach Foundation and my new friend, Marilyn Borst. I have gained more friends on those trips that I am so grateful to be connected with by email and Facebook. And, of course, reuniting with them when I return.

I will return!

Back on that first trip in August, 2010, I traveled with a group of women – faithful women – as the trip was called. They were all veterans of short-term mission trips to places all over the world. They had been to Cuba, Russia, Malawi, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria…and many many more places. I had been to Germany, the Czech Republic and Cameroon on similar trips. But this one was new for all of us, except Marilyn of course.

We were traveling to be connected with Presbyterians (like us!) in Lebanon and Syria in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL). We got a great overview of the history of the Synod: how Presbyterians from the U.S. came to the Middle East to convert Muslims and Jews to Christianity. Upon arriving, they found no Jews to speak of and also there was this small thing about it being illegal to convert from Islam to something else. Illegal as in the death penalty.

Instead, they reached out to the ancient Christian community already there – Melkites and Maronites and Syrian, Orthodox and Catholic – and built schools and hospitals. The reformed church was planted alongside the ancient, and that is how it still is today.

We visited historic sites in both countries. We shopped in souks. We met with Iraqi refugee families. We visited schools. We sweltered in the 115 degree summer heat.

We bonded as a community of friends, sisters in Christ.

We ended that trip in the mountains above Beirut at the Dhour Choieur Conference Center to be part of a women’s conference, just like we would have at home, only in Arabic. (They translated for us.) We sang worship songs. We delved into a Bible study about the fruit of the spirit led by my new friend Barbara Exley from Atlanta. She had brought pounds and pounds of Jelly Belly jelly beans in flavors to represent the fruits. For instance, watermelon jelly beans represented patience. It was the most joyful and sweet-filled Bible study ever!

Part of the grace of being in the Middle East is the mindset of hospitality and gift-giving, and it played out at this conference just like every other place. We made friends with women. We traded little gifts. If you admired someone’s bracelet or earrings, she would immediately remove the item and give it to you. Amazing grace in the form of jewelry.

And that is how I met Lamis Bitar from Lattakia.

She was tall, statuesque actually, with beautiful dark hair and eyes. Her smile came slowly, but when it did it was genuine. She and I became friends on that weekend and in the generosity of these people, she bestowed upon me the earrings she was wearing.

And then the conference ended and we made plans to do it again in 2011, with even more women, perhaps from Iraq. And we went back home to the USA.

And then March, 2011, came and war erupted in Syria. There would be no women’s conference in Syria, and we would not return in 2011.

I would wear those earrings at home. Precious they were to me. Every time I put them in my ears I would think of the fun we had at that Bible study with the Jelly Bellys and I would see Lamis’ face in my mind, her beautiful face with the slow smile, and wonder about her in Lattakia. I would pray. I would tell people where those earrings came from if they admired them, and I would ask them to pray for Syria.

I wondered what had happened to Lamis Bitar.

And then just this past month, November, 2014, I had the opportunity to return to Lebanon and Syria with The Outreach Foundation. Steve was with me and Marilyn of course (our fearless leader) and Barbara. We walked through the streets of Homs in Syria, looking at the devastation from three years worth of bombs and mortars, but also seeing the churches beginning to rebuild. There was some hope there. You can read about it in my previous blogs.

And then we went to Lattakia. The third largest city in Syria before the war, had now grown even larger as people found their way there to escape danger in other places. It was relatively safe, although there were still checkpoints and military personnel to be seen. Large as it is it still suffered from the results of the war: high prices and electricity that did not work 24 hours a day. (Think about that for a moment in your own context. How do you manage when the electricity goes out? Maybe for a day, or even rarely for a week? What would you do if it was on for only four hours a day and you didn’t know which four? That is Syria now.)

Joyfully, we were set to visit our friend Rev. Salam Hanna who is the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Lattakia. It was Marilyn’s first time in this city, although she has been in Syria many, many times. So, of course, it was our first time there as well. It is a beautiful old church, renovated in the last couple of years by its previous pastor. It is also the largest church in NESSL, and we expected a large turnout, and there was one.

I wore my earrings from Lamis, hoping against hope that she was still there and had not already departed for another country.

And in the gathering darkness of night, in the midst of a rainstorm that should have kept everyone away, there she was. My friend Lamis had come to meet the American Presbyterians and I recognized her right away.

Tall. Statuesque. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Slow smile. Amazing grace.

We hugged. We reminisced about that women’s conference with the jelly beans. We locked eyes as friends and hugged some more. It was just a moment of pure joy for us both.

And that is why I go. I go to be “with” and to come home, responsible for remembering the people and their stories and to remind the church here at home that there is a church serving in Syria in the midst of war and death and loss and lack of food and fuel and electricity. They are the hands and feet and heart of Jesus walking and loving among those who need the light. And Lamis is one of them and I want you to remember her name and her face and her life.

And I want her to remember me. In addition to the earrings which I was wearing, I now have a beautiful bracelet with a cross. And Lamis has my watch, set to the time in Omaha. When she looks at it, she will know that she has a friend and prayer partner eight time zones to the west who loves her and remembers her.

Lamis, my sister in Christ. Please pray for her and for her church and for her country.

On meeting Mazar in Homs

Homs Christians with Fr FransIn August I wrote these words in a previous post about some of my heroes:

Father Frans van der Lugt was a Dutch priest, a Jesuit, who lived nearly fifty years in Syria, serving Christians and Muslims alike. He first came to my attention when I heard about him in May, 2013. The Christian community of Homs, Syria, which numbered in the tens of thousands before the war began in 2011, had been decimated. Many had been killed and many, many more had fled. About 75 remained and Fr. van der Lugt stayed with them. None of them were Catholics, but that did not matter to Fr. Frans. He stayed with them through all the days that Homs was under siege: through bombardment, through lack of utilities, through the hunger that ensued. I saw a video of him pleading to the world in Arabic to remember that they were still there. He was a shepherd, caring for his flock, and they knew his voice.

He stayed with them until he was abruptly called home to Jesus on April 7, 2014. He was killed by extremists, the same kind that took James Foley’s life in the middle of the desert this week. It was not the same group, not the same manner, but it was the same hatred, the same lack of humanity. And I know the grief of God above was the same, too.

I first heard about Father Frans from my friend Salam Hanna, a Presbyterian pastor who had served among the clergy of Homs, Syria, and knew Father Frans. Salam shared a Power Point presentation with a group of us who had come to Lebanon in May, 2013, for an update on what they church was doing in response to the crisis in Syria next door. He showed us pictures of the churches in Homs before the trouble began and he showed us pictures of the damages after war came there in March, 2011. He explained that there had been a community of 60,000 Christians before the war, but now there were just a few left.

I found that presentation on my computer when I returned home from Lebanon and Syria just this past week because of an extraordinary encounter I had in Homs.

I met Mazar.

DSCN1579Mazar was one of the few remaining Christians who were shepherded by Father Frans through those three long years of siege. (He is in the picture at the top of this post, back row, sixth from the left.) The old city quarter of Homs was where the insurgent extremists battled the Syrian army for control. Siege tactics to force the extremists out led to terrible conditions for those few civilians trapped between the two forces. Father Frans did what he could for anyone who needed help: he offered prayer and comfort and even the little food he could manage to obtain. He plead their cause on YouTube videos which he managed to get out. Comforter. Provider. Advocate.

I had never forgotten this story from the first I heard it and when April rolled around this year and I heard from Salam that Father Frans had been killed, shot in the head by the extremists, I wept for a man I had never met.

One week later the siege of Homs was lifted. Father Frans was buried in the courtyard of the Jesuit monastery in the old quarter of Homs.

IMG_1158It is a quiet place now in that churchyard, and it was my humble privilege to kneel by Father Frans’ resting place on Saturday, November 22, with a group I traveled there with from The Outreach Foundation, as well as other clergy and parishioners of the churches there who accompanied us on a tour of seven churches in Homs. I wrote about it in my post, Stations of the Cross.

This was the one place I desperately needed to come to and pay my respects to a man who gave his life for others in need. If ever there was a present day model of Jesus Christ, this was him. A Dutch Jesuit who poured out his life for the people of a land he came to call his own and whose blood poured out in the place where he served.

But Mazar…

Mazar was one of those who greeted us as we entered this place. Not smiling and happy at the visit of American Christians as others there were. Mazar had sorrow all over his face as we came to Father Frans’ grave. And then we were told the rest of the story of Father’s last day.

One week before the siege was lifted, extremists came to this church where Father had tended the flock for these past three years. Surely they knew the end of their time in Homs had come. And they had come for Father Frans. We were told that they pulled him out of his house and forced him to sit in a chair, guns pointed. Mazar came out of the house to protect him and to stop them, but they pushed him aside. In front of Mazar they took the life of this man of God, this man of peace, this shepherd, comforter, provider, advocate.

This is the picture that Mazar has in his mind’s eye from then to now and to his last day.

In the churchyard of the Jesuit monastery HomsSomeone snapped this photo of me reacting to this story. Mazar is in the lower left corner. His sweater is gray with a black stripe on his sleeve. I will never forget this moment, this story, this gentle man’s face as we heard the story. I am grateful that this trip brought me to this place, this holy ground, where one man was willing to try to stop the violence that was about to happen here.

And now that I know Mazar’s story and how it intertwines with Father Frans and the story of love poured out in Homs, Syria, it is my responsibility to share it with you.

And now that you know, will you pray for Mazar and the community of Christians who are returning to Homs to rebuild their churches and their lives and their country?

DSCN1601Don’t turn off the news when they are reporting about Syria. Turn it up. Turn your attention to it. Remember that there are people who live there and call it home. They worship in churches. They worship in mosques. They are neighbors and friends and countrymen. Father Frans loved them all.

I thank you and I know Mazar would, too.

 

Stations of the Cross

With one of the parishioners inside St. Maroun Maronite Catholic Church in Homs, Syria.

With one of the parishioners inside St. Maroun Maronite Catholic Church in Homs, Syria.

I grew up as a Roman Catholic. Baptism. Confession. Communion. Confirmation. These four sacraments I received in the church I was born into and I am so grateful for parents who showed me this way.

As a Roman Catholic, we made a pilgrimage of prayer each Good Friday at our church through the Stations of the Cross. We walked the Via Dolorosa, the way of tears, as part of our penance during Holy Week. In a remembrance of the actual events, we were walking in holy places, on holy ground.

The old city of Homs, Syria, from the rooftop of a bombed mosque.

The old city of Homs, Syria, from the rooftop of a bombed mosque.

I have made another pilgrimage of prayer as a Presbyterian. I have walked in a city where war has raged for over three years. I have walked in a city where a two-year siege was lifted only six months ago. I have seen damage and destruction and piles of rubble around every corner where our cars drove so we could make it to holy sites. Piles of rubble guarded by men with guns to protect the few people who have made the difficult journey home to see what is still standing.

I have walked in the old city of Homs, Syria.

I came here with six other American Presbyterians. People like me who go to church on Sunday to worship the Lord who saved us by his grace. We come from different places in the states, but we all belong to Presbyterian churches.

We walked these places today with Presbyterians from Lebanon and Syria, including the pastor of the Homs Presbyterian Church, also called the National Evangelical Church of Homs, a young gentle man whose name is Mofid Karajili.

I first met Mofid in January in Lebanon at a consultation for the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon and global partners supporting the relief effort of NESSL due to the war in Syria. He had made his way to be with us and share what was happening in his congregation. The church building had been destroyed during this siege, but the congregation – the gathered and sent Presbyterians of Homs – continued to meet in a home for the elderly in what he described as a safer part of Homs. Safer meant that insurgents and terrorists had not rooted themselves in the buildings in that part of this expansive region of Homs. But that did not mean that they did not hear the mortars and the guns. It also did not mean that people weren’t killed when shells exploded, because they were. It just meant they were not the frontline of this war. Mofid still commuted back to Beirut once or twice a month to continue his pursuit of a more advanced theological degree at the seminary there. His wife and children lived in Damascus (another safer place) while he continued to lead his flock in Homs. Faithful. Steadfast. Loving. Courageous. That is Mofid.

But now in Homs, Mofid was our host as we made this pilgrimage. Surrounded by security guards and other Christians, many from Mofid’s church but also Catholic and Orthodox, we went from place to place to visit seven Christian churches in this very ancient city, all of which had suffered severe damage during this war and siege.

I didn’t expect to find much hope here.

But what I found overwhelmed my heart with the truth of my faith: resurrection always follows crucifixion.

The churches here have been battered and bombed from within and without. It should have marked an end. But it really marked a beginning. A resurrection. And I was a witness.

We were met today by the priest of each of these churches in the old city of Homs. We stood in their sanctuaries and heard their stories. We saw the holes in their roofs. We saw the metal frames where stained glass once refracted sunlight into rainbows of colors. We saw icons and sculptures whose faces had been mutilated. We saw doors now filled with cinderblock as the heavy wooden or iron ones needed to replace them are not available.

We prayed together in different languages, but to the same God with the same fervency.

We walked the stations of the cross, two stations for each church.

Jesus is condemned to death. Jesus carries his cross.

St. Maroun Maronite Catholic Church: The bells were being rung by a man at St. Maroun. He was pulling hard on the rope and his feet would actually leave the ground as he repeated the pulling over and over. I have never heard bells sound out so joyfully before!

Jesus falls the first time. Jesus meets his mother.

Msgr. Kassab, bishop of the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Homs, Syria.

Msgr. Kassab, bishop of the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Homs, Syria.

At the Syrian Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit, the Syrian Catholic Bishopric, we had to hurry our visit as the priests there were preparing for a funeral. But we took time to pray the Lord’s Prayer there as a community of believers. Later, as we headed to the next church, we heard them before we saw them as they sang their mournful chants accompanying a procession from the church. Monsignor Kassab, dressed in the red colors of a bishop, smiled and greeted us at this church, explaining that they had been able to remove the remains of other bishops from this place before it was damaged.

Simone of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

Fr. Ibrahim presents us with the gift of an icon at Notre Dame of the Belt, the Syrian Catholic Church in the old city of Homs, Syria.

Fr. Ibrahim presents us with the gift of an icon at Notre Dame of the Belt, the Syrian Catholic Church in the old city of Homs, Syria.

In the Syrian Orthodox church we heard the story of why they are called Notre Dame of the Belt. It seems the relic in this church is from the belt that the mother of Jesus wore around her waist. This relic touches the past in a very physical way. A very special gift at this church was hearing the priests sing the Lord’s Prayer in Syriac, as close to the Aramaic language of Jesus that still exists to this day. Fathers Anthony and Ibrahim led this beautiful sung prayer.

Jesus falls the second time. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.

Mutilated face of Jesus Christ on a mosaic at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the 40 Martyrs, Homs, Syria.

Mutilated face of Jesus Christ on a mosaic at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the 40 Martyrs, Homs, Syria.

At the Greek Orthodox Church of the 40 Martyrs the Father Spyridon told us that bone relics of some of these early martyrs of this church are kept here. He also showed us the bronze bust in the courtyard of a former bishop, Athenosis, which had been welded back together after rebels had sliced it off. You can weld a head back onto a statue. You cannot weld the heads back on humans who have been slaughtered this way in this place.

Jesus falls the third time. Jesus is stripped of his garments.

At the Jesuit Monastery, I knelt at the tomb of Father Frans van der Lugt, the Jesuit priest who had ministered to the 70 or so Christians who were stuck in this city for all those days and months of the siege. A Dutch priest who came here forty years ago,

The resting place of Fr. Frans vander Lugt, at the Jesuit Monastery in the old city of Homs, Syria.

The resting place of Fr. Frans vander Lugt, at the Jesuit Monastery in the old city of Homs, Syria.

I heard his cries to remember these people on Youtube videos. He was shot in the head by rebels one week before the siege was lifted. We met Mazar, one of these faithful who tried to stop the murder but was pushed back. I embraced him on our way out and thanked him as best I could as we both cried tears of loss: me for a man I never met and Mazar for a man who had been his priest, his confessor, his comforter, his rock during this time.

Jesus is nailed to the cross. Jesus dies on the cross.

The crater left to the basement of Our Lady of Peace Melkite Catholic Church in Homs, Syria. This is where the pulpit used to be.

The crater left to the basement of Our Lady of Peace Melkite Catholic Church in Homs, Syria. This is where the pulpit used to be.

At Our Lady of Peace, the Melkite Catholic Church, we heard the story of how it survived the bombs and mortars. It survived until three days later when a bomb wired to the pulpit from which the priest proclaimed the Gospel each week exploded and blew out all the doors, the stained glass, the iron framework of the huge dome overhead and created a crater to the basement. Father Abdullah calmly explained all of this as we looked through the metal frames which once contained the colored glass that bathed this space in a spectrum of light.

Jesus is taken down from the cross. Jesus is laid in the tomb.

Cross-shaped hole in the roof of the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church of Homs, Syria.

Cross-shaped hole in the roof of the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church of Homs, Syria.

At the Evangelical Church of Homs, the entire youth group sang a hymn of praise for us in the sanctuary, below a cross-shaped hole blown into the roof, standing in puddles of water and mud on the floor. Two mosques on either side of this church were also blown apart. This war was a war on the entire city.

Sacred places.

Sacred spaces.

Sacred faces.

A pilgrimage of prayer on holy ground.

Christ is laid in the tomb. And yet…

…resurrection always comes after crucifixion and we were seeing it before our eyes. That is the fifteenth station of the cross. Praise God.

Models of Faith

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Today, the voice from Sojourners Verse and Voice blog:

“If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.” – James Foley, journalist who was executed by Islamic State jihadists this week, on his captivity in Libya in 2011, as written in Marquette Magazine

Again, the prayers of the faithful remind me that when nothing else makes sense, walking with God in faith frees and heals. I will remember James Foley, not for how he died, but for the memory of his life and his witness in a very dark place. May his parents, family and friends find comfort knowing he is in the arms of a loving God. Those left behind who shared space, indeed were shackled, with him tell stories to us of a man of God, a man who encouraged them even as he was singled out for the most harsh treatment.

I never had the chance to meet James Foley, and now I never will. There is another man of God whom I know only through the stories told by others. I will never meet him either, although I hope to walk in the city where he walked and is buried in November.

Father Frans van der Lugt was a Dutch priest, a Jesuit, who lived nearly fifty years in Syria, serving Christians and Muslims alike. He first came to my attention when I heard about him in May, 2013. The Christian community of Homs, Syria, which numbered in the tens of thousands before the war began in 2011, had been decimated. Many had been killed and many, many more had fled. About 75 remained and Fr. van der Lugt stayed with them. None of them were Catholics, but that did not matter to Fr. Frans. He stayed with them through all the days that Homs was under siege: through bombardment, through lack of utilities, through the hunger that ensued. I saw a video of him pleading to the world in Arabic to remember that they were still there. He was a shepherd, caring for his flock, and they knew his voice.

He stayed with them until he was abruptly called home to Jesus on April 7, 2014. He was killed by extremists, the same kind that took James Foley’s life in the middle of the desert this week. It was not the same group, not the same manner, but it was the same hatred, the same lack of humanity. And I know the grief of God above was the same, too.

I don’t know if my faith will ever be tested this way. I pray that it never is. But if it ever is, I want to be found encouraging those with me. I want to be found sharing what I have with those who have less. I want to be raising my voice so others will hear and respond. I want to be a witness to my God, father and creator, savior and redeemer, counselor and guide. I want to be found faithful, faithful as James Foley and Fr. Frans van der Lugt.

There are other models of faith to me in those places, still serving like Fr. Frans: Assis Mikhael in Sidon; Preacher Rula in Tripoli; Assis Ramsey in Zahle; Assis Hadi in Minyara; Joseph, Adeeb, George and Fadi, all pastors in Beirut; Najla and Mary, preachers in Beirut; Assis Boutros in Damascus; Assis Maan in Mahardeh; Assis Saoud in Hesekeh; Assis Firas in Kamischli; Assis Mofid in Homs; Assis Haitham, Assis Magdy, Elder Zuhair, Assis Farouk, Assis Magid, His Grace Patriarch Louis Sako, Saidna Habib, Msgr. Emad, Father Aram, Father Turkum, all in Iraq. These are the ones I know and have worshiped with. These are the models I pray for regularly. They are my friends, my brothers and sisters, my heroes of faith.

My friend Assis Salam Hanna at the grave of Fr. Frans van der Lugt in Homs, Syria, May, 2014.

My friend Assis Salam Hanna at the grave of Fr. Frans van der Lugt in Homs, Syria, May, 2014.

Several weeks after Fr. Frans was murdered, the two-year siege of Homs was lifted. My friend Assis (Rev.) Salam Hanna posted this picture at his grave. He also posted a video of the church bell being rung at the Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church of Homs, where his father Samuel had served as pastor for decades. Salam and Samuel were fellow ministers with Fr. Frans in Homs.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Homs, Syria, May, 2014.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Homs, Syria, May, 2014.

That church building, like many others in Homs, suffered damage during the siege, but the church body had returned to start repairing it even before their own homes. With God’s blessing Steve and I will walk in that place in November when we return to Syria with a team of fellow sojourners.

And this will be my prayer (thanks again to Sojourners) that I will pray at Fr. Frans’ grave:

O God our deliverer, we thank you that you have not left us alone. Thank you for the Spirit who intercedes for us. Give us wisdom beyond ourselves that we might see the path you have set before us. Grant us words that bring life to the broken, the suffering, the addicted, the lonely, and those who long for the fulfillment of your kingdom. Amen.– From Common Prayer

And I would add “those who long for the fulfillment of your kingdom, like your faithful sons James and Frans.”

Amen.