Protection while we sleep

Sami Sadeeh Syrian national guardsman from SafitaI am on the worship team this Sunday at church and the special song we are singing is Laura Story’s “Blessings.” It is a lovely song and I am happy to be singing it with three good friends for the glory of the Lord.

There is a line that goes like this:

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace, comfort for families, protection while we sleep.

And it’s true, we pray for all of that. Peace, peace, peace, has been my prayer these last four years especially, since my traveling to the Middle East started.

But today I am centered on these words: protection while we sleep.

Protection while we sleep…

We had it in spades on our trip to Damascus in January, 2014, and I didn’t even realize it until the last day we were there. We would come up to our room in the hotel and there would be two or three normal looking men sitting in the lobby on our floor, like they were waiting on their wives or something. When we left in the mornings to accomplish our schedule and make our visits, there they would be again. Back and forth and back and forth for our three days there, those gentlemen were always in the lobby on our floor.

Walking through the Christian quarter in Damascus after having visited the church where Saul became Paul (Acts 9), we visited a craftsman shop to make some purchases of fine Syrian wood inlay boxes and lovely local fabrics and scarves. As we continued our walk back to the Presbyterian church, Steve commented about our security detail.

“There must be ten or twelve of them,” he said.

“Really?” I replied. “Where?”

In front of us, behind us, bulky automatic weapons bulging from under their jackets, they had been with us the whole time. They had also been staying in the lobby of our hotel floor. Protection while we sleep.

And now I flash forward from Damascus to our trip back to Syria in November. We had another contingent of security with us as soon as we crossed the border. I was not so naive this time and grateful for their presence. I had the opportunity to talk to them and discovered that some of them had come from the city of Raqqa in Syria. Raqqa is now the capital or main city that ISIS controls. These men had lost family members there and their homes as well to this evil that is trying to drag their country back to the seventh century.

And there they were for us: protection while we sleep.

Tony in between Marilyn and I, Syria, November, 2014.

Tony in between Marilyn and I, Syria, November, 2014.

When we arrived in the Wadi al Nassara – the Christian valley of Syria – these troops handed us off to four men from Safita, all members of the national guard. They were with us for our remaining time in Yazdieh, Amar al Hasan and in Lattakia. Sweet, sweet men! The one named Tony held Marilyn’s hand through all our walking and hiking, to steady her as she was due for orthopedic surgery when we returned home.

Up and down the roads we traveled, through town after town on our way to the places on our schedule. Every town had pictures of those who had given their lives for their country, Syria, in this four-year old war. Poster after poster after poster would be at every intersection, in front of every business. And I am sure these men with us knew many of them. And I am sure that every one of those martyred soldiers had families that were missing them greatly, and who would share that same prayer: protection while we sleep.

Steve and I on the top of the Krak de Chevaliers, Wadi al Nassara, Syria, November, 2014.

Steve and I on the top of the Krak de Chevaliers, Wadi al Nassara, Syria, November, 2014.

For four days and three nights, they were with us as we traveled through this beautiful place to meet with churches and refugees and families who had been driven out by ISIS from Homs and that part of the country. They went to church services with us. They ate dinner with us. They stood by while we traipsed through the world heritage site known as the Krak de Chevaliers, a former crusader castle in wars fought long ago. They told us how fanatic rebels had taken this high ground to fire on the Christians and others in the towns below. They told us how terrible things had been done to those captured, including throwing them from the high ramparts where we sat and had our photos snapped.

These four went with us everywhere for those four days, and were our protection while we slept.

On our last day there and before we left them behind, we gave them each an Arabic bible as a gift. All four are Christians, probably Greek Orthodox, and were thrilled to get the bibles and the little peace dove ornaments that we gave with them.

On the grounds of the St. George Monastery near Homs, Syria, with our national guardsmen. Sami is third from the left. God rest his soul.

On the grounds of the St. George Monastery near Homs, Syria, with our national guardsmen. Sami is third from the left. God rest his soul.

When we arrived back in the U.S. we talked about what more we could do for them. Those four gentlemen were all serving in the National Guard of Syria, but their day jobs were just like us, maybe an engineer, a teacher, or some other normal job. They weren’t doing those paying jobs while they were with us. They were volunteering their time as members of their unit to protect us while we slept and while we worshiped and while we ate and while we climbed crusader castles and had our photos taken. And we wanted to do something for them.

So Nuhad wrote to their commanding officer to find out how we could give them a small monetary honorarium for our appreciation of their great service to us, and this was the response we got back:

What he asked instead is that we make a gift in their honor to support the 100 displaced families in Safita that their unit is responsible for.

No money for them, but money for the refugees that their unit is responsible for. That is what they wanted. No greater gift…

Today on Facebook, my friend Nuhad shared this picture of one them, Sami Sadeeh. He has lost his life in this war, in protection of his family and his country. I am sure there will be a poster of him on the roads of Safita, just like the others we saw.

And so now I pray for his family: protection while they sleep.

Paper crane Sami SadeehBut my prayer for Sami is different and I wrote it on the 301st paper crane that I folded just today in his memory. It was not dona nobis pacem, for peace has been granted to him. Instead I used the words from that prayer used at a requiem mass, dona eis requiem sempiternam.

Grant him eternal rest.

And I will sing “Blessings” on Sunday in worship, and when I sing the line, protection while we sleep, I will see Sami’s face, and know how that prayer was answered by God through Sami and all the others.

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.