We Are Marked

One of my chances to write the travel blog from my July trip back to Lebanon…

Traveling with The Outreach Foundation on these ministry experiences as I have for the last seven years, I have learned many things. One of them is that you are part of a team, and even though we begin as strangers, very quickly we bond into a family knowing we have a common Father. Tonight we had the privilege of coming into deeper community with each other as we reflected on the day. Pam Hillis of First Presbyterian Tulsa led our devotion around Romans 12:9-16. In my travel NRSV Bible, the heading says, “Marks of the True Christian.” To paraphrase, we share our gifts, we lift each other in faith, we love and we serve. Those marks should reflect our lives in Christ, marked for us on his head, hands, feet and in his side. This is our model, and today we experienced those same marks on those we came to be with.

The focus of our day was Our Lady Dispensary (OLD) in Beirut, a ministry founded in the days of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). In a small second-floor office in a poor area of Beirut, fifty years worth of war refugees have found their way to Christ’s hands and feet in action. For the past seventeen years it has been lovingly and excellently run by Grace Boustani, a Lebanese social worker and sister in Christ. With limited resources, limited even more by donor fatigue due to the length of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, she serves some 500 families looking for help with food, medicine, rent and trauma healing.

Our team of nine women gathered in a circle with Grace and Rola, who has been trained to lead trauma healing workshops with a Bible Society curriculum revised for the Middle East context. We heard of children in a pilot week-long camp who arrived on a Monday with no smiles, no words and no hope, and left on Friday as engaged young people, speaking, playing and using their own hands to draw pictures to share their stories.

We met two young women, one Iraqi, one Syrian, each the mother of three, each having experienced the flight-in-the-night story that is so common among refugee families. It is cruel and heartbreaking, and yet here at Our Lady Dispensary these two young women opened up to share with us. And in their stories is where I find Pam’s scripture so perfectly reflected today. Even in the brokenness of lives torn apart by loss and war, these two were in our midst sharing their gifts, lifting us in faith by their acts of love and service.

Sweet R. from Iraq was pregnant with her third child when forced to flee in the night with but a half-hour’s warning as ISIS moved in. Four days later in the temporary sanctuary of her church, she gave birth to her son, now two years old. Coming to Lebanon, her family found OLD and received some help. Not just willing to receive, she has since become Grace’s chief volunteer for the Iraqi refugees served by OLD, serving as a liaison for the families and OLD. She does whatever she can around the office to help, including making coffee and cleaning. How is it possible for this sweet young traumatized mom and wife to be able to serve out of her situation? A woman just waiting for hope whose prayer is “God, just open a door for us”? The answer we experienced is that she is marked: she uses her gifts, her faith lifts those around her, she loves and she serves.

Our new friend Y. is from Syria with another story of loss. So much loss for such young women! High rents. Menial labor for a husband if he can find it. How do you cope? And yet, when she made her way to the OLD neighborhood and Grace’s outstretched hands she found something different than she had ever known. In her words, “The day I started to know God, I started to hope and everything changed.” Y. met Jesus and came to know him through reading God’s word, going to church, and is now a Christian. Her husband has also accepted Christ. One day when she returns to angry parents in Syria who do not want to accept this she will repeat what she has already told them: “Open the Bible and you will see the truth.” She is marked, and having shared those marks with her husband, will one day share them with the rest of her family.

As we reflected on the lives of these two young women tonight, Pam’s devotion brought us all back to the same place: we are the Body of Christ, and that body is marked. May those marks be seen in us all and shine God’s glory as brightly as the marks on Grace, R. and Y.

A Day’s Contrasts

Standing outside the Nicholas Sursock Museum in Beirut is "The Weeping Women." This sculpture depicts two women, one Christian and one Muslim, mourning together in the loss of sons to senseless wars.

Standing outside the Nicholas Sursock Museum in Beirut is “The Weeping Women.” This sculpture depicts two women, one Christian and one Muslim, mourning together in the loss of sons to senseless wars.

I find myself once again in a place that has become so close to my heart. When I return to Lebanon and Syria it is like coming to a second home, and I think that is pretty amazing for someone who has lived her whole life in Omaha, Nebraska! But on a January day in this new year of 2017, I have returned to Beirut, and from here I will travel on into Syria to places I have been before in a time of peace and in this time of war.

From our first appointment on Friday to our last cultural experience at the Beirut National Museum, my mind kept focusing on the contrasts.

We spent the morning visiting the Our Lady Dispensary, a partner of The Outreach Foundation, a Presbyterian mission-connecting agency that I have traveled with. OLD is run by a real life angel named Grace Boustani. Well named, she exudes grace and gives glory to God for placing her right where her sweet spot is: serving in his name. OLD provides social and medical services to thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq who find their way to this poor mostly Christian neighborhood in Beirut. Grace herself grew up in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). She and her family left for a time, but she returned as a social worker to bring healing to her country. She uses that same touch with every person who walks through the door at OLD, Monday through Friday.

Grace and Rula of Our Lady Dispensary in Beirut are the smiling presence for refugees of wars in Iraq and Syria.

Grace and Rula of Our Lady Dispensary in Beirut are the smiling presence for refugees of wars in Iraq and Syria.

Today we had the opportunity to hear three very personal stories from three women who fled the Mosul area of Iraq in 2014 when ISIS moved in. Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa each had similar stories, but to hear them each tell their own experience was a reminder that everyone who has been affected by the happenings in the Middle East since we first invaded Iraq in 2003 has an individual story to tell. We owe it to them to hear them, see them as real people with real families. They have names! And now, we know them and can put faces to those names.

They each told of fleeing in the middle of the night. “Leave now or you will be killed! Take nothing with you! Just go!” Taking nothing but the clothes on their backs, they each left with their husbands and children, walking the fifty-plus miles from Mosul to Erbil. In Erbil, they lived in a refugee camp located in the open-air courtyard of a church there. Months later, living in extreme conditions, they made their way to Beirut and the neighborhood of OLD. They told of leaving everything behind. Former neighbors sent them photos of their homes burned to the ground by ISIS. Family graves were dug up in the Mosul cemeteries and the remains of the family members were strewn around to leave no trace of their existence. Two years later, they are all trying to be resettled in other places by the UN, but the lists are long, resources few, and the list of countries willing to take refugees from Iraq and Syria is shrinking.

It sounds hopeless, but at OLD they have found caring hearts and listening ears. Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa have each been through the trauma healing ministry led by Roula al Kattar, and have been able to talk through their grief, forgive their trespassers, and be reminded that the God they have known all their lives is still with them. It was a humbling experience to meet these three women and share the morning with them, tears and all.

The contrast came later in the day as we made our way to two museums. The first is housed in an old Beirut mansion that is filled with contemporary art. Works by people whose names are written down and celebrated are displayed in home that once was a gathering place for a wealthy family. The Sursock Museum is indeed a treasure; their belongings are well displayed and preserved, unlike the former possessions and now burned down houses of Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa.

13th century children's clothing in the Beirut National Museum

13th century children’s clothing in the Beirut National Museum

In the Beirut National Museum, well restored since the civil war, we visited the newly reopened lower level where we saw well-preserved mummies, a child’s garment from the 13th century, and a long line of beautiful sarcophagi. There were steles engraved with the names of the long dead. And yet, there were the names of someone’s ancestors. There were the preserved remains of ancient people on display for those of us walking in this century to see and marvel at. There was the evidence of lives lived in specific places.

There was and will be no evidence of the life lived in Mosul by Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa, or their families. The only memory for them is what is in and on their hearts that they shared with us. And so we will be their museum, holding onto these treasures. May God grant them new lives and new homes to make new memories in the days to come. May they continue to process their grief and call on the Lord who knows all our names. May they find restoration and peace.

Sarcophagi lined up in the Beirut National Museum

Sarcophagi lined up in the Beirut National Museum

Dona nobis pacem.