Waiting for Aleppo

 

2015 with the Nsier family in Lebanon. Elinor (now 16), Assis Ibrihim, Tami, Matthew (now 14) and Lutha (now 10)

I flew to Beirut with The Outreach Foundation team one week ago. We boarded our planes in our home cities of Omaha, Valparaiso, Hemingway, Allentown, San Diego and Atlanta, and made our way seven, eight and ten hours to the east. We came with the expectation of spending days with the church in Lebanon and then heading into Syria and reconnecting face-to-face with the churches there. One year ago I was part of a team that spent ten glorious days in Latakia, Yazdieh, Safita, Homs, Mhardeh, Fairouzeh and Damascus. We worshiped, we fellowshipped, we shared life in the body of Christ. We were hoping for the same this year. A similar trip with many of the same destinations plus one additional.

Aleppo.

I have longed to set foot in Aleppo for second time. I was there in August, 2010, on a similar trip. In Aleppo I witnessed the love and care that the Presbyterians of that city extended to the Iraqi refugees who had fled from the American war for safety and the hope of moving to new places. I walked the ancient streets. Ascended the steep and slippery-from-wear steps of the citadel. I shopped in the souk, enjoying tea while a spice vendor measured out precious saffron to take home for Steve. I was able to bring home stories of amazing neighborhood outreach to inspire my own church in Omaha.

Aleppo.

Three years after that trip, two years into the war that continues toward a seventh anniversary in March, I heard Pastor Ibrihim’s voice on the phone. We were in Beirut and he was in Aleppo, caring for the people of his church and his community. In a city that is now 72% destroyed he and his family have stayed. Hearing the voice of the man who had now become for me the epitome of what a pastor looks like, was the closest we could get.

Aleppo.

Two years after that, as part of another team we took part in the annual women’s conference of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon in the mountains above Beirut. A van full of Aleppo women was the last group to arrive that year. After a 15-hour trip along dangerous roads and through countless checkpoints, they tumbled out of the van into the embraces of the larger community of women who had prayed them in. Their joy was infectious, and it was almost as if life was normal and there was no war. The stories that came out as the week went on reminded us that life back home was not normal and the war still raged. Bombs fell. Bullets whizzed through the air and many times found their mark in human flesh.

And so Aleppo has been on my mind for years now. The lovely Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, whom we met in 2010 and then was kidnapped in 2013 along with his Greek Orthodox colleague Boulos Yazigi, has never been heard of again. The souq where I purchased my beautiful matched set of Arabic coffee cups and saucers was destroyed long ago, as was the Presbyterian church where we worshiped. And this man Ibrihim whom I so admire continues to show me what a deep and abiding faith looks like, a faith with feet planted deep. His words: “I have grown through the crisis, not because of the crisis, but because I really touched the work of God.”

Aleppo.

Rev. Salam Hanna of Latakia, me, Steve, Rev. Ibrihim Nsier of Aleppo, Marilyn Borst of The Outreach Foundation, my leader and mentor.

My prayer is that we will still get there before we return home eight days from now, but so far no visas have been extended to us. Our beautiful plan A of eight days in Syria has now become plan B and Syria has come to us. Instead of spending time in Yazdieh and Homs and Fairouzeh and Damascus and Mhardeh and Aleppo, the pastors of the churches have come to us. We had four hours today to sit and listen to the situation in their cities, and tomorrow and the next day we will hear of what has happened and is happening in their churches. I spent the evening with two of them at dinner hearing of their families whom I know well. One of them was Ibrihim. Steve and I even got to spend some Facetime minutes with his beautiful wife Tami who sang “happy birthday” to Steve.

There are days when I think the time spent with my sister head-injured sister Jana has taught my how to be patient, to take life in very slow steps to match hers. To wait upon the Lord, for his ways are good and true. But…

…Aleppo is calling me and I am tired of waiting.

Please, God.

Aleppo.

Sometimes the wait is long

“Boy! How many hearings will there be before one that really counts??? I thought ‘your trial’ was a pre-trial hearing?”

That was Jana’s email response to me when I told her Sally’s answer about the hearing scheduled for the man sitting in jail for murdering our little sister Cathy. I told her the hearing would be rescheduled at a hearing on Wednesday. It’s confusing to me and to Jana with her brain racked by multiple injuries and seizures, it is simply impossible to comprehend.

In age order from front to back, left to right: George Jr., Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike, Sally. This picture reminds us we once were seven.

In age order from front to back, left to right: George Jr., Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike, Sally. This picture reminds us we once were seven.

We have been preparing as a family to attend this competency hearing in Riverside, California, for many, many months. It’s been scheduled, postponed, rescheduled, postponed again and again…and again. We all have airline tickets on Southwest because, bless their hearts, they will let us change them or cancel them without penalty. We all continue to juggle our schedules and pray that we can all be there to support each other. Sally has classes to teach, Susan works in a veterinary ER clinic that needs to be staffed, Mike has the print shop to run, I am heading to the Middle East in November. I hesitate to schedule doctor or dentist appointments for me or for Jana because I am trying to keep the schedule clear so we can go. When they tell us. This time. Or the next time. The wait is long.

Cathy was murdered on March 24, 2013. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the date, and not just because it is there on the marker where we interred her ashes.Cathy's headstone It’s one of those things that just stays with you. She is the only one of the seven Prescott siblings who didn’t get to celebrate the big fiftieth birthday. She was only 48. I waited for each of us to get past the 34th birthday, and one at a time we each did. That’s the one our mom never got to celebrate because ulcerative colitis took her at 33. We all made that one! And we were each breezing through the big 5-0 as well. But then the worst happened.

So it has been a long wait. It’s hard to find closure when the horizon it sits on keeps moving away from us.

But here’s the thing. I am grateful there is a process based in the law. There is a process that we go through to make sure we get it right. We don’t always get it right as there are people on death row right now who might be exonerated in future years because new evidence is found proving their innocence. But we don’t rely on frontier justice where we hang someone and ask questions later. We don’t parade “infidel criminals” in front of cameras and then exact justice for their alleged crimes by cutting off their heads so their families can feel the pain. Our system is better than that. And yes, our system makes us wait…and sometimes the wait is long, like it is for our family now.

Sojo.net gave me this word today:

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed — with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power — with no one to comfort them. – Ecclesiastes 4:1 

Our family has cried rivers of tears in the last eighteen months, but I believe we have found comfort: in friends, in each other, in those places where we rest our hearts. I think George, our river rat, finds it when he is working in his garden or out on the marsh. Mike found some at the Burning Man Festival in their temple when he left a memento of Cathy there. I believe Sally finds it when she rides her horse on the eastern plains of Colorado or drives her Mini MO ZA across the Mackinac bridge in Michigan. I think Susan feels the wind rushing into her face when she runs or rides her bike and there is comfort there. I have found it by hearing God’s word through Sojourners or in singing that song that has just the perfect lyrics like this Sunday when the choir sang Thomas Dorsey’s Precious Lord:

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand. I am tired. I am weak. I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

There can be comfort in just living the days as they come, one by one.

None of this brings Cathy back to us. And though ripped from our lives as she has been, no one can rip the memories and the love we have for her out of our hearts or minds. She is our sister still and no one has changed or can change that.

So we wait for justice, but not for comfort. Comfort has found us.

Amen.