A Canadian pastor's experience
I have recently returned from a two week vision trip to Lebanon, where I joined with a team of pastors from around the country to see firsthand the work that our missions’ partners are doing there. One of the things that is hardest after returning from a trip like this is asking: How can I best tell the story of this country that I believe we in the west desperately need to hear?
In the weeks leading up to this trip, I heard that question over and over.
Isn’t that besides Syria?
Isn’t it dangerous?
Why would you want to do that?
No more than many places.
How long do you have?….
Let me tell you more about what is happening in Lebanon.
Lebanon, as already stated, is next to Syria. In the last year, the very word Syria causes a reaction with most people. We think of war and refugees, for good reason. In the last five years, the population of Syria has depleted by half as residents flee the country for safety from the unrest there. Many of these people, quite logically, have ended up in the land of their neighbours: Lebanon.
Lebanon, a country which has 3 million citizens, now has an estimated 1.8 million displaced people living in their country. That makes an estimated one in four people living in Lebanon a refugee. For the last five years (this was happening long before the west saw a picture of a drowned baby on Facebook last fall and woke up), Lebanon has been living in this reality.
What makes it really interesting?
Lebanon does not want Syrians.
I don’t say this lightly. I’m not saying Lebanese people are racist. This isn’t about a fear of immigration. It is because for many years, in the late seventies through early nineties, Lebanon fought its own civil war during which Syria got violently involved. The stories were not good.
As one woman told me: “You cannot find a Lebanese person who does not have a story of someone they loved being killed, raped, or kidnapped by a Syrian during the war.” To put it simply, in Lebanon, Syrians are an “enemy.”
Now, their enemy has entered their country in droves and the government wants to make sure refugees do not get comfortable. What does this mean?
It means that a displaced person pays $200 per person to stay in the country, but signs a form agreeing that they won’t work.
It means they have no status, so their children cannot go to government schools and they can’t have health care. They are not to stick around. In fact, putting down concrete under their tents is illegal.
It means that someone has to help. And, for many displaced people, from Syria as well as other countries in turmoil, these someones are people from Christian churches.
Yes, the UN is offering aid, as are other humanitarian groups, and other communities of faith. But the story that I went to hear was the one about the people of God stepping in to love their neighbour, love their enemy, and welcome the stranger. And, it's happening all over that country.
All over that country, where things are more complicated than we can even fathom here in Canada, there are faithful people of God giving out food, visiting strangers, starting schools, providing healthcare, and loving those they once hated.
There are churches of 100 people caring for 500 refugee families, churches the size of the church I pastor, with programs serving 2000 people every month. Churches that have turned basements into school rooms so that Syrian children can go to school. Churches with food distribution centres and churches with weekly visiting programs.
Because I wept when I saw that terrible picture last September, too.
Because I have asked: “What can we do?”
Because I have despaired.
But also because I had grown weary….
Weary of Facebook debates about gorillas and bathrooms.
Weary of Donald Trump and Christians trying to fit his version of hate into the teachings of Jesus.
Weary of my own apathy.
I had heard glimpses of the stories of Lebanon, and when the invitation came to me I immediately thought to myself: “I want to go.”
But, Leanne, isn’t it dangerous?
Before I left, I would try to reassure people who asked this question by saying that our missions partners were very cautious, that they keep their ear to the ground of any threats and dangers, and that if they were worried we would stay home. In hindsight I could have also pointed out that 1.8 million displaced people have chosen to go to Lebanon in order to feel safe.
Now, if I was feeling especially brave, I would want the conversation to look like this:
Person: “But isn’t it dangerous?”
Me: “No, Lebanon is not dangerous. The Middle East is not all danger. It is beautiful and full of people living regular lives every day.”
And I would add…
“And can I tell you what I have learned? I have learned that while there are a lot of dangers to God’s people in the world today, I have grown far more concerned about the dangers to the Church in the West than I am about the supposed “dangers” to the Church in the Middle East.
Because you know what is “dangerous?” Dangerous is when a church puts its comfort over its calling. It is dangerous when we let our fears cause us to forget what Jesus taught us. It is dangerous to the future of the Church when God’s people will no longer take the risks that faith requires.”
Because I was ready to spend some time in the safety of true faith, which I saw every day.
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