Janet DeVries presented this essay on April 4, 2014, as keynote for Syria-Lebanon Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
I live in a world I did not see coming. When I grew up in the 1950s, the toughest issues were ones of race. During those years, the church my father served in Washington desegregated and my experience of the church was that it would walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Eugene Carson Blake marched on the amusement park in Baltimore, arm-in-arm with other national and church leaders. The church was in the middle of the struggle for righteousness and justice and wherever we were headed as a church we would be courageous leaders. We began writing a confession of faith which would talk about the world we believed Christ called us to, grounded in the powerful concept of reconciliation.
During those years a couple in our church with the last name “Havinga” were Indonesian, my mother said. With a Dutch name like “DeVries,” I asked “how can these people with darker skin have this Dutch name?” And, my mother began teaching me about Dutch colonization in Indonesia, often perpetuated by Reformed Dutch people, some of whom were my ancestors.
Both of these events, in retrospect, were formative in opening my eyes as a child to a world that was full of injustice, complex in international politics that seemed very far away from me and in which the church was compelled to give witness. Witness through walking with brothers and sisters. Witness in speaking truth to power. Witness as it compelled people like me to cross boundaries of race, religion and national culture to grow up into a world that I could not imagine.
Thus, I am at times completely overwhelmed by the world in which I live, with a deep sense of powerlessness over the complex events in places that I learned about as the context in which the early church found its life: Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Turkey. Places that I first knew as the sites where the gospel was carried through disciples, was nurtured, was treasured and sent out. Not that I forgot the complexities of Roman occupation or the Old Testament journeys across tribal and national lines. But, somehow the Middle East of my childhood was a stylized image of the reality it has become as I grew up. A year before I graduated from high school, Israel mounted its campaign for land it has never relinquished.
I write not as an expert on anything about the Middle East, but rather as a pilgrim whose journeys to some of these places have taught me an incredible reverence for human life, for the powerful complexities of religious dogmatism, for the simplest cravings for basic necessities of human life, for the depth of faith of people as they seek to survive and thrive. They have come to me in the eyes of children in Syrian refugee camps, of the laughter of children at church schools in Tanta, Egypt and in Sidon, Lebanon, of faces of older adults at Hamlin Hospital in Lebanon, of the stories of Palestinians whose most simple human needs are ignored and violated by a government imposed upon them.
They were with me as Marshall, Amgad and I walked through Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, as we listened to Christians and Muslims with Roseanna and Riad Jarjour, as Mary Mikhael sat in my kitchen and told me about her family of origin and their communities in what is now a frightfully war-torn Syria. They remind me that Mary’s choice to enter ministry is by far a more radical life calling than were my seminary years. I suspect that Marshall and I will never forget talking with a young pastor in Homs who had sent his wife and child to Damascus to be with her family – his first call as a young pastor.
From translating the Scriptures into modern-day Arabic to founding world-class universities, from planting new churches to providing medical care to the elderly and from training local Christians in theological education to writing internationally-acclaimed books, the Reformed Christians of Syria and Lebanon have watched God bless their efforts over the last 200 years.
The first Presbyterian mission personnel arrived in what was called “greater Syria” in 1823. In spite of numerous obstacles, many people embraced the message brought by mission personnel. These believers eventually became known simply as “evangelicals” for their devotion to the scriptures and for their earnest desire to follow Christ in their daily lives. The first “evangelical” church was formed in 1848.
Presbyterians eventually took the name “National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon” (ESSL). In 1959, the church assumed responsibility for education, medical, and evangelistic work related to the PC(USA). Before the war, there were 44 organized congregations in the Synod.
Educational ministry has always been a central piece of the witness. By 1827, just four years after work began in the region, there were already 600 students in 13 schools. Even more impressive is that 120 of these students were girls. In 1835, Presbyterian mission personnel founded the Beirut Evangelical School for Girls – the first girls’ school in the entire Ottoman Empire. Today there are 14,000 students studying in 20 schools. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds although Christian doctrine and principles are taught. In 1866, Presbyterians founded the school that eventually bore the name American University of Beirut, which is considered the premier university of Syria and Lebanon.
Known for the Near East School of Theology (NEST), formed in 1932, the history of evangelical theological education in what was called the “Near East” actually dates back to 1835, under the leadership of Cornelius Van Dyck who also translated the Bible into Arabic. Early classes were offered in both theology and general education. In 2007, the school celebrated its 75th anniversary while Mary Mikhael was president. The school was instrumental in creating the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches. It has been ecumenical from the very beginning and has contributed to Christian-Muslim dialogue. NEST has educated the majority of leaders for the Reformed-Presbyterian church in Lebanon and Syria. It was a great surprise to me to meet George Sabra, the current president. He said to me, “Oh Jan, do you have a beautiful sister?” to which I said “When did you know my sister?” When he confessed that it was at Princeton Seminary, I commented to him that we had all aged since those days. What was most humorous, however, was that when we went to his office, he said to me “here are my ‘Fundy Finders’” from my years at Princeton – the paperback, somewhat tattered directories of students with their pictures. “Here is your sister,” he said. And while age had settled on all of us standing there, the exchange was a powerful reminder to me that it is relationships in the life of faith which nourish us far beyond geography, but through the transformation of learning and the friendships which shape our lives of faith.
Also part of the synod’s mission is Hamlin Hospital. Originally an emphysema clinic in the mountains east of Beirut, the hospital served as a general emergency hospital during the civil war. It is now reconstituting itself as a specialty hospital for geriatric nursing. In the midst of a visit that included lunch, we met the young pastor from Homs and his parents and siblings, and Marshall became engaged in a conversation about what it was like to minister in a war-zone. The pastor was going back and forth across the border to continue his education at NEST.
After that visit, Grace Presbytery was privileged to host Mary Mikhael in our bounds, and I to host Mary in my home. We discovered we had a seminary in common in New York, but her stories of God’s call her to her to go back to Lebanon to teach were filled with a return trip when Beirut was under siege and lights out. As her ride finally got her close to the seminary, she saw people standing on the balcony and the lights on from the generator. I imagined that it meant for NEST and the seminary’s educational models to be a beacon not just in Beirut but for so many in Syria and other places in the Middle East.
As I reflected on the stories of people, including Mary’s, I realized that it is virtually impossible to be a Lebanese citizen without having family roots in Syria. And several years before, I had been embraced as a sister by George and Mary Bitar as they came to Tucson to start an Arabic-speaking fellowship. I puzzled my way through how George had left family in Syria to study at NEST and ended up pastoring in Tripoli, Lebanon, before coming to the U.S. At NEST he met Mary Haddad whose father had been a leader in education for Palestinians before and after the 1967 war. More than anything, those experiences taught me once again that it is not possible to be a Presbyterian by yourself – that to open one’s self to the power of God’s spirit moving in people’s lives and to let it move in my own is to become a citizen of the world. I would say to George and Mary Bitar week after week that my contribution to that growing fellowship was to play the piano, “in Arabic” I would say, and to be welcomed by George to co-celebrate the sacrament with people for whom our common language was our kiss on the cheek and our smiles.
Let me suggest some hopes I bring as we move ahead with a re-invigorated network.
- Most obviously, the crisis in Syria deserves our immediate attention and coordinated effort. We are presented with a challenge to help the PC(USA) put its faith into action and to give witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ for our brothers and sisters who are not in our own pews but whose voice must be heard. Part of that is the current stories and past history which bring us to this place.
- What does it mean to be the universal Church (capital “C”) in an increasingly globalized world of communication technology and space exploration, but also modern warfare and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, powerful and powerless; a world that is divided by conflicting ideologies, prejudiced by corporate life, modernity and wealth, but gives lip service to human rights, human suffering, poverty, human trafficking, gender-based violence and ethnic-based violence?
- We claim to be mission partners with the ESSL. What does it mean to be partners with a church overwhelmed by the impossibility of telling the story, responding to the desperation of human need and rooted squarely in the gospel and in history of teaching and living the Good News? How do we learn afresh to be partners beyond the giving of money, as important as that is? How do we tell the story? How do we make possible the voices that need to be heard on the pages of Presbyterian Outlook or finding ways for webinars, let alone in our own locales? Who are our partners? I suggest that it is not just ESSL, but NEST, the Evangelical Armenian Church, the Lutheran Church in the Holy Land, the Jinishian Memorial Fund and American University in Beirut.
- What does it mean to understand power as a vehicle for good, for peace rather than for war and destruction? How do we frame power in that way in our own reality and culture? What is the gospel lesson to us about ourselves as people who are powerful but often feel powerless in the face of such human devastation?
- What does it mean to become a network that is not simply those of us in the U.S., but a network that is broadened and enriched by voices not our own who remind us that sometimes our simple solutions are mere technical fixes in a world that does not even know how to spell adaptive change? I was helped by Hunter Farrell’s suggestions: (1) Alleviating poverty (asking not just what is the poverty but “why is this person homeless?”), (2) How do we share the full gospel of Jesus Christ? (3) Working for reconciliation amid violence. What does it mean to be a network that is not just U.S. Presbyterians? What does it mean to embrace the presence of young adults (meaning anyone younger than I am)? How do we claim a rich history of service, but be moved beyond it to contemporary realities?
- What does it mean to be ready to tell the story at this General Assembly, and through the GA to invite others to become partners? This should include the role of International Peacemakers.
I am a child of the Confession of 1967. So, these words speak to me: “In each time and place, there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act. The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations” (9.43).
“God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ is the ground of the peace, justice and freedom among nations which all powers of government are called to serve and defend. The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding. Reconciliation among nations becomes peculiarly urgent as countries develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, diverting their manpower and resources from constructive uses and risking the annihilation of humankind. Although nations may serve God’s purposes in history, the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling” (9.45).
In Matthew 9:27-31, the story is told simply of Jesus healing two blind men after he asks them if they believe, to which they say “yes.” “According to your faith let it be done to you,” says Jesus. Be healed because of your faith. Open your eyes because God wants you to see. Jesus then, somewhat incredulously, tells the men not to tell people what has just happened. How are you able to NOT tell people you can suddenly see when you were blind? How do you “act blind” when you have been healed? Truly, I cannot imagine. And the men ignored Jesus’ words and went away and told everybody they could find about Jesus and what had happened to them. My friends, that is the lesson for us this morning. We who believe we can see, are perhaps blind – blind to the lessons of faith for us at this moment. While our healing is not the same, what IS the same is that we have encountered Jesus Christ in one another. We have been transformed by the encounter with faith. Like you, it is not possible for me to encounter the world beyond the U.S. and fail to have scales fall from my eyes so that I have been given a gift of new eyes. You and I are invited to “spread the news,” not unlike the two blind men. For me, this is what the story means about healing. So perhaps when Jesus said “don’t tell everybody about it” he meant, “don’t go talking about your healing; ACT and LIVE in a way that shows you are healed.”
What does it mean for us? Where is our lack of sight, or perhaps insight? Where is the engagement that moves beyond telling our own stories to telling the story of new life?
My minister friend, Stewart MacColl says it this way: “I know there is a creating, summoning, affirming, caring, challenging, healing power and presence which humans call God but is Mystery beyond our naming or comprehending. For me that Mystery is most clearly understood in the life and words, deeds and death, living presence of Jesus, who has been and is my guiding hero and redeeming lover. In Muslim Arabic Shariah literally means ‘the way to the watering hole.’ For me the way to the watering hole of life now and forever is the prodding and affirming grace I have known and keep discovering through Jesus.”
My friends, as we gather and talk, may we bring each other to a place of new insight, new engagement, may we walk the way to the watering hole together, to new commitment to tell the story not just with our words, but with our lives. Amen.
Jan DeVries is general presbyter for the Presbytery of Grace, the region surrounding Dallas-Fort Worth.