Last month I went with a delegation from my presbytery to Lebanon, at the invitation of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), a denomination founded by Presbyterian mission workers. I’m a member of Eastminster Presbytery, as is Elmarie Parker, the PC(USA) regional coordinator for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Elmarie and her husband Scott itinerated around the presbytery and generated a great deal of interest in this region, eventually prompting this trip and our desire to further partner with the National Synod of Syria and Lebanon. You can read more about their work in this Outlook article.
As much as I tried to go with an open mind, I arrived with preconceived notions and certain expectations. Having read the United States travel warnings, I expected to feel unsafe at times, to see a country dampened by war and ongoing conflict. Knowing the startling statistics about the decline of Christianity in the Middle East, I expected to see a church struggling to stay alive.
Instead I encountered something entirely different.
The church in Lebanon is besieged by challenges and yet she is vibrant and alive, the living body of Christ. There are over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The country faces threats from their borders and the continuing advance of ISIS. They are home not only to Syrian refugees, but Palestinian and Iraqi refugees as well. Resources are stretched thin as the government and religious entities attempt to care for the Lebanese poor as well as the overwhelming needs that the refugees bring. Pastors of the Evangelical Church in Syria no longer worry about preparing sermons each week; instead their greatest concern is finding water for their flock, food for their parishioners. It made me wonder how they found the strength, the resilience to keep going, to keep serving with ever diminishing human and physical resources.
Here’s what I saw: a spiritual revival in the church despite the crisis. I saw people who are eager to tell you their testimony, why they believe in Jesus Christ, and how God is active in their life. I saw pastors who emanated joy, who serve with love and energy. I saw a church that even while shrinking is continuing to reach outwards, actively serving their larger community. I saw churches that were also community centers, health clinics and education centers. Churches that founded and continue to run schools, that provide outstanding education not only for Christians, but for their Muslim neighbors. I heard pastors and elders speak of the refugee situation as an opportunity to show the love of Christ – not a burden. I witnessed an ecumenical community that knows that they need each other, that strength is found in unity, that the body of Christ is stronger together.
We met one woman who told us that “you look at your hands and see that it is enough for you, but if you extend what you have it multiplies.” I can’t help but draw inspiration from a church that continues to take two fish and five loaves and multiply it. An evangelical church in Deirmimas, a small village in Southern Lebanon, is too small to have a pastor. But they have a health clinic that is open at least two days a week. Their village of around 600 people is home to 700 refugees whom the church serves. The Presbyterian Church in Zachle is partnering with a Baptist church to open a school for Syrian refugees, for children who haven’t had any education since fleeing their country. There’s the Presbyterian Church in Minyara, who built a community center onto their church. Over and over again I saw a church with small resources allowing God to multiply their loaves and fish.
The church in Lebanon faces many challenges. They don’t deny it. But I look and see abundance. They have taught and challenged me. I look at my small church and too often think about what we lack. What if I followed their example and instead saw the gifts that God has given us? I look at our shrinking denomination and see how easy it is to turn inward and fall into “survival mode.” The church in Lebanon compels me to keep looking outwards, serving my community. If these churches in Lebanon closed their doors, the surrounding community would suffer. The community, Muslims and Christians alike, depend on the church to provide education, relief effort and feeding programs. They would be missed. I can’t help but ask if my community would miss my church if it closed? Would it even matter?
My expectations were not met in Lebanon. Instead my heart was broken open by Christ’s church living out its calling to love God and neighbor. They are my teachers. They are signs of God’s hope in challenging times.
KRISTIN STROBLE serves as the pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Youngstown, Ohio. She enjoys coffee, books, running and spending time outdoors.