This fall I took a 2-week trip to Lebanon and Syria. One fact I learned on that trip is that a congregation in the Presbyterian church in Lebanon or Syria with less than 30 members is not called a “church,” it is called a “mission outpost.” Keep that idea in the back of your mind as you read this article, and I will come back to it.
The trip was organized by Presbyterian mission worker Elmarie Parker. Our group of 12 was a cross section of pastors and members of Presbyterian churches in Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, New York and Ohio. The trip was framed around the theme of “encountering hope in the midst of lament.”
The first four days of our trip were spent visiting Presbyterian congregations in southern Lebanon. This is an area where the tension is still thick from the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war, the ongoing civil war in neighboring Syria and the tenuous peace between Lebanon and Israel that erupts into cross-border shooting or shelling almost monthly. The United Nations has permanent peacekeeping troops stationed in this area in an attempt to keep that peace.
On top of all that, Lebanon is experiencing a “refugee crisis” that impacts the whole country, including this region. Lebanon is a tiny country, slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut. Before the civil war in Syria, Lebanon’s population was just over 4 million. Today it is more than 5.5 million with more than 1.5 million refugees living in Lebanon, increasing their population by more than 25 percent. Many of these refugees are living with their extended families while others are renting houses or apartments and the poorest of the poor are living in refugee camps distributed throughout the country.
So what is the role of the church in this context? What can the Presbyterian Church in Lebanon (called the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon or NESSL) possibly do to respond to these conditions? Turns out, they are doing quite a lot; actively shining the love and light of Christ into an otherwise dark and challenging context.
We visited a Presbyterian congregation in the small village of Deirmimas, a 90 minute drive from Beirut, but just a few miles from the border with Israel, the Golan Heights, and the border with Syria. The tiny church building perched on a hill overlooking a beautiful arid valley with olive trees and small homes; the village has a population of about 4,000. We were met here by Presbyterian elder and physician Assaad Skoury. He grew up here and then moved to Beirut where he became a medical doctor and professor at the medical school. Five years ago, Skoury felt called to support the community where he grew up, so once a week he would make the 90 minute drive from Beirut and operate a small medical clinic in the church building. He was providing medical care primarily to poor Lebanese people who couldn’t get to a larger city for treatment. However, in the past five years, the village of Deirmimas has received 10 Iraqi refugee families and 10 Syrian refugee families. These families have limited resources and limited access to the social services provided by the government in Lebanon, so this congregation has stepped in to fill that gap. Skoury and the members at Deirmimas now provide free medical treatment and a pharmaceutical dispensary to these refugee families in addition to the Lebanese that live in the area. They also distributes food baskets and other basic necessities to meet the needs of these refugee families. These services are provided to Muslims and Christians alike. Because this congregation has less than 30 members, it is called a “mission outpost” by the denomination, and it is doing some incredible mission!
When we visited this mission outpost in Deirmimas, we had the opportunity to meet some of the refugee families that are beneficiaries of this work. We heard their stories of heartbreak and loss, being displaced from their homes, separated from their relatives and livelihoods and losing close family members to the wars in Iraq and Syria. And yet, in the midst of all of this darkness, they talked about the light they have found shining in this little church perched on a hillside. We shared a meal together, prayed together and played with their children. There was little that our group could do to help these refugees, but we learned about a ministry of presence and were told how much it meant that we “just showed up.” I am in awe of these refugee families who are still standing and living in hope that they will be able to return home someday. The church helps cultivate that hope in them by supporting them as they are “foreigners in a strange land.” I give thanks to God for the witness of this mission outpost in Deirmimas.
That afternoon we drove past the border wall separating Lebanon and Israel that was covered in graffiti expressing hope for a peaceful future. We continued on our journey to the coastal city of Tyre where we met with Ameer Ishaak, pastor of both the Tyre congregation and the Aalma al Chaab Presbyterian Church (which is about 30 minutes away). Ishaak, his wife and his congregation are doing incredible work to meet the needs of refugee families from Syria and Iraq along with impoverished Lebanese families. The Tyre church building sits just across the road from the Mediterranean Sea and it made me wonder if this was the place the Jesus came ashore and performed miracles. The work of this tiny congregation, seeking to meet the needs of these refugees, was nothing short of miraculous.
The congregation in Tyre has converted some of their Sunday school classrooms and other empty space around the church into a school for refugee children. Each day they bring in dozens of refugee kids who would otherwise be missing a year or two of education, and they teach them. In addition to this ministry of education, they are also working with these families to help them to create a source of livelihood. The church has a South Korean missionary family that teaches sewing classes to refugee women so that the women can open a small sewing business. This “mission outpost” in Tyre is sharing the love of the gospel to the community. We met some of the recipients of that love, both Muslim and Christian. We heard testimony from them about how much this congregation, the pastor and his wife have made a difference in their lives and provided them hope.
After learning about the amazing work of some of these “mission outposts,” it got me thinking. What if all of our churches in the United States thought of ourselves as “mission outposts.” Instead of the “First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta,” what if we were the “First Presbyterian Mission Outpost of Atlanta”? How would that change our identity, both our self-understanding and how the surrounding community perceives us? I think that the church in Lebanon is on to something with this “mission outpost” language. After experiencing the work of the mission outposts in Deirmimas and Tyre, and many of the other churches and mission outposts that we visited on our trip, I see a church that is deeply committed to engaging in God’s mission in an impossible context, bringing hope in the midst of lament and shining light into darkness. It reminds me of the quote from theologian Emil Bruner who said, “A fire burns as a church does mission.” May all of our churches find their identity through their participation in God’s mission like the church in Lebanon is doing.
GREG ALLEN-PICKETT serves as the director of global mission at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. Prior to coming to FPC, Greg was the general manager for Presbyterian World Mission of the PC(USA). Greg has an amazing partner in ministry in his wife, Jessica, and a gregarious and compassionate daughter in elementary school, along with a ridiculous lab-beagle mix dog named Luna.
This is the first article in a series of blogs Greg will be writing about his experiences in Lebanon and Syria in 2016.