Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Life on the Far Side

I have just left Beirut. I have been here five days. Two days ago we traveled back to the Bekaa to connect with thousands of people who have been uprooted due to turmoil just over the mountains in Syria and Iraq. Our van makes its way into a camp of several hundred families, all of whom line up once a month to receive flour and soap and cooking oil, and lots of other basics. Most of those who come are women, who hoist the 60 pound bags unto their heads, balancing them with a steady hand, while the other carries a bag full of other essentials. They are weather worn, wearing clothes that are old and frayed. And yet, many carry themselves with a certain sense of self-respect.

I’ve been here before, but for the first time, I enter one of the tents to visit with a family. It’s a short walk past other tents, and with winter coming, it is already cold. The Bekaa is at 3000 feet elevation. The rains have started, and it is muddy.  It will get very cold over the next few weeks. We sat with a Muslim woman, a lady who faces the unimaginable. She lives with her nine children in this small four room tent, joining a sea of others. She has five other children who are not with her. They are grown and are either married or missing or not allowed entrance into Lebanon, and she misses them.

There is a husband, but he is noticeably absent. We discover that he has chosen to stay with his other wife near Aleppo and the other nine children he has sired. The family we sit with is on their own. I can’t tell you how this makes me feel. The tent is simple—there is an entry, a small 15X15 room where the family gathers to eat around a small, crude stove. The kitchen is small, but she has some canned jars, and it is evident she has stored for winter. To the left is one bedroom. There is a small opening where a scant amount of light gets in. Every night, all ten sleep in this one room. She invites us to see the room, where thin mattresses are piled in a corner. She insists on serving us tea, but we are careful not to drink, realizing that the water is likely unclean. We politely decline, and do our best to show the love of Christ, listen to her pain, and pray. More than anything else, she asks that we pray for her missing son. In the chaos and evil of war, she may never find him again.

She shares through a translator. What stands out is that she does not complain. This reflects more her faith than her stoicism. Muslims are encouraged to see whatever happens as God’s will. It is to be accepted. It is what it is. How do I relate any of this to my own world?

Near the “gate” of this tent city sit the tribal leaders, smoking their hookahs.  Again, we sit and listen through a translator. We are careful not to treat them, nor anyone in the camp, as displaced refugees.  We want to honor their dignity. If we take any pictures, it is only by their permission. These people represent different strata of society. Some have been rural farmers; others have left some profession where they had security and cars and homes. All have faced significant loss, and there is no indication things will change anytime soon. It may be years. Meanwhile, these men sit and stare, and I see some vacancy in their eyes. And why not? They have little hope.

I believe we missed a significant opportunity a few years ago, when brave souls stood up and carried flowers and sought for a better government; not one that operates with secret police and intimidation. I saw the effect of this before the civil war, particularly on men who were robbed of their will and imagination and spirit. Much of the world did not care to notice when this Arab Spring broke out, and now radical elements have seized the opportunity to turn everything into chaos and death. ISIS has created a sense of foreboding. There are now numerous veins of very dark evil. I feel a certain shame when I see that my own government could have invested so much more in preparing the next generation rather than giving much of our effort to funneling weapons to those who meet our geopolitical interests.

There are bright spots. I preached last Sunday in a Lebanese church that was packed with Syrians. We met with a few young Syrian leaders who have come to learn how to plant churches and advance the kingdom and be a force for hope. They are young and bright and hopeful—like the young man I sat next to who is a recent grad of a Syrian university, an engineer hoping to use his skills.  These are my heroes. They have traveled the distance across border checks and through areas that are not so safe to be with other believers and be trained. They intend to go back and make a difference. They intend to restore leadership as God intended—leaders who have not come to be served but to serve. They are Syria’s future. They are the church’s future. Will they find the church in the West standing with them? Or will we be too consumed by our own self-interests?

As I write this, I am now flying home. For about an hour, it was a bit unnerving at the airport in Beirut. Somehow, the flight I was supposed to be on was not flying today. At first, there was no guarantee I would get out. This can be really stressful. But then I remember what I have just left. The people I spent time with in the Bekaa have no hope of any flight. They have no passport. Many do not even have an identity. I will get a ticket for another flight. I will eventually arrive home to a warm bed and walls that won’t give way to wind and a roof that will not collapse because of the snow.

Hopefully, I will not complain if a meal is overcooked or the paper has arrived late or the shirt I am looking for is still at the dry cleaners– or the electric bill is unusually high (or the Chargers have again caved). Those back on the other side will be in their same situation, hoping a landlord will not take too much advantage of them, or the winter will not be too harsh, or a world so far away will not forget.

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