He caught my eye the moment he sat down. This man had just come in from Aleppo, Syria. Along with other pastors from the Mideast region, he gave a brief, matter of fact report. “Things are difficult in Aleppo. There is news that chemical weapons were used again today. People will stay indoors. I will return tonight.”
I could not help but ask myself–would I have such courage? Would I go back?
Whenever I am in the Middle East, I meet both men and women who impress me because of their commitment to their calling. And that’s what keeps many of them here–this sense that God has called them to a task. Yesterday I sat next to a pastor from Baghdad, another place off the list of favorite tourist sites. Though most believers have left the region, he remains. Most of his family have moved to camps in Jordan, but he has stayed to shepherd those God has committed to his care. He is there because the churches that still have their doors open are filled with people. Many of them are Muslim seekers searching for shelter, help, community, and answers that their faith does not offer. It may appear Christians are leaving the whole region, and there is some truth to this, but it seems God is more present than ever.
Here in Beirut, in one church I visited last Saturday the attendance has grown from 200 to 1200 in the past 18 months. Many of those coming are refugees. The humanitarian crisis is horrific. It is worse than WWI and II combined. In this country, there are no formal camps, so 1 to 1.5 million people are scattered about in informal camps and urban areas where families live in basements or rooms (sometimes five families to one small room). Abuse is widespread. Fathers rent out wives and daughters to survive. The stories are gut wrenching.
Thankfully, many of the ministry leaders I have met have stepped up to the challenge. They are heroes as far as I am concerned. And while God grieves over the terrible choices of man, He makes good things out of bad. Many are coming to Christ. Amidst the sadness, there is also genuine excitement.
How does one process all of this in 4-5 days? I can’t. I am grateful that I am part of a ministry dedicated to helping these ME ministries partner together. And this is what happens. Pastors and humanitarian workers and parachurch leaders gather to give reports from the field. Others of us–from places like the US, China, and South Africa–come to encourage. Together we collaborate and worship and pray. Really pray. And hopefully those on the field here go back renewed, while others of us go back more committed to the cause of the gospel..
I would have liked to have spent the whole day with this pastor from Aleppo. Maybe it is because I have been to churches in Aleppo and Damascus and small towns like Sweda. It’s too difficult to go right now. We did share a meal together. He shared with me things I have never heard before, movements and motives and events that have my head still spinning. I am determined to not forget him, or his church. I shared with him that there are brothers and sisters who stand with him and pray for him and his church, as far away as Portland, Oregon (a number of us have committed to meeting every third Sunday night to pray for this region–if you want to join us, let me know. We have only one agenda item–prayer).
If I have learned anything, it is that much of what is happening in this part of the world never makes the news. In some ways, it is far worse than the news reports. In other ways, it is far better.