Reaching out to our neighbours
Troubles in Syria regularly bring another stream of refugees across the border to Lebanon. In the midst of these incredibly challenging circumstances Nabil Costa relates how Baptists in the region are reaching out to their neighbours
Not long ago USA considered Iran as one of the “axis of evil” countries, while the latter referred to USA as the “great satan”. Now we see leaders of both countries hugging each other in what appears like the start of a new love story as they sign an agreement over Iran’s nuclear power together with five other countries. In parallel, with see Iran’s Hassan Rouhani re-tweeting UK’s David Cameron’s praise of the deal.
Upon the election of Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt in June 2012, relations grew strong between Egypt and Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan. But last November Egypt’s General Abdel Fatah Said El Sissy issues a red card against Turkey and expels its ambassador.
There are no constants or guarantees where politics is concerned. More the reason why we as Christian should remain focused on our biblical mission, and not put our trust in political agendas. At any one time a political position may undergo a 180 degrees shift toppling with it a long list of values that were portrayed as the basis of the previous position, and this regardless of the actual cost including the suddenly-forgotten numbers of lives that had to die for it.
As Christians, the value we add to our community is in being able to discern God’s agenda and seek to do His will if we are to make a difference.
The Arab uprisings took us all by surprise! However, what was first perceived as an “Arab Spring” felt more like an autumn as fundamentalist and armed groups took advantage of the genuine cry for freedom and democracy to hijack the cause in pursuit of other less inclusive agendas and objectives. As a result, incredible and vicious atrocities – unseen or heard of before – in the name of God and religion are taking place in various parts of our region today. The outcome is more hardship, marginalization, and vulnerability, more uncertainty, a general sense of despair, and a rise in the desire to emigrate in search of peace and stability. And once again, Christian presence in the region is a major concern.
As a result of the Syria crisis that started in early 2011, the United Nations estimates today that over 40 per cent of the Syrian population is in need of humanitarian assistance with around 6.5 million internally displaced, and another 2 million seeking refuge in neighboring countries. In fact, the situation of the Syrian refugees today is perceived as the worst since the Rwanda Genocide. Thousands of families [between 6,000 to 8000 per day] continue to flee their country seeking shelter in neighboring countries including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey…
The war in Syria and the Syrian refugee crisis have been on the forefront of the news worldwide for a while now. However, it is never more real than for the Lebanese people who are dealing with the difficult realities of it each and every day.
It is projected that the number of registered [with UNHCR] and unregistered Syrian refugees in Lebanon alone will exceed one million by end of December 2013, at a time when the overall population of Lebanon is in the whereabouts of four million. Many towns are not big enough to host the numbers of Syrians who are coming to reside in them. In some towns the number of Syrians entering outnumber the Lebanese.
Needless to say, this incredible influx creates a burden on the Lebanese economy while Syrian refugees themselves are day by day drowning in poverty in the absence of work opportunities, proper housing, heath care … The winter season poses yet another challenge for the refugees as a considerable number resides in make shift homes – tents, unfinished buildings, rented unfurnished apartments…
Education is another challenge as thousands of Syrian children are not going to school. Recently, UNHCR resident representative, Ninette Kelly, noted that “Even if the United Nations reaches its target of enrolling 100,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanese public schools this year, double that number could remain outside the country’s formal education system. Children who remain out of school become more vulnerable to exploitation, such as child labor and early marriage”. In short, the plight of the Syrians today is way beyond what the combined efforts of the international and local NGOs can address.
Since the summer of 2011, the Lebanese Baptist Society (LSESD)
has been directly involved in reaching out to vulnerable Syrian families affected by the crisis. We do so in partnership with local churches and church-based organizations and this in fulfillment of our mission to serve the Church in Lebanon and the Arab World through spiritual, social and educational development. And it has been nothing short of amazing to see how the local churches have been rising up to the occasion, reaching out to alleviate the suffering of Syrian refugees seeking shelter in their communities despite the history between Lebanon and Syria that has affected relations between the peoples of the two nations, leaving behind open wounds – amongst many Lebanese Christians too - that still needed to be healed.
Yet, what we are witnessing today is God changing, cleansing and transforming hearts. God alone can do so! One young Lebanese pastor whose church is currently serving around 750 Syrian refugee families spoke of their ongoing journey of transformation as a church: 'For years we prayed for God to take our revenge, to destroy their land [Syria] as they did to our land… yet now that this is exactly what is happening in their country, our hearts are aching for their pain. We are constantly praying for their country. Our Church is working day and night to help them, to heal their wounds, to wipe their tears and to feed their children. Our love for them is real and genuine… What a wonderful Savior and Master we have… Father forgive us for we often don’t know what we pray for.'
This is one of around 30 partner churches and community-based organizations through which LSESD is currently working with vulnerable Syrian families both in Lebanon and Syria, as follows:
• Providing monthly food aid to at least 2,500 families (12,500 individuals) through 18 local churches and one Christian NGO;
• Providing medical assistance to atleast 200 individuals a month through local Christian NGO
• Providing winterization items (blankets, mattresses, stoves, etc.) to 2,000 families
• Started a school for 147 Syrian refugee children in one of the churches
• Have conducted day camps for over 1,000 Syrian refugee children.
• Providing monthly food rations for over 2,600 families (15,600 individuals)
• Providing medical assistance to those in need
• Providing winterization items to over 2,000 families and monthly rent to 600.
Besides this LSESD along with some partners has provided training for the churches on responding effectively to the refugee crisis and started a process of helping the churches deal with trauma.
In the midst of all this, God is very much at work, and there are amazing stories of incredible answers to prayers, of visions and of healing. God is transforming the Church, and the communities through the Church. Indeed, one partner church leader in Syria shared how their church in his country too is being transformed today: “prior to the crisis, there was only a handful of people in each church who were involved in ministry. The others were mostly observers.
Today, almost every single member is involved and in creative ways in reaching out to their fellow internally displaced Syrians. In addition to food distribution and health care, our church visits homes and communities that we never dreamt we could engage with; we started remedial classes at the church for children who have lost their previous school year; we hold programs for the children of internally displaced families… Our hands are full like never before. We now fully understand the ministry of Jesus, and are experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit within and through the Church.”
God works in mysterious ways. In 2006, when the war on Lebanon took place, and after years of separation between Christians and Muslims, all of a sudden our fellow Lebanese – mostly Muslim Shiites, had to flee their homes and seek shelter in the predominantly Christian areas. At the time, as LSESD, we prayed and sought God’s guidance as to what can we do with the influx of internally displaced Lebanese.
And we clearly felt the Lord’s leading that we should be His hands and feet, addressing the needs of our fellow Lebanese in their hour of need. And we did just that. And before we knew it we found ourselves involved in a multi-track relief ministry that covered children, youth, women, food distribution, health-care… God opened our eyes as to who is our neighbor! And that is when we realized that we have so much in common with our fellow Lebanese from whom we have been separated for years. And that is when the families we were serving started asking us: You are Christians, why are you helping us?! Bridges were built as the walls of separation were torn down.
Today, and as a result of the Syria crisis, we see Lebanese people put aside their grievances, and come to the aid of Syrians. This is simply incredible! God is using challenging circumstances to prompt the Church to wake up, join hands together, and fulfill its mission. We see today an increasing number of churches capture the vision and look for the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus amidst an utterly challenging situation. And the blessings are tremendous!
As difficult and painful as they are, the challenging circumstances that our region is going through – our country too – are opportunities to translate the Message of the Gospel in practical and meaningful ways that reflect the love and peace of Christ. If we disregard these opportunities we will be failing our calling as His disciples. In parallel, we can best bless others and be blessed in the process, when we turn a deaf ear to political agendas and focus on being salt and light, taking our cue at all times from the Lord, and so follow in His footsteps. Only then can we preserve the Church from any biasness that can negatively affect its witness; and only then can we remain true to the mission at hand and positively influence the community for Christ.
And we ask the same of the global Body of Christ too. Your prayers and support have brought us thus far. The journey is a long one yet. Help us focus on the mission at hand by continuously praying that the Arab Church break out of all prejudices and reach out to its neighbor.
Nabil Costa is the Executive Director of the Lebanese Baptist Society (LSESD), and a BMS World Mission trustee.
Nabil is also the General Secretary of the Association of Evangelical Schools in Lebanon. He serves on the Executive Committee of the European Baptist Federation (EBF) and is a Vice President for the Baptist World Alliance
This article appears in the Spring 2014 edition of Together Magazine