Rooted and Grounded in Love: A Reflection on Lebanon and Syria

1 Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,. . .

14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
15   and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.

-Psalm 104:1, 14-16 (NRSV)

Jlala Refugee Camp in Al Marj, Lebanon – Photo courtesy of Erin Dunigan

I came here to Lebanon almost 3 days ago at the invitation of our partner church, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, following the bombings of churches in Aleppo, Syria.  The Evangelical Synod has about 45 churches in Syria and Lebanon, 25 of those churches in Syria.  I leave from this land with the stories of lives of sisters and brothers, young and old, who are living out faith and their humanity with the devastation of a war that has raged for two years, and left nearly a million people displaced from their homes, living in refugee camps, and so many thousands killed in the conflagration.

I leave this land with a prayerful commitment to never forget the harrowing accounts of Syrian pastors who traveled dangerous roads to meet us, to share their passion of the truth, where we in the West have been treated to daily doses from media as if this conflict were simply about a dictatorial regime and a movement for democracy.  Far from it. We learned the truth, from stories and from the eyes and faces of young children in a refugee camp. Imagine this, nearly 1 million people who have emigrated from Syria to Lebanon over the last two years. That would be equivalent to taking most of the city of Philadelphia and moving them in makeshift tents to New York City. On so many levels, the human cry is breathtaking: whole generations of children who are living the effects of a war of religious factions; humanitarian need to provide food, shelter and water; petitions and prayers for healing, peace, and cessation of violence in a land racked by a civil war decades ago.

The geo-political complexity and conflict runs so deep were it not for the personal intervention at the airport of the president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon, His Excellent the Rev. Dr. Salim Sahiouny (himself a Presbyterian Lebanese), I would be sitting in a jail cell, detained, and ordered to leave the country because my passport bears a stamp from my 2008 visit to Israel/Palestine; both countries will not receive visitors bearing the passport stamp of the other out of a conflict rooted and grounded in the war between their two countries.

My soul and heart were pierced with the stories of whole families uprooted from their homes and land to find refuge in Lebanon. Children without a ball to play, or no schooling for those below grade 6 because the infrastructure is not able to care for them. What about the story of 19 year-old Abed, a Palestinian, whose had to move four times.  Or the horrific story of a Christian woman in Syria who was brutally gang-raped by 80 Islamist radical rebels, and then left for dead with a cross shoved in her mouth?  It is gut-wrenching, it brought tears to my eyes…more than that, it brought a conviction in my soul to pray and act, look to that vision of the prophet Isaiah, “the wolf will live with the lamb” (Isa. 11:6), or the hope-filled prayers where bullets and wars will be no more, no more bloodshed, no more tears.


Shatila Refugee Camp in Beirut – Photo courtesy of Erin Dunigan

My soul is moved by the generous hospitality and persevering faithfulness of sisters and brothers of the Synod of Syria and Lebanon who have more almost two centuries serve with the means they have. While we argue with our theological realities, their living theology and lived theology is one focused on working alongside the Muslim communities, in such places as the village of Kab Elias (dome of Elijah), where the former Synod school for boys and girls is being renovated to be a refugee home for 20-25 families, changing plans for what was to be an orphanage. In a few weeks, because of this joint effort of Christians and Muslims at Kab Elias, 20-25 families will have a place for a second chance. Today, that school for boys and girls is at a new facility, K-9, and will be K-12 shortly. Even as 100% of the teachers are Christian, 80% of the student body is Muslim, and 20% Christian, where families are driving as much as 45 minutes. Imagine that… the level of trust built over the years to have Muslim families send their children to a Christian-sponsored school, to pay the tuition, and to study alongside other Christian boys and girls!

Or take the Synod’s nursing home, that was a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients, established by Presbyterian missionaries. The nursing home is a place of joy, life-giving…comparing it to many nursing home facilities I’ve visited in the U.S., this nursing home was paradise, because of the hard work and vision of the Synod. Today, Hamlin Hospital is a thriving place, where older adults find community, where daily worship service is offered, where love is shared.

The director of Hamlin Hospital, Ms. Sanaa Koreh, has arranged for me to serve as a “godfather” of a cedar tree in the mountain next to the Hamlin Hospital. The tree will be an official PC(USA) tree, with an inscription testifying to that fact. Her word was: “This will indicate that you and the PC(USA) have deep roots in our land.”

I leave from this place, rooted and grounded in love…love for the people of Syria and Lebanon, love for the witness that has been going on and is going on in the midst of the darkest and difficult time confronting faith communities and both countries, love for the PC(USA) and our historic relationship with the Synod over these nearly two centuries and how that durable and enduring relationship and commitment will and must continue and be strengthened, and a deep love for the Lord, who roots us and grounds us in God’s love, in God’s heart, that we may be transformed and moved to love that which and whom God’s own heart pulses.  God’s heart pulses for peace and healing for Lebanon and Syria.

Lord, move us to action, move us to prayer, rooted and grounded in your generous and radical love. Abide with the people of Syria and Lebanon, for the facing of this hour. Bring healing to these lands. Use your people here and around the world to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless and displaced. Receive our prayers, incline your eyes upon the tears of so many. Intervene in a way that only you can to bring the bloodshed to an end. Strengthen your people here with courage, with confidence, as you accompany them, in your strong love.  Amen.

Onward to Egypt. . .