Since 2001 Israel through its military and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza has uprooted and taken, burnt and destroyed hundreds of thousands of olive trees that belong to Palestinian farmers who depend on the olive tree for their livelihood.
As an act of solidarity and support The Synod of the Covenant hopes to join individuals and many other organizations including churches, church related organizations from around the world to help Palestinian farmers keep Hope Alive by distributing and planting olive trees.
The Campaign, though its network of friends and partners brings awareness about Palestine and encourages others to get involved. The Campaign serves both an educational, lobbying, and advocacy tool, which target policies that continue to support the ongoing land confiscation, and also serves to stabilize the Palestinian farmers’ economic situation by allowing them to continue to stay on their land and provide a livelihood.
In addition to donating trees, there are two other ways to Keep Hope Alive. One is planting the trees that have been donated – and this occurs in February. And the other is the harvesting of the olives, which occurs in early October. Settlers and the Israeli military frequently interfere with the harvest and the settlers quite often steel the harvest. I had the privilege of joining this campaign several years ago. It was an extremely meaningful experience. We had the opportunity to pick olives with 70 other individuals from many counties including the United States. One of my fellow pickers was the daughter of Holocaust survivors and she reached out to me to let me know how important it was for her to help the Palestinians in their steadfastness.
In spite of the destruction of the very foundations of their existence, Palestinian women, men and children are committed to rebuilding their society without the use of violence. They need our support and involvement.
I hope you will donate to this meaningful activity and I encourage you to travel to Palestine and take part in either the planting or the harvesting of the olive tree. I think you will find it to be a life altering experience.
Keep Hope Alive Campaign — http://jai-pal.org/index.php/en/campaigns/olive-tree-campaign/sponsor-trees
The first several times that I drove into New Concord – about four years ago – I always came on on highway 40. During my interviews, the church had been putting me up at one of the hotels at Airport Road, and it was late April – just as the redbud trees are starting to show their beautiful blossoms. I think that the search committee wanted me to see the how pretty that drive can be.
When I came to New Concord to move here – later in July – I came all the way to the 83 exit. My friend was behind me driving the moving van and we thought it might be better to stay on 70 as long as possible.
I’ll never forget my first view of the village from the Interstate. I hadn’t quite realized just how much the university and parts of town are really quite like a city on the hill.
Most of the time, when I’ve seen cities on hills, the prominent buildings on the ridge are the churches. And it’s true that it’s easy to catch a glimpse of Westminster Church from the highway.
But it’s really the buildings of the university that stand out.
I remember appreciating the image. I liked the idea that perhaps there was a great deal of thought that may have gone into placing the first building – right to the north here – on a promontory.
It’s good way to raise up the importance of education I suppose – by putting the buildings high on a hill.
The Presbyterians who helped build places like Muskingum University certainly held education in high esteem. When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus said, that we were to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27) Presbyterians and their Congregationalist colleagues took the “with all your mind” seriously and supported all kinds of education for children and adults.
Heart-love for God – soul-love for God – these are gifts I think. We were made for God and our hearts and souls or spirits are restless and searching for God. We can strengthen these aspects of our love for God through practices like prayer and worship and reaching out compassion and practicing grace through seeking reconciliation. This is how we love in strength. We focus – we increase the strength of our lens – on these practices and connections to bring ourselves closer to God.
When we love God with our minds, I think it’s a bit different.
I think it is this aspect of loving God that calls us out in the world in ways that can be stunning in richness. When we love God with our minds, we exercise our minds – we discipline our minds to study the world around us. With eyes of faith, we seek out the secrets God has hidden there for us to discover. And if we are loving God with our minds, and getting it right – then we use what we find for good and we teach what truth we have learned to the next generation, and we grow in wonder at the “Creator of the ends of the earth. [Who] does not faint or grow weary; [whose] understanding is unsearchable.”
It can work the other way, too. Sometimes the elegance or the mystery that the mind encounters while searching out the way things work in the world, can overcome us with the knowledge that there is something – some power – some force for life – that must be the ground of all being. So our minds, engaged in the work of academia, can lead us to love God.
I believe we love God with our minds, because God is Mind – a mind that is so immense that it is unsearchable, says Isaiah.
What could be more indicative of that than one of our names for the Lord – the name Word? “In the beginning was the Word.” God spoke us – used language – to bring us into the world. And words – language – is one of the great repositories of our knowledge. Our minds – and our souls and our hearts – are quenched from the endless well of words that is God still speaking. God still creates, still uses speech to give strength to our fainting, weary efforts….helping us, lifting us, so that even when we are most exhausted, most dejected, confused, depleted or discouraged, we suddenly find ourselves soaring easily like a kettle of eagles in a morning thermal. We are renewed – given life – revived by the Word – by the Mind of God.
And when the Word brings life, it brings light, too….
So when we love God with our minds, we are seeking God’s light – which chases away the darkness in all its forms.
As those who love the light – those who love with our minds – we are then called to run that light up the hill – to show how God’s mind works in us and in the world.
We say, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”
We say, “Don’t hide, don’t despair. Lift your eyes on high and see what the Mind of God has brought to light! Put it high on the lamp stand!”
This is certainly the Word that the second prophet of the great Isaiah prophecy was bringing to Israel.
There had been 160 years of silence between the end of Chapter 39 and these words of comfort to the exiled people of God in Chapter 40.
Conquerors and political infighting and corruption had decimated God’s people and now they wept, the Psalmist tells us, by the rivers of Babylon. The Temple and the holy city on the hill, Jerusalem, were in ruins. And Isaiah was sent by God to bring a word of healing and hope and restoration to God’s people.
And this healing and hope was not only spoken to the heart and the soul and spirit of the people of God. It was spoken in concrete terms. This was to be a restoration of all things. The Word of God, the Mind of God spoke and said that everything was going to be reordered.
And this is because God spoke to Israel with a very special kind of word … the Mind of God was given to the exhausted, weary, fearful, broken and dispersed people as lines of poetry.
Walter Bruggeman writes – with great vocabulary and gusto,
It is an intellectual travesty, such an act of chutz-pah, such a subversive poetic utterance that dumps a poem in the midst of resignation. The poem works a newness, not because it is good poetry, but because the subject of the poem, the God who lives in and through and with and under such outrageous assertions, is at work overriding despair, inviting hope, responding to our waiting and starting the world free again, outside the regimes of weariness… The key religious question among us is whether there is grounds for an alternative rooted not in self-preoccupation or in deadening stability but rooted in a more awesome reality that lives underneath empires, that comes among us as an odd poem, as inscrutable as power, as dangerous as new life, as fragile as waiting. The poet names the name and imagines new life, like eagles flying, running, walking.(A Way Other Than Our Own, Westminster/John Knox:Louisville, 2017, p. 58-59.)
So, when we love God with our minds – we are called – I think – to this ‘intellectual travesty’ of poetry.
To quote the preacher Bruggeman again, “poets speak against a prose world.” (Finally Comes the Poet,” Augsburg Fortress: Mnpls, 1989, p. 3.) And a prose world isn’t bad. But it can be settled into complacency and riddled with disinformation or “alternative facts.”
When we love God with our minds, we are capable of the kind of speech that raises us up. Not by proclaiming doctrine or parsing morality or solving problems. But by bringing an alternative word – a poem – about an existence that is formed by the Word and mind and heart and strength of God.
Our poetry – whether it’s preaching from a pulpit or a formula inscribed on a white board in a classroom or scattered in the notes and staff of a musical score or a proposal at the board of trustees meeting, teamwork on the basketball court or the compassion needed to tend the sick or when we prepare a lesson plan or defend a dissertation or a point of history or politics or philosophy – our poetry is needed. Poetry is the language of God – prophetic language that has power – “shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us always toward new, [even] dangerous [and] imaginative possibilities.” (Ibid., p. 6)
The title of this sermon came from the poet Walt Whitman. He wrote,
After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,) After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d all their work, After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist, Finally shall come the poet worthy that name, The true son of God shall come singing his songs. (“Passage to India,” 5:1101-5 Leaves of Grass, Mentor Books: NY, 1954, p. 324.)
In other words, God will have the final word.
And if we be poets in the meantime, we will shine the light of our alternative realities – from this village on the hill – into a future that we cannot quite see.
This is how we show that we cherish the truth – that we are open to the truth – that we are not afraid of the truth that can break the fearful realities that can bind us and divide us and reduce us to a fainthearted and stumbling people.
And, Dr. Susan Hassler… even though I’ve known you for just a little while… I think you can receive the mantle of inauguration as a poet. Already, we’ve seen your grace and openness and energy and imagination. I think we’ve even seen a little chutz-pah. You seem to know already about loving God and others with your mind.
And I believe I can speak for us all to say that we look forward to your inauguration into this calling as President at Muskingum University.
I think the time is right for your poetry here.
And, I can’t help but smile and be struck by what I consider an act of poetry in the word “inauguration.”
The word itself is rooted in the French term for install or consecrate. But in the deeper meaning – the Latin root – it infers that these installations need to take place when the time is right. The root word is “augury.” Augury is the practice of searching in creation for the signs of the right time for moving forward.
The Latin word inaugurare means to “take omens from the flight of birds before consecrating or installing.” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/inauguration?s=t)
Seems like the one true poet is bringing us right back to the promised flight of eagles…
Sounds poetic in the deepest sense of that word…
Poetic, meaning we may we all take heart that as we move toward to your inauguration on Friday, as we move into the whole future beyond where we can see, we can be sure that we are carried along on the wings of eagles – with our way illuminated by the light of the Holy One – the Word – the Poet – the Everlasting God.
AmenRev. Anne Weirich
Currently the pastor at College Drive Presbyterian Church in New Concord, OH – home of Muskingum University and John Glenn – Anne is a graduate of Princeton Seminary (MDiv. 1998.) Prior to this, she has served a UCC church on Cape Cod, Claremont Presbyterian Church in CA, and Westminster, Grand Rapids, MI and First Presbyterian in Lansing, MI. She travels annually to the Holy Land, leading pilgrimages and has also worked with many PCUSA mission activities and partners including PDA in New Orleans, the Border Ministry and the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Currently Anne serves on the executive committee of the General Assembly Committee for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.
1 John 4:7-21
Following Jesus into Eternal Life
by Rev. Jeffrey Bergeson
My wife and I enjoy comedy. One comedian we really like is Jim Gaffigan, and he frequently talks about food. In one set, he notices just how much food is eaten during holidays—that holidays seem to be an excuse to eat lots of extra food. He says, “I don’t usually eat a burger, a bratwurst and a steak, but…it is the 4th of July…and I’m gonna need my energy if I’m gonna be blowin’ up stuff! It’s what the Founding Fathers would have wanted…” We justify how much food we eat around the holidays. Anyone have children? Me, too. And my kids will, I admit, sometimes do something wrong…and I’ve learned to ask them “what did you do?” instead of “why did you do that?” Because the “why” question teaches them to justify their bad behavior rather than acknowledge what they’ve actually done.
In our passage this morning, a lawyer stands up to test Jesus and to justify himself. And it is my conviction that if we want to follow Jesus into eternal life, we must follow Jesus beyond our own self-righteousness. Following him out of all the ways we try to justify ourselves.
Self-righteousness is not always a ‘high and mighty’ attitude of being holier-than-thou. It’s not only when we think “I’m better than you.” Rather, self-righteousness is any attempt to justify yourself and your behavior. It’s any way that we try to make ourselves feel good about who we are and make ourselves feel justified in our behaviors and attitudes toward others: “Sure, maybe I don’t __________, but at least I’m not like __________!” or “Yes, that is how I act, but it’s my right to act this way!” In other words, it’s any way we try to tell ourselves that we’re ‘in the right,’ other than because of Jesus. It’s trying to look good without putting on Christ.
The lawyer asks two questions. One is to test Jesus, and one is to justify himself. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer and he responds with the greatest command and the one like it: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus agrees and says, “do this, and you will live,” but the lawyer, in order to justify himself, asks, “And who is my neighbor?” And we take the bait, too! “Yeah, who is my neighbor?”
The lawyer never asks about God or how to love God. Either it’s too complicated or abstract to bother asking, or somehow it doesn’t actually matter, or—more likely—he thinks that he’s got that one down pat. “Yeah, yeah, sure, whatever. Love God with blah, blah, blah… done. Check. Moving on. What about my neighbor?”
But Jesus invites the lawyer and us to see ourselves and God in a different light, because truly loving our neighbors rightly will not come until we love God rightly, and we cannot truly love God until we understand who God is and who we are and what God has done for us. Only then can we truly love God, and from that place of love, then we can love our neighbors as ourselves.
So Jesus doesn’t answer his question: he takes up the question and turns it on its head by telling a parable to redirect the lawyer’s focus. The thing about this parable is that it’s incredibly memorable and moving. It leaves a very distinct impression on our hearts, but it’s also open-ended enough to keep rattling around in our minds, causing us to keep asking questions and seeing things differently.
We all want to be the Good Samaritan. In fact we’re told to “Go and do likewise.” Maybe sometimes we justify ourselves and think that we already are! But for Jesus to say, “Go and do likewise,” “be like that guy”… means implicitly that we are not by nature already like him. We’re to be found somewhere else in the parable, in fact, anywhere else, because we’re all supposed to be like the merciful Samaritan, so by definition we’re not… and the parable unsettles us.
The lawyer asks “Who is my neighbor?” to justify himself. Under Law: Who am I obligated to love and who can I hate or ignore? We must remember that Jesus is the Son of God—the Incarnate Deity. So the lawyer is trying to justify himself to God! That just never works; that’s not a good place to be. And I think there are three characters in the parable that implicitly do the same thing and three that don’t.
The first is really a group: the robbers. They implicitly justify their violent behavior perhaps thinking, “We deserve what he has!” or maybe even “we need what he has, so we’ve got to take it to live.” They justify they’re robbery.
The 2nd and 3rd characters are the priest and Levite. The priest, the highest religious leader, is probably thinking something like, “I am holy, and that bleeding man is unclean. I can’t possibly mingle with him and jeopardize my holiness.” The Levite is more of a minor clergy, but probably thinks along the same lines as the Priest. As I said, I have children, so we sometimes watch Veggie Tales. And in the Veggie Tales version of the Good Samaritan, these two characters sing: “We’re busy, busy, horribly busy. Much, much too busy for you!” Both the priest and the Levite ignore the man, believing it’s not their responsibility to help or they’re unable or unwilling to get dirty.
These three characters implicitly justify themselves and their behavior.
But there are also three characters who implicitly do not.
The first is the Samaritan. Now, if we only looked at his actions, maybe we could think of an ulterior motive, but v. 33 won’t allow us to think that. The NRSV says he was “moved with pity.” Now, I’m a nerd. I make no apologies for that. The word in Greek for “moved with pity” is spla(n)gchnizomai. The root of that word is spla(n)gchnon. Try saying that: spla(n)gchnon! Spla(n)gchnon is all the mushy organs below your lungs. It is the bowels—the seat of love and pity. It’s your gut, moved with affection to have compassion for someone in a bad situation. The Samaritan does not try to justify himself. His compassion is justification in itself.
First is the Samaritan. Second is the man robbed. He cannot justify himself. He never says or does anything. He is unable even to beg for mercy! He’s “half-dead” and that’s not an English paraphrase; that’s literally what the Greek says.
And friends, spiritually speaking, without Christ we’re all half-dead. We’re not fully alive. Yes, we may be breathing, our hearts pumping, but really, we’re helpless and hopeless and only half-living, unable to save ourselves…without receiving God’s mercy. And God’s mercy, I think, is what this parable is all about. Finding life. Which brings us back to the first question asked: What must I do…?
See, the priest and Levite were supposed to be mediators between Israel and God. On different levels, they represented God to Israel and vice-versa. But their understanding of holiness got in the way. Yes, God is holy, but Jesus says, the priest and the Levite are not what God is like. He asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” And it wasn’t either of the ‘religious professionals.’ It was a despised Samaritan who showed mercy. And so, we see that God’s holiness is connected to mercy!
This is important! Back in Luke 1:72, at the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah’s tongue is loosed, and prophesies, declaring that God “has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,” which includes rescue from the hands of their enemies. And later in chapter 1, verse 78 refers to the “tender mercy of our God.” That word “mercy” in verses 72 and 78 shows up three more times earlier in Luke ch. 1 always in reference to God, but not again in Luke until here in the Lawyer’s answer. “The one who showed him mercy.” This is what God does! God shows mercy. So the Samaritan—not the Priest or the Levite—truly shows who God is.
Okay, back in 1:78, where it says his “tender mercy.” The word “tender” is that spla(n)gchnon word—bowels, guts—which in Luke shows up there in 1:78, again in ch. 10 when the Samaritan sees the half-dead man, and then only two other times in Luke (7:13 and 15:20), which respectively refer to: Jesus seeing the widow of Nain with her dead son; and the father in the parable of the prodigal son when he sees his younger son returning and runs to greet him. The Samaritan, in his compassion and mercy, represents the holy God of Israel. And we are to be holy as God is holy, which includes showing mercy!
Sadly, there are probably times that we act more like the robbers or the priest and Levite—justifying our way of life and who we think we should care for or ignore, but really, without Jesus, we’re all half-dead and in need of healing. We are beaten and bruised by the world and our sin—bleeding, naked and left for dead. And the Lord God in a surprising and maybe even offensive visitation has come and shown mercy on us.
Nowadays, the phrase “Good Samaritan” is met with joy and delight. But this parable would have shocked and probably even offended many of its original audience. So how might we ‘re-cast’ this story today for the same shocking effect? How about this:
A Fox News Anchor was mobbed during a recent rally in Washington, D.C. Now it just happened that the President of the United States was passing by, but when he saw the man, he said, “You know, I’m very much a germaphobe. I don’t want to get into that bloody mess.” And he passed by on the other side. Just then, a State Representative came to the place and said, “This is horrible! I’m going to bring this before the Senate to take action,” and, likewise, passed by without helping. But a Syrian refugee, a Muslim, saw him and was moved with compassion and cared for the man.
Now…maybe you liked that version! How about this one:
A woman wearing a cat-ears knit-cap was at that same rally and was accidentally trampled. Now, a Presbyterian Teaching Elder happened, but was running late to a Social Justice and Community Responsibility Panel discussion… and so hurried away. Then a Licensed Social Worker also came to the place, but didn’t stop because she was on her way to meet with a client. But then came someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” shirt, who stopped and helped the woman.
Wherever we personally stand, if Jesus’ parable doesn’t make us uncomfortable or challenge our notion of neighbor, then we’re not hearing it as Jesus told it. We’ve justified ourselves like the lawyer.
So let me ask: Who is the Samaritan in your life? From whom would it offend you to receive help? Who is difficult for you to love? To whom do you have trouble showing mercy?
Because here’s the thing: in Christ, God has shown mercy to all! And therefore, in Christ, God is revealed to show us what it means to be holy and a neighbor by showing mercy to all!!! If God, in Christ, has made all of us his neighbors, then who isn’t our neighbor?
As much as I struggle with loving some people, this parable tells me that I don’t get the luxury of justifying to myself those whom I am to love and those I don’t have to. God is neighbor to all! Unlike the priest and the Levite who wouldn’t give their time, money, efforts or affections, God in Christ, represented as the Samaritan, is moved to compassion for us. At his own cost and effort, he cleans us up, gives up his rightful seat on his animal to carry us, brings us to a safe place and cares for us there, providing for our every need to bring us healing and new life even though we were half-dead and unable to heal or justify ourselves.
The Samaritan does not need to justify himself, nor does he. He acts and speaks with compassion, mercy and authority. The man beaten and left for dead cannot justify himself. He cannot and does not say: you should help me because… and yet he is helped by the Samaritan. The Samaritan, in a way, justifies the half-dead man to the innkeeper who probably would not have taken in the beaten man and cared for him unless the Samaritan had already started to care for him and provided the resources for the innkeeper to continue to care for the man.
And so the Samaritan also justifies the innkeeper’s actions! The innkeeper may not have otherwise continued to the care for the man without the Samaritan’s resources and command. But the Samaritan, that is God, does all this at his own expense, brings the man to the inn keeper, pays the inn keeper, gives him charge to care for the man, and promises to pay him back upon return. And so the Samaritan justifies both the man robbed and the inn keeper to each other. Neither tries to or needs to justify themselves or their actions. The Samaritan does it for them, just like God in Christ, justifies all those who believe in him.
So, can you see yourself as the half-dead man and how Jesus has saved you—justified you? Good! That’s actually the first step in being able to fulfill the first commandment—it is the beginning of how we are to love God. But the parable keeps rattling around in my mind…
Before Christ saves and heals us, I think we’re the half-dead man in the parable, but after Christ gets to us, I’ve begun to think that we’re more like someone else in the parable: I think we become the innkeeper!
See, when Jesus asks who of the three was the neighbor to the man robbed, the answer is, “The one who showed him mercy,” which of course is the Samaritan moved to compassion. And Jesus commands the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” But in the parable, the Samaritan initially takes care of the beaten man but then commands the innkeeper to do the same thing he had been doing. “Take care of the man…” The innkeeper has to trust the Samaritan, allowing the Samaritan to justify his strange behavior of caring for this stranger, and the innkeeper must obey the Samaritan in order to receive the promised compensation. But…Jesus doesn’t tell us in the parable if the innkeeper ever did it or not…which leaves us asking: would we? Will we?
Will we trust God enough to care for those he cares for, and to care for others the way he cares for them—to use the resources he gives us now and trust that he’ll provide all we need later to continue living in obedience, in giving of ourselves to fulfill the command to love our neighbors? Will we be the innkeepers of the world—which, by the way, that word “innkeeper” in the Greek means “all-receiver”; welcoming everyone, which, based on the parable, does not mean letting people remain the way they are when they’re welcomed; they must still be cared for and healed and brought to wholeness through Christ’s resources given to us—but I digress… will we be the innkeeper, letting Jesus justify our strange behavior of loving and caring for others to bring healing and wholeness to broken and hurting people? Or will we continue to justify ourselves like the priest, Levite or robbers?
Loving our neighbors isn’t about drawing a line and categorizing people who are or are not our neighbors. Loving your neighbor as yourself is about showing undeserved mercy to others, bringing them healing, just as God has shown undeserved mercy to you when you were a stranger and half-dead without Jesus. Loving your neighbor as yourself will be costly, just as it was costly to Jesus to show us love. But…we are promised that God will provide all that we need in order to care for others—material resources, yes, but also the Holy Spirit in us to show them mercy, to love them like our Heavenly Father loves us.
If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves we will do well to: first, consider how we love the Lord our God, and more importantly how Jesus loves us in such a way as to dismantle our ways of justifying ourselves to bring us wholeness. May we all follow Jesus out of our self-righteousness and into eternal life, understanding all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ at great cost to himself! Don’t ask, “who is my neighbor?” but realize that God in Christ has become your neighbor, and neighbor to all, choosing to show mercy to everyone. Do that first. Then, go and do likewise, and you will live.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Friday • November 4, 2016 • 12:30pm
Chirst Presbyterian Church • 4225 West Sylvania Ave. Toledo, OH 43623
Keynote Speaker: Amgad Beblawi
Amgad Beblawi was coordinator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s mission in the Middle East and Europe for the past six years. As such, he serves as a resource for PC(USA) global partners, PC(USA) mission participants, and mission personnel engaged in God’s mission in these regions.
Amgad served for the previous five years as the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s associate for Middle Eastern congregational support in the United States.
Amgad holds master’s degrees in theology and biblical studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Egypt.
Amgad lives in Louisville, KY. with his wife Susan Templet Beblawi, and son Justin.
Featuring: Synod of the Covenant Mission Partners for 2016
Hany Gad Beshay Mikhail, George Shukri Makhlouf, Salam Hanna, Cathrine N.A. Abuamsha, and Mary Mikhael
It is estimated that more than 250,000 Syrians have died since civil war broke out in the country five years ago. Another seven million are displaced. The United Nations and other world organizations say the crisis has set Syria’s development status back by four decades.
While more than four million people have left Syria for other countries, those that remain hope to one day see their country at peace and thriving. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, in partnership with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL) has been helping Syrian Christians rebuild their homes through a $100,000 grant.
As part of her visit to the Middle East, PDA Coordinator, the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus joined other organizations for a conference in Lebanon, followed by a visit to Syria where the PDA dollars are at work restoring life to the city of Homs.
“We met with hundreds of people displaced from Homs and other towns and cities in Syria who had either been threatened or were forced to leave by ISIL,” said Kraus. “I talked with families that had been there for five years. They left during the initial fighting in Homs in February 2012 and haven’t gone back.”
Kraus met with a displaced couple who had resettled in the Christian Valley of Syria. The man is a dentist and recently opened a practice in his new community. Both say they are not stigmatized but do not feel fully received by the community. However, there are challenges to returning to life in Homs.
“There are concerns about reestablishing a viable work life in Homs because the city and its economy are still very fragile,” said Kraus. “There are many many buildings and apartments in Homs that are not rebuilt, on blocks that remain filled with rubble and empty of people. Do they go home to a rehabilitated apartment or do they stay where they have work and their children are in school? There’s a tension either way and it is not a simple homecoming story. Further, many families experienced trauma as they endured assaults on Homs and eventually fled, and those feelings linger, making a decision to return more complicated.”
Kraus and the rest of the team heard similar stories through out their visit as people struggle with remaining in a devastated community or seeking to start anew in another city or country.
“It reminds me of many families that fled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Some had to move to other states and never came back,” said Kraus. “So there’s a whole layer of story and pathos unfolding around hard choices they’re still going to have to make about where they want to invest their lives and try to re-create healing and wholeness for themselves and their families. It’s not an easy decision.”
In her talks with community leaders and residents, Kraus said there is a common belief and commitment from Christian, Orthodox and Muslim faiths that Homs must be restored. She says the interfaith groups believe that a multi-religious cultural environment is very important to the recovery and stability of Syria.
While touring the devastation in Homs, Kraus saw the impact of the bombing and shelling on the religious community.
“You’d walk down the block and see a wrecked church or Orthodox communion and mosque, all within steps of each other,” she said. “Apartment buildings looked like pancakes after being leveled by the bombing.”
Despite the devastation, a few families at a time, are beginning to make their way back into their restored apartments.
“One family’s flat had been completely restored while the one next to it was still in ruins. Most of us wouldn’t go back into a building where there were no other restored apartments, especially when the building next to it could collapse at any moment,” she said. “But people are going back into buildings like this. They are making a commitment to rebuild flat by flat, house by house.”
Kraus talked with one couple, an engineer and a pediatrician, who had returned to their home and were the only ones living in their block.
“Their block is dark at night. There is no one else in their building or on their street,” Kraus said. “The wife goes out at 3:00 in the morning to make house calls on children. They’re living like pioneers at a frontier outpost. They are living there because they believe it’s the only way to bring back their city.”
Kraus says she’s deeply moved when she thinks about what these families and communities are giving up in order to rebuild their life in Homs. But people are coming back. They’re going to school and they’re teaching.
“I met with an elder after church who was so proud when he shared about his son who is a high school senior,” she said. “Many young people want to leave the city when they can, but his son wants to stay and go to school in Syria so he can help people come back and build a life. A lot of people have given up on Syria but they haven’t seen the people we’ve seen who are just working day and night to make it happen. We want to work with this community to continue the rebuilding, which we believe Presbyterians will be generous in supporting.”