Nineteenth-century English poet John Keats once wrote: “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.” I discovered the truth of that statement during my recent visit to Lebanon and Syria. Prior to leaving home, I learned what I could about these two Middle Eastern countries by talking with First Pres members who once lived there, by
reading newspaper articles, and by reading a book about the work of early Presbyterian missionaries in that region. But the life experience of the people of Lebanon and Syria did not become real to me until I spent the better part of two weeks in their midst. Even then, I caught just a glimpse of what it’s like to live there.
Most of my time during this Outreach Foundation trip was spent in Syria, a nation still recovering from years of war. Bombed-out buildings are common in and around Aleppo. And military checkpoints dot the streets and highways throughout the country. But war hasn’t been the only problem facing the people of Syria in recent years. Economic
sanctions have crippled the Syrian economy. Hyperinflation has caused the cost of consumer goods to go through the roof. The average income is now $30-$50 per month. And it is estimated that 90% of the Syrian population now lives below the poverty line. To say that life is hard there would be an understatement. Countless young people told
members of our team that they hope to finish their education, then leave, because their opportunities to build a life in Syria are extremely limited.
Yet, the people I met in the churches of Syria face these challenges with faith and resilience. During worship services, the sanctuaries are packed, the singing is robust, and the conversations during coffee hour are filled with joy and laughter. Just as important, the churches are doing the important work of sharing the love of Christ with their neighbors.
The National Presbyterian Church of Aleppo is a case in point. The congregation has provided a faithful Christian witness in the historic old city since 1853. However, in 2012 the sanctuary of the church’s building was destroyed by radical Islamist groups in two consecutive explosions which reduced the building to rubble.
Once Aleppo was liberated by the government of Syria, and relative peace had returned to the city, a new worship center for the congregation was constructed in another part of the city. Across the street from its new location, the congregation has established the Children of the Word Health Clinic, providing free or low-cost health care to the poor people of the neighborhood. And recently, the church purchased an adjacent building which, when renovated, will provide space for its swelling Sunday school program.
Furthermore, because the church’s original site is located in the historic center of the old city, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (Presbyterian) has made the commitment to re-establish its presence with a new structure on the site of the destroyed building. Once construction is completed, The Aleppo Christian Center
will serve as a place for outreach to the community, theological training, ecumenical conferences, and religious dialogue. As members of our team toured the construction site, I was truly amazed at the progress. And it occurred to me that this new building has already become a symbol of resurrection following the devastation of war.
As I think about this Aleppo congregation and the other Presbyterian churches of Syria which I visited, I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Rome: “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (5:3-5)
It seems to me that the church in Syria has suffered much, but through its suffering has learned endurance, developed character and lives in hope – all because of God’s great love. To say that I have been inspired is an understatement. Indeed, I have been reminded that all things are possible with God!
Grace and peace,