My Mission Journey in the Middle East: Hope Taken Too Far?
Written by Dr. Hrayr Jebejian*
I am a Lebanese-Armenian who has lived with the dual identities and histories that have been examples of struggle and survival: the first one, Lebanese, with its local and regional conflicts, and the second one, Armenian, in its perseverance for a national identity and a solution to a just cause: the recognition of the first ethnic cleansing of the 20th century, the Armenian Genocide. The two identities have one thing in common: the struggle to build a life in the midst of uncertainties, a life that goes much further than the personal dimension and embraces different aspects of the community at large.
Born into a Christian family, I was brought up within the loving care of my parents and two sisters. My upbringing enhanced the Christian education I received in the Armenian Evangelical Church. The latter was equally a family to me where my life got rooted in deeply and which eventually shaped my career: to serve my and the international community with the Word of God that provides Hope for a better life.
My journey in the struggle for hope started after 1975. This was the year when the Civil War in Lebanon broke out. This was also the year when as a fresh high school graduate I lost my father. Life turned out to be a Mission for a young boy who did not enjoy the carelessness and carefree attitude of many his age.
My struggle is not confined to the Lebanese Civil War experience alone. It is an ongoing struggle because of the Arab Spring, the inter-ethnic and inter-denominational upheavals and wars throughout the Arab region, the threat posed by ISIS, and the continuous persecution of Christians and other minorities. All these present challenges to my life in the Middle East. And I ask myself: how can I survive in a region like this? Why do I have to go through all this while others my age live in peace? Why do I have to be interrogated every time I travel? How can I have a meaningful life based on good values? How can I find values in the midst of death, fear, and suicide bombings? Where can I find peace? Often, it seemed to me that peace is like a mirage in the desert, the more you get closer to it the farther it gets. Ironically, after 40 years, I still ask myself the same questions.
Brueggemann believes that the task of prophetic ministry and imagination is to bring people to engage with their experiences of suffering and death, an experience that energizes and links people to hope. Brueggemann explains that this hope helps the individual to cut through the despair that seems to have no end or resolution. My war experiences in Lebanon, the present conflicts in the Middle East, the precarious presence of Christians in the Middle East, the rise of fundamentalism, and the “walk through the shadow of the valley of death” have led me to a unique hope. This hope helped me to change the nature of my queries, to be active rather than passive, to enjoy life by doing something positive when all that surrounds me is negative, to love life even when I am in pain, and to hope for a better tomorrow when the present is full of devastating uncertainties.
According to Bruegemann, newness in one’s life is given by God and is supposed to be the only serious source of energy. He explains his assertion by linking Exodus with what Jesus did on the cross. For him, Jesus’ death-resurrection was the ultimate Exodus where we learn that hope is never generated among us but always given to us. And this is how I would describe my journey. I have been working with the Bible Societies in the Middle East region for more than 35 years and doing voluntary work in the Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East for more than 40 years. My responsibilities in both, decades of active involvement in ecumenical and inter-church relations, and academic training have significantly punctuated my personal, professional, and spiritual growth with a tremendous “openness to the Other”, a truly appropriate definition of ecumenism by His Holiness Aram I.My Mission journey in this respect has been very enriching. By encouraging communities to be engaged with the Bible, I have personally witnessed the lives of people from the four corners of the earth change after engaging with God’s Word. However, this change process, the newness in life, cannot be maintained unless one endeavours to be open to the Other and understand the Other.
In April 2015, the Republic of Armenia invited me to Yerevan to attend the Global Forum on Genocide, “Against the Crime of Genocide”. The Forum emphasized that the Genocide of 1915 was not only against Armenians but also against humanity. 100 years after the Armenian Genocide history is still repeating itself. Therefore, in its concluding statement the Forum called upon all nations to act against crimes that are perpetrated on any ethnic or national group. In this respect, the centenary commemoration of the Armenian Genocide turned out to be a call for all to respect human lives and to act against any crime that is committed against humankind.
As third generation Armenian, I still carry the pain of the Genocide and so does every Armenian. We carry the pain of our ancestors who were massacred and also the pain of being deprived of living in our homeland. Equally, as a Lebanese, I carry the pain of living as a Christian in a war zone where I was born and in turn became a second home for me. These pains have enriched my life though. These same pains made me realize that it is possible to live, prosper, and dream irrespective of my hybrid identities and homelands. These same pains have made me a proud Armenian and an equally proud Lebanese. These pains have challenged me to understand the pains of the Other. These pains have helped me to be pro-active in creating “newness” in my life in the midst of unending despair, death, and destruction.
The political scene in the Middle East seems to be gloomy and uncertain. The socio- economic factors are even less encouraging. What can be done in a region where there is no hope for a better life?
The challenge of the Church in general and in the Middle East in particular is to first understand the Other and to experience the dynamism of the life of the Other. The Church needs to continue to establish itself in the community and the soil in which it lives on so that it can create a profound impact. I agree with Brueggemann who argues that to create impact we have to create an alternative community with an alternative consciousness so that the dominant community may be criticized and finally dismantled. But more than dismantling the old community, he asserts, the purpose of the alternative community is to enable a new human beginning to be made. Today, the mission of the Christian presence in the Middle East is to help the community to make this new beginning come true. A new beginning whose foundation is based on tolerance, acceptance, and justice.
*Dr. Jebejian is General Secretary of the Bible Society in the Arabian Gulf. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Haigazian University in Beirut, Master of Science degree in Agricultural Economics from American University of Beirut and Doctor in Ministry in Bible Engagement from the New York Theological Seminary. He is the author of “The Armenian’s Path for Struggle and Existence” (in Armenian). A recipient of the Ambassador of the Motherland medal from the Ministry of Diaspora of the Republic of Armenia, Dr. Jebejian is active in community and church life, and serves on the Board of Managers of the Near East School of Theology. He is married to Dr. Arda Jebejian and has two children.