Yesterday morning, after we told an acquaintance here that we had left the United States to live and work in Lebanon, he told us bluntly, “You made a big mistake. Are there no churches in America that you came here? This country will not straighten out. Not for a long time.” Later, at a community event we attended in the evening, we told another couple the exact same thing we had said in the morning. Their reaction was the direct opposite: “What? You moved to Beirut? This is wonderful news! You have put our minds at ease.”
Such extremes of reaction from the community are typical for us to hear in the course of a week, and almost 17 of them (weeks, that is) have passed since we arrived. In these expressions we are hearing an echo of the toils and worries that each person bears each and every day. It is a strain for them to continually worry about things that are beyond their control, such as the ongoing impasse within the government, and the resultant inability to provide the normal services citizens of any country should enjoy. Things such as reliable electricity, clean drinking water, proper waste management, a recycling system, a public health insurance plan, enforcement of building codes, providing reliable Internet access, stopping the destructive exploitation of the natural environment, prohibiting the takeover of public lands and beaches by private corporations and wealthy individuals… to say nothing of the swirl of political intrigue blowing in from East and West, stirring up a choking dust in this region. The list is endless, it seems. There is so much that forms the daily stresses of people, things that are absent from the news ingestion of most people outside the region. But here on the ground, as we live beside them and try to encourage them by our efforts and our presence, we can’t escape hearing the despair in people’s tone of voice and seeing it in their eyes. This daily grind robs them of the energy they need to face each day.
Added to these strains are the stresses on the country in hosting so very many refugees (about 2 million of them, in a country of 4 million), registered and not, and the effect this has on young people trying to plan a future… inside Lebanon. The unreasonably high cost of living means that families inevitably face the stress and anguish of sending their children to other countries to get higher education, or to find legal employment, wherever Lebanese citizens are welcome. Two days ago there was a series of protests in and around Beirut, resulting in a massive traffic jam in all directions, and Nishan’s usual rush-hour commute of 6 kms (4 miles) took longer than its typical 45 minutes. What was the protest about? Lebanese bus and taxi drivers blocked the main roads, protesting the illegal buses, non-Lebanese drivers and fake licenses in wide circulation, all of which impacts their livelihood.
Nonetheless, we are doing our utmost to support the good work the church is doing in these circumstances. When Nishan has not had preaching duties in the Armenian Evangelical churches, we have been worshiping at a variety of churches on Sundays, including National (i.e., Arab) Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, Church of God, independent, and so on. The Evangelical (i.e., Protestant) Christian community is fairly well networked here, and that lends itself to cooperative ministries. As newly-arrived workers, we are in fairly high demand for a number of community-wide events; among other occasions, Maria was the featured speaker at a women’s Ascension Day gathering in the north, while in February Nishan spoke at the annual commemoration of an Armenian saint, Vartan. He will also be the commencement speaker at the Near East School of Theology.
This week Maria will be active in a series of events, including helping Haigazian University host its annual Armenian Diaspora Research seminar; this year scholars will be focusing on the Iraqi-Armenians. This is a very important conference, considering the ongoing exodus of Christians, including Armenian Christians, from Iraq and the entire Middle East. Later in the week both of us will be helping the University as well as the church Union (UAECNE) in welcoming our major partner, the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA), along with the University’s Board of Directors, for a series of meetings and a fund-raising banquet. Our international experience is a definite asset as we help coordinate and implement these and many other projects.
We continue to live at the Near East School of Theology, which has proven to have been fortuitous, providing us with the circumstances to befriend and support the Armenian students living here on an ongoing basis. Living here has also been a challenge at times, as we wait for our goods to arrive, and continue to make do with what we brought in our suitcases in February! But at least we finally have our yearly residence permits, and have received word that our boxes may be delivered to us in the coming week.
We have now entered the season of Ramadan. All over this part of the city we are seeing signs of this holiday, holy to Muslims worldwide. Tourists have arrived from other Arab countries to spend Ramadan here. Charitable organizations have set up booths on the street corners to collect donations. And very often, right next to the booths are the refugee-beggars, hands extended to passersby for alms. But unlike the booths, they have become fixtures, not seasonal. Their presence is perplexing, even to local residents, who want to help those in need, but not through handouts. Just as is the case with all the other stresses and strains in society, this does not lend itself to an easy solution.
Our prayer request to you is that God enable us to be good listeners without being overwhelmed; that God make us wise as we field requests for involvement in plans and projects; that we act as partners and mission co-workers (our new designation, in place of the term “missionaries”), knowing that we have this ministry through the mercy of God (II Cor. 4.1), and that we walk with our Master “in lowly paths of service free”. We know that the freedom we have in Christ will enable us to continue to labor joyfully in this field, no matter the circumstances.
Pictured above are participants in the Iraqi-Armenian Conference, from the Middle East, Europe and North America, including the Primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Iraq, to the left of University President Paul Haidostian (4th and 5th from right).
Nishan and Maria serve with the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East (UAECNE). Their appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.