When you travel, you will always discover things about a place that no website or guide book thinks to tell you about. One of those things for me when I went to Lebanon was something that it took me a few days to get used to: the light switches. Now, I realize that this could have just been the case in the residence in which we stayed, but it was initially disorienting for me to get used to this little difference – the light switches went UP to turn the lights off, and DOWN to turn them on.
As I look back on my brief stay in this wonderful country, I now see that the light switches are a powerful analogy for what I witnessed there. My whole time in Lebanon was about seeing unexpected ways that light was coming into dark places. Until I went there, I had no idea about all the ways that the lights were turning on in the Middle East – ways that I never would have expected.
Let me start with the work of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS). It is a beautiful building with a great view of the Beirut suburb of Mansourieh.
This place is a place of light. One day we had the gift of listening (with the help of a translator) to stories from six of the students who attend. These students are being taught and mentored at ABTS so that they can go back to their own countries and serve in their churches. This is no small thing. Christians in many of the student’s countries face persecution by the state or their families, or both. Yet, they will go back to these places, trained and prepared for ministry by ABTS. This is the goal of the school – to build God’s church in dark places. They are doing this faithfully one student at a time. Besides local faculty, many of the professors at ABTS are missionaries who raise support to do their work. One of these professors is our own Canadian Baptist Ministries field staff Emad Bootros. Emad and his wife are from the Middle East. In fact, Elmas is from Iraq and lived through many of the horrors there in recent decades. They had settled comfortably as Canadian citizens in Southern Ontario when God called them to go to ABTS. Going back to the Middle East was not easy for them. It was a call of God. They are turning on the light switch in a way they didn’t expect – and the light is shining.
We also got to visit another ministry of our partners there called SKILD – Smart Kids with Individual Learning Differences. This one knocked my socks off. It may shock many of you to hear that there is no special needs programming in schools in Lebanon. Seriously. It is not part of teacher training. This is surprising to us in a country where we have built up support for children with special needs in our own public system over the last number of decades, but Lebanon isn’t there yet. What does this mean? It means that if your child is severely disabled they simply don’t go to school. If they have learning disabilities, speech delays, autism, etc. then they don’t get into schools, or they struggle in school, or they fail – over and over and over.
SKILD is run by a passionate woman who wants to see this change. This group is working to build awareness and provide support. They have worked with the Ministry of Education and have started to do training for teachers in some public schools. Parents can also bring their children to the SKILD centre for diagnosis and treatment. Think about this! God’s people are meeting an incredible need here, and they are working to change the entire education system so that the most vulnerable people can flourish. If that is not the work of Jesus, I don’t know what is. I had no idea this was one of the ways God was working through his people in Lebanon. The light is turning on in an unexpected way.
The above are projects of LSESD (Lebanese Society of Education and Social Development), which is supported in part by our partners – Canadian Baptist Ministries. This group also includes a publishing house, the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, a relief program (much of the work discussed in the last blogs comes through the relief program), and Child and Youth programming to support children and youth at risk . I could talk for hours about all of the ways that LSESD is turning on the lights, and they are not the only place where God is at work.
Outside of LSESD, there is also the day to day reality of what is going on in many churches in Lebanon. In churches that have responded to refugees with the love of Jesus, countless people from different backgrounds have come to believe in Christ. What was surprising to me is that this doesn’t necessarily mean that they now call themselves “Christians.” Christianity (not unlike in the west) has a lot of negative connotations. Therefore, many hold on to the identity of their people while saying they also believe in Jesus. This means, for example, that when you go to a Christian church there may be women there in head scarves. Yet, not unlike the early church when debates arose about whether the Jews should make the Gentiles get circumcised or not, Lebanese Christians are saying, like Paul: “Let us not make it hard for people to come to Christ.”
There is a church in Beirut that now has 170 small groups, pockets of people who are meeting all over the city to learn about Jesus. I got to go to one of these studies with a group of women. What a surprising experience to sit and talk about Jesus with five women wearing full head coverings! Before I went, I don’t know if I would have been able to make space in my brain for things looking this way. But sometimes, light switches turn down – and the light still comes on.
As I was talking to one of the women in the Bible study (through a translator of course), the host said: “Tell her how you came to Christ.” The woman smiled a huge smile and said: “I didn’t come to Christ. Christ came to me!” She went on to tell me about being in her home in Syria five years before and crying out to God at a difficult time. As she prayed, Jesus appeared to her, and told her He loved her. She was changed forever! There are a lot of stories like this – stories of Jesus appearing in dreams and visions and through miracles. Stories of the light coming in ways we, in the west, may sometimes forget that it can.
And, yes, this light is coming to Syria too. There are churches in Syria that are thriving, even in the midst of great violence. There are Christians serving faithfully. There are light switches all over the place. I admit, that surprised me. I thought everyone wanted out of Syria! But I met many Christians who feel called to stay. There is work to be done there, people to care for, light to share – so they stay. They hold to the words of Moses to God’s people in Exodus 14: 13, as they stood before the Red Sea:
“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today.”
They are standing firm, waiting, and trusting for the Lord’s salvation.
This reminds me of one other thing that was surprising in Lebanon: the power outages. Several times a day in Beirut, the power shuts off. It is a surreal experience at first. All of sudden the lights go down, and no one reacts at all. They sit and wait. After a couple seconds it comes back on, and everyone goes back to whatever it was they were doing. One woman told me: “It’s most annoying when you’re doing laundry…”
As jarring as it was the first day, I got used to this pretty quickly too. I realized that as dark as it may be for a few moments, the lights will always come back on.
This sums up the faith with which God’s people live as they work in this part of the world. Like the locals who have learned to pause and wait and trust for the light’s to come back on after a power outage, so have faithful Christians there learned to live and trust that God’s light will return.
And so some stay in Syria, and pastor churches whose buildings may be bombed tomorrow. Some lead a Bible study in a small store front in a part of town with no other Christian churches. Some teach at a Seminary. Some help a child with dyslexia learn to read. To us in the west, it may seem like they are serving in the dark, but they have come to understand something very important. In not too long – there will be light.