“I Wanted to Visit Refugees!

When it comes to travel, I have come to realize that there are two realities: the trip that you picture having and the trip that you actually have.

I’m not sure if I had a lot of ideas about my trip to Lebanon before I left, because it was so beyond the realm of something I could really imagine.  But I did have some thoughts:

  1. The food would be awesome (this proved totally true)
  2. We would spend a lot of time visiting and talking to refugees (this did not prove totally true)

I knew that a lot of the work that our partners were doing in Lebanon involved supporting the 1.8 million displaced Syrians living in that country.  I assumed that we would do a lot of visiting of people that our partners were serving. This, however, was not as straightforward as I thought.  

As I mentioned, Lebanon has not made it comfortable for displaced Syrians .  This means that most are living in small groups in tents – instead of large camps – or cramped in overcrowded buildings and apartments.  It’s not like someone can just “pop by.”  A visit from a group of six people who don’t speak Arabic is not a simple thing!  

We did not tour tent cities.  We did, however, talk to local mission partners and learn about what was happening in the country and how we could support it.  We did not do a round of visits to the homes of refugees.  We did visit churches and ministry sites and witness the love of the people of God at work. It never felt like a compromise.  We heard powerful stories, and we talked to a lot of incredible people.  And we did actually meet a lot of “refugees” (I hesitate to use the term because I learned so many do not like to be called that), though they looked different than I may have guessed.  Some were students in the school. Some attended and spoke at our conference. Sometimes we met people on the street who begged us to help them get to Canada.

I also had the chance to talk to a number of women during the Bible study that I attended, which I mentioned in the last post.  This study was one of a number of opportunities provided by the conference that I attended for people to see firsthand the work that is happening in Lebanon.  Participants could chose from a variety of options for an afternoon visit and I picked the study. It was a highlight of my trip to learn together and pray with these women.  When I got back that night I said to our team leader: “That was an incredible experience.  I can’t imagine anyone experiencing anything more meaningful than me!”

Later, however, four of the guys from our group came back from the visit that they had chosen.  They looked, literally, shell shocked.  They had signed up to visit a local church, and when they got there it turned out to be a church made almost entirely of “refugees.”  Forty of them were there to greet them, and for the next five hours they sat in a circle with them and listened to every one of them tell their story. One of the men said: “It was one of the most holy moments of my life.”

As I listened to them struggle to put into words the afternoon they had shared, I felt a little unsettled. Over the next day or so, as the guys continued to share and process, the unsettled feeling stuck with me.  Each time they talked about their trip it happened again.  After a while, I had to admit to myself what I was really feeling: I was jealous.

THIS was the thing that I had pictured experiencing when I pictured this trip!  I wanted to visit refugees!  I wanted to be blown away!  I wanted to have the “most holy moment of my life!” Somehow it didn’t matter that I had described my own trip to the Bible study as incredible, that I had left my trip feeling like my life had changed.  These guys had the trip that I pictured, and somehow that made me feel cheated.

When I was able to be honest that I envied their visit, I began to talk to God about it.  “I wanted to visit refugees!” – I thought in my prayer. And then it hit me, like the voice of God often does:

“You can visit a refugee anytime you want Leanne.”

I smacked my own forehead.  How silly and naive and selfish was I?  There are 25 000 displaced Syrians living in Canada, 1000 in my own city.  Why did I feel like I had to be in Lebanon to visit someone?  I didn’t. There are newcomers to our country all around me. There are displaced people who are lonely, who are trying to find a home in a strange land, who have story upon story.

With this realization, my jealously abated and I felt total peace as I realized what God had been telling me this whole trip: This isn’t some other place’s story.  This is your story too.

Honesty, I never pictured myself doing refugee ministry.  It’s out of my comfort zone. But you know what?  There is the thing you picture and there is the thing that is.  Maybe none of us in the west pictured that an influx of international refugees would be the thing that would happen around us. But it is what is – and we are called to help.

I thank all of you who have been reading these posts over the last week.  I know a lot of you live in the Middle East, and I thank you for all that you are doing and all that you taught me.  I also know a lot of you who are reading this live in Canada, and that many of you have been eager as a result to support this work in Lebanon through finances and prayer.  I hope that you will.

But let me also remind you, my brothers and sisters in Canada, that God can do – and is already doing – the same thing here as He is in Lebanon.  The stranger is also at our door.  We also have new neighbours. And we don’t have to go to Lebanon to respond with the same love as Christians in that country.

Last week I went to a meeting for people who would be interested in joining a program that pairs local families with Syrian newcomers here in Hamilton.  The purpose is to help create greater community and support for these new Canadians. I figured if my friends in Lebanon can visit five families EVERY week I can manage one.  It’s not a thing I pictured myself doing – but it is what is right in front of me. turns out I will be visiting Syrian newcomers.  Maybe I will have “the most holy moment of my life!” Or maybe not… I’m learning not to focus on what I think it should be like. Because only God knows what will be.

God knew what would be when I signed up to go to Lebanon, and it was good. For this reason, I do not grieve the trip that I imagined having to Lebanon. I celebrate the trip that actually was.  

Friends in the west, perhaps we have too longed grieved for ministry as we think it should be – as it once was, or as we’d like it, to people or groups that we understand or that feel comfortable to us. Perhaps we don’t like what’s happening around us, or maybe we feel ready to move on to something else.  “Refugees?,” we might think, “Still?” Yes, still.  This crisis is still happening.  It is still a thing that is right in front of us.  It is what is. 

And we are God’s people, in the midst of it, who can follow the example of our brothers and sisters in Lebanon – and respond with love.

A last picture as we get ready to leave – it reminds me that we are not leaving things behind, but being sent to continue the work we’ve seen.

 

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