Anyone who has ever served on a weeklong foreign mission trip understands that one of the trip’s greatest blessings is new and deep relationships with believers from other countries. These friendships breathe new life into the idea of “one holy catholic church.”
But a mission trip to the Middle East has the power to bring intractable regional conflicts to a personal level — with names, stories, and an unshakeable plea — “please pray for me.”
When a team from Grace Presbyterian Church in The Woodlands, Texas, visited Lebanon in April, they witnessed God using His people to offer help and relief in the midst of uncommon suffering.
The seven-person team began with Liz Crusey, Grace’s missions lay coordinator. Joining Crusey were her husband, Todd — Grace’s community life pastor — and church members Laurel Stevens, Joy Zeigler, John Zeigler, and Suzi Carnes. The Cruseys also invited their friend Mike Higgins, pastor of South City Church in St. Louis and dean of students at Covenant Theological Seminary, to join them.
Along with her work at Grace, Crusey works for Middle East Bible Outreach (MEBO), the American fundraising arm of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development. LSESD is a ministry network that includes the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), Christian publishing, ministries to children and youth, relief work, a Christian school, and a special education ministry.
The purpose of the trip to Lebanon was to listen and observe, and to see how God is working through the LSESD ministries. The team found faithful Christians using the gifts He gave them in a violent, chaotic, and poverty-stricken setting. They found God’s people offering help and hope in the midst of the worst refugee crisis of modern times.
Loving the Least of These
Lebanon and Syria have had a tense relationship in recent history. With a population of just 4 million, Lebanon cannot sustain the influx of nearly two million refugees. Responding to their needs means overcoming old wounds and generations of mistrust.
Providing aid to refugees in Lebanon is a complex, contentious issue. Yet Lebanese Christians are eager to reflect the practical love of Christ — to watch over the vulnerable and comfort the suffering — and respond to Jesus’ call to care “for the least of these.”
On a visit to a refugee camp, Grace’s team saw Syrian Christians teaching refugee children in a one-room schoolhouse. Millions of Syrian children have not attended school since the civil war began in 2011, and many of these children have fallen so far behind they would not be able to keep up in a traditional school. Alternative schools are often unlicensed and rely on teachers who are themselves refugees.
When a Christian aid worker at the refugee camp asked the group to pray for him, Stevens agreed to remember him in her prayers. He replied, “Do you remember my name?” He did not want prayers in general. He wanted his own name spoken to God.
Prayers for Future Preachers
The team also spent time with students from ABTS. Despite the seminary’s name, faculty come from a variety of theological backgrounds, including Presbyterian. ABTS students come from all across North Africa and the Middle East. Following the completion of their training program, they head back to their home countries to put the learning into practice.
Higgins said these students understand that some of them might be imprisoned in their home countries. They might be killed. But they are committed to the Gospel. “For the first time in my life, it sounded like a privilege to … lose my life for the sake of Jesus,” Higgins said.
And with such a weighty task before them, what did the seminary students ask of their American visitors? Prayers.
“It is so easy to write things off and distance oneself from men and women, but to actually get to talk to them, to look into their eyes, and hear their stories was important. It helps me pray better for a specific person,” Stevens said.
The team also visited a refugee camp where LSESD provides relief to refugees who come from diverse backgrounds. The team met a Kurdish refugee who told her story of losing everything after being driven out by ISIS. Though a Muslim, the woman welcomed the prayers of the mission team.
As the group left, she asked them, “Please pray for me. Please don’t forget me.”
The six-day trip was a vision trip, and it gave the team members a fresh perspective. But it also strengthened relationships with believers in far-flung parts of the world, and those relationships create responsibilities. The responsibility to pray and to remember.