Saturday, January 23, 2016

No one can take away the faith in our hearts

How long, O God? Will you forget me forever? (Psalm 13:1)

Earlier this week, I arrived in Lebanon from where MCC staff work with a dozen partner groups in Lebanon and Syria. It has been several years since staff has been able to work from Syria or even travel there, but we continue to support relief and peace building work in communities in both countries through partner organizations.

Lebanon has a total population of only 4.5 million people but hosts about 2 million refugees, primarily from Syria. You can imagine the enormous strain this has put on the infrastructure of this small country.

The director of our partner, Permanent Peace Movement (PPM), tells us that MCC was the first outside organization that understood what they were doing and supported them in building peace in Lebanon. Another partner, Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD), works in refugee settlements with women, children and families.

We visit a Syrian family in the Daouk settlement, a Palestinian gathering/neighborhood outside of the Palestinian refugee camp, who has been in Lebanon for three years. The father says he has four daughters and four sons and a number of these families are with them in this small three-room apartment. He tells me that, though he owned a large restaurant in Syria, the family left everything behind because he was only concerned about the safely of his children. He says “the future of his children has been lost because of the war in Syria.”  

Last evening, we met in Beirut with three bishops of the Syrian Orthodox Church, one of our main partners in Syria in Damascus and in the region of Homs, about 100 miles north of Damascus. Bishop Selwanos offers us thanks on behalf of the families of Homs who have been assisted by MCC after their town was mostly destroyed by the bombing. He tells us that MCC’s help over many years has made him view himself as partly Mennonite! Recent help from MCC has included heaters for use during the winter season, cash supplements and hygiene kits.      

Bishop Matta tells us about the situation in Damascus and about the thousands of families who have moved into his community because of the bombing in other parts of the country. He says, every day, the church has to process more than 150 baptismal certificates which are needed before people can migrate out of the country. He tells us that he wants his people to stay in Syria: “We love our country and if you want to help us, please help our people stay in Syria.”

I asked the Bishops whether, in the midst of the destruction and killing, they feel God has left them. Bishop Matta tells me that they have just one thing left – the mercy of God. He wonders whether maybe God hasn’t left them but whether the people have left God. He says that they have lost churches and schools and hospitals, and many people have been killed, but no one can take away the faith in their hearts.

This morning, as I read Psalm 13, I am challenged by the faith of these Bishops, holding fast to their faith in God, even through adversity. 

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. He is in Sarajevo for two months and visiting MCC's programs in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq and Ukraine from there.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Passing the peace to the world

 In your presence there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16)

It is a blessing to have the opportunity to step out of one’s own culture for months at a time, to experience another culture and to see one’s own culture in a fresh way.

For the next several months I will be living and working in Sarajevo and traveling from there to visit MCC’s programs in Iraq, Ukraine, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.

My first week in Sarajevo is largely filled with orientation with MCC Europe and Middle East area director Amela Puljek-Shank and with the Eastern Europe country staff. I’ve settled into a small apartment and have begun exploring the city.

Sarajevo has a rich faith tradition history. While the city is 95% Muslim today, there are Jewish, Catholic and Orthodox traditions present here as well. Yesterday, I was able to visit some of the oldest places of worship in the old part of the city for all four faith traditions.

I am quickly learning that the deep conflicts in this region that resulted in a war 20 years ago, are less about religion and more about ethnicity and culture. Over a meal, Amela shares a bit about her own family’s history with me, and about her parents’ commitment to Tito’s vision of a socialist Yugoslavia, despite their own Muslim and Orthodox backgrounds.

But somewhere in that family story, Amela was drawn to Christianity and her sister was attracted to Islam. During the war, when her family lacked sufficient shelter and food, it was German Mennonites who shared food with her family. Amela eventually became a relief volunteer for the German Mennonites herself and she met another volunteer from America, Randy, who later became her husband.

With two of MCC’s service workers, I visited a former synagogue that is now a museum. While the Jewish community in Sarajevo is very small today, a book in this former synagogue records the names of 12,000 Jews who lost their lives during World War II.

There are also Baptist and evangelical churches in the city, as well as a Mennonite house church which meets on an irregular basis. On my first Sunday morning in the city, I hear the church bells of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church across the courtyard from my apartment and make my way into the church for worship with several hundred others.

Though there was little I could understand during the service, I was told when the pastor prayed for the church around the world. And when we were asked to pass Christ’s peace to each other, it occurred to me we were also passing God’s peace to the whole world.

I have settled into a routine here of reading five Psalms each morning and a chapter from Rodney Stark’s book, The Rise of Christianity. Psalm 16 includes these words:
You show me the path of life.
            In your presence there is fullness of joy;
            in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.

I am hoping to learn more about the path of life and the fullness of joy in the days ahead. And I am praying for God’s peace to be a reality here and in my own country as well.
Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.