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Mutually Encouraged by Each Other’s Faith

A Letter from Elmarie and Scott Parker, serving in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon

August 2018

Write to Scott Parker
Write to Elmarie Parker

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I’m grateful to serve in a role that invites me into so many different aspects of missional engagement and service in both the Middle East and the United States.

One of my favorite opportunities is introducing PC(USA) partners and friends to our partners in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and vice versa. Every time, I’m reminded of Paul’s words to the church in Rome (Romans 1:11-12). “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong — that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.”

Last winter and spring held five such encounters — each encounter bearing its own variety of fruit, both in the midst of the team visits, and through the strengthened relationships and shared collaborations that have followed each visit.

I’m often asked by fellow members of the PC(USA) why such visits matter. Wouldn’t the money spent on such trips better benefit our partners by being sent to support work they have prioritized? Indeed, financial partnership is important. At the same time, what I’ve learned from our partners in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq is that nothing replaces meeting in person and getting to know one another as sisters and brothers in Christ. Something changes in our understanding of being the priesthood of all believers and being a part of Christ’s universal body when we experience firsthand the ways in which our Lord is at work through his church in the Middle East and we discover that we can be a creative part of this transforming and redemptive work. A similar discovery unfolds when our brothers and sisters from the Middle East are invited to spend time with congregations and presbyteries of the PC(USA).

In June, two particular encounters proved especially transformational.

The first came through a visit with our Presbyterian partners in Iraq at the beginning of June. Since 2014, we have been working together to help two teachers from each of the kindergartens run by the three remaining Presbyterian churches in Iraq receive training to work with students who have an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. Through three different training seminars offered between 2014 and 2016 by Blessed School in Lebanon, these six teachers received a strong foundational understanding of autism and developed their skills for working with students and their families. And then came the request: “Would it be possible to bring a trainer to Iraq so that all of our teachers might have a better understanding of autism and can enhance their teaching methods to work more effectively with both the students and their families?”

Mrs. Amy Joachim and her husband, Rev. David Joachim, members of Eastminster Presbytery in NE Ohio, were the answer to this prayerful request. The three of us traveled to the Presbyterian churches in Basrah, Baghdad, and Iraq, where Amy gave five seminars in each location and David helped the teachers learn how to give swimming lessons to children with autism (and preached in worship). Amy’s seminars covered the fundamentals of understanding autism, the process of language development and how autism impacts this process, designing classrooms for effective interventions with students who have autism, appropriate ways to manage challenging behaviors, and tips for families of children who have autism. Seminar attendees each received a certificate in a closing ceremony for having completed the six-hour workshop.

The churches invited not only the teachers from their schools, but also teachers from other schools and centers in their respective cities who are also working with children who have autism. They wanted to expand the gift of this training opportunity beyond their own ministries so that each of their cities could benefit. We learned that this training opportunity was one of the first ever offered in each city! Over 90 teachers participated — asking thoughtful questions, marveling at the feel of sensory water beads, and enthusiastically practicing safe maneuvers for responding to challenging student behaviors like biting or hair pulling.

Hungry to learn even more, they asked for follow-up training opportunities. They want to be part of transforming the cultures of their cities to better understand the autism spectrum, how to effectively develop each child’s capacity and potential, and how to compassionately support and equip parents. We are all seeking to hear what door the Lord will next open to continue strengthening and expanding this key ministry of our church partners.

Amy shared, “I never imagined that the Lord would make use of my 40+ years of experience working as a speech therapist with autistic children by asking me to be part of the front lines of training eager teachers in Iraq. What a humbling privilege.” Now she is back home and looking for fluent Arabic speakers who would be willing to donate their time to help with translating additional training materials from English to Arabic. Please contact me (Elmarie) by email if you would like to help with this capacity-building ministry (or if you know someone who might be interested), and I’ll put you in touch with Amy.

This is the ministry of mutual encouragement in action.

At the end of June into the middle of July, another visiting team of eight arrived — this time to Lebanon. They came from Presbyterian churches across the United States and from the United Church of England. They came to join together in a learning experience co-organized by the faculty of the Near East School of Theology (based in Beirut) and Presbyterian World Mission. Over the course of two weeks, this visiting team who arrived as strangers to one another became an active learning community together. During the first week, they dove into the rich diversity of the Christian community in the Middle East by learning about and visiting the Assyrian Church (or Ancient Church of the East), the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Maronite Catholic Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Armenian Protestant Church.

My favorite visit (though choosing just one is a challenge) was with the abbot of a Greek Orthodox monastery high in the rugged mountains of Lebanon. He spoke about his and his order’s sense of call: to show God to the world through sticking close to the Lord Jesus Christ and allowing one’s life to be a living book read by the world. I found myself pondering — What does the book of my life reveal to others about the nature of God and the nature of God’s love for humanity? I found myself challenged when the abbot commented, “It is impossible to love without interacting with suffering humanity. So, the one who sticks to Christ cannot say that the only thing that matters is my own salvation and close the doors to the world.”

Of course, learning about each of these church families means also delving into the complex and multifaceted history of the Levant-Mesopotamia and Northern African parts of the Middle East. The entire team experienced the phenomenon of discovering that one “answer” leads to another 40 questions. But everyone came away with a much deeper understanding of the history and culture of the Middle East as influenced both by the Christian Church and the Islamic Mosque.

The second week focused on learning about and visiting with Muslim religious leaders from the Sunni, Shi’a, and Druze communities. We observed Friday prayers at a Sunni mosque and shared lunch with members of the community after prayers. According to Shaykh Mohammad Abu Zeid (the imam of this mosque), real dialogue is sharing life together through meals and stepping into each other’s worlds. We experienced this real dialogue even more deeply when we visited with three different organizations deliberately founded by Christians and Muslims seeking to work together on issues of common concern.

One of these organizations focuses especially on civil society development in some of the most religiously conservative and impoverished communities in Lebanon (Lebanese Organization for Study and Training or LOST). They develop alternatives to sectarianism and corruption by inviting people from different religious backgrounds (Sunni, Shi’a, and Christian) to engage together around common civic issues, not ideological issues (which tend to drive people apart). In this way, they are developing Networks of Peace that are actively solving problems shared by everyone.

The Forum for Development, Culture, and Dialogue (FDCD), is working in Syria on peace-building initiatives. This work ranges from programs using art therapy to help children learn how to live in peace with the “other,” to reconciliation efforts between some opposition groups and the government, to helping opinion makers learn from each other, to working for religious freedom. Even as ISIS fades from the headlines, the FDCD remain concerned and committed to helping communities develop viable alternatives to the promises held out by extremist ideologies. A deeper work beyond militancy is needed for true transformation and restoration in Syria and the region. Groups like FDCD are committed to that deeper work.

The Adyan Foundation (the word “Adyan” means “religions”) also hosted our team. Adyan believes that diversity, especially religious diversity, is a gift and strength to a society. They seek to create space for encounter and common work for the betterment of society. They believe that dialogue happens best in the midst of shared work and in the midst of sharing our hopes and fears. Adyan has developed the concept of “inclusive citizenship.” This concept is helping Lebanon and the region move away from the language of majority and minority to a more comprehensive understanding of shared social responsibility and citizenship.

So often, from an American perspective, the Middle East is seen as the source of problems in the world. This trip allowed us instead to learn from our Middle East partners what they are taking from their own complex and interwoven histories in order to move into a new future together. It encouraged them to have us come as learners. Their joyful commitment in the face of many challenges encouraged us to look with fresh eyes at our own context in the United States and ask the question of ourselves: How might God be calling us to be bridge-builders, reconcilers, and conveners of a safe place for those holding different opinions to gather and begin receiving each other once again as fellow citizens committed to finding solutions that improve the opportunities of everyone in our various communities?

This is the ministry of mutual encouragement in action.

Thank you again for your partnership through prayer, encouraging emails, financial support, and visits that make it possible for Scott and me to be a part of this ministry of mutual encouragement. You daily encourage us in so many ways. We pray this glimpse into some of what you have a share in creating is of encouragement to you. We couldn’t do this sacred work without you and the abundant grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Together in Service to our Lord,

Elmarie (for Scott too)

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