A letter from Elmarie Parker serving as regional liaison for Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and Scott Parker, based in Lebanon
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I (Elmarie) believe our Lord revels through surprising us with glimpses of God’s Kingdom at work in our world!
Two weeks into Lent 2016 four of us traveled to share in the life and work of the Presbyterian Church in Baghdad, Iraq. Though I had had the privilege of visiting with this church previously and was familiar with their context, it was the first visit to Baghdad for the rest of the team. We know the question Nathanael asked of Philip regarding our Lord, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). I venture many of us ask the same question of Baghdad, Iraq—“Can anything good come out of Baghdad?”
Here’s what we experienced:
Baghdad, a city of well over 8 million residents, like most cities around the world, has areas that are safe and areas that are unsafe. In the eight full days that we were there, our partners wanted to show us some of the safe areas of their city. They know the reputation Baghdad has around the world, and they wanted for us to see something different from the headlines. One evening, after finishing our activities for the day on the church campus, we went out for dinner with three of the young men from the congregation. They took us to an upscale fast-food restaurant near the University of Baghdad. Young families and young adults laughed and chatted as they enjoyed burgers, fries, and milkshakes. We were greeted with warm smiles and enthusiastic expressions of “Welcome to Baghdad” by Muslims and Christians alike. Committed to spoiling us, another evening our hosts brimmed with excitement as they spirited us away to their favorite fish place along the Tigris River. There we enjoyed Masguf—fire-roasted fish and hot-from-the-clay-oven bread—a taste of heaven, for sure. The streets and shops teemed with life. This is the Baghdad that doesn’t make the news.
For two and a half days we joined nearly 60 leaders and members of the Baghdad Presbyterian Church, from older teens to folks in their 80s, for shared workshops and visioning conversations. They focused on discerning the next steps of ministry and outreach to which this Arabic-speaking congregation feels called. Wow! They asked us to join by guiding participants through various Bible study skills and discussed how they can be used in everyday life.
The workshops culminated with each group having 15 minutes to develop a dramatic interpretation of the “Prodigal Son” parable shared in Luke 15:11-32. Each group created their script from the perspective of either the younger son, the older son, or the father. One group even placed it in the context of the Iraqi church that faces the challenge of so many young people seeking to emigrate to Europe or another Western country. Imagine it being seen as “prodigal” to leave family behind to go to Germany, and the joy the church here experiences when one of their own returns! The group chose to share this particular drama in worship on Sunday, helping to interpret this text to the congregation prior to the sermon.
During a second set of workshops participants worked together in small groups to develop action steps for extending their ministry beyond the church walls—exploring how they could be the “tangible touch of God” to neighbors, friends, colleagues, and family. Several new followers of Jesus participated as well. Together they envisioned next steps of ministry beyond the church walls through puppet teams, sports teams for children, programming for children at a nearby camp for displaced Iraqi families, and empowering leaders who are coming alongside those who want to know more about following Jesus.
The Baghdad Church currently runs a well-regarded kindergarten with over 70 students. The school accepts students of all religious backgrounds, reflecting the make-up of the city. Parents are learning that several of the kindergarten teachers have received training in Lebanon to help them expand their skills for working with children who live with autism and other disabilities. The wait list is now long for entry into this program. Seeing the huge need for skilled teachers to work with autistic children, the Baghdad Church is inviting PC(USA) members who have these skills to come in June 2017 to provide further training in working with disabilities for all their kindergarten and Sunday School teachers. They want to become known in Baghdad as the place for these children to come. If you or someone you know has this skill set, we urge you or that person to ask Jesus if he is inviting you to come and share what you know with adults who will multiply your skills into a community that is in desperate need for this kind of care. Please contact Elmarie through the email address below for further information.
The response to their kindergarten ministry has led the church leadership to envision starting a primary school and vocational training program/conference center as well. The church property has wonderful classroom space that goes unused during the week—just right for a primary school. In addition, the church owns another property already renovated to serve as the conference center/vocational training program site. It would be the first conference center in all of Baghdad. Such vocational training is desperately needed by adults displaced by ISIS who are seeking training that can help them to find employment so they can support their families as they start their lives over again. All that is needed are partners who would like to help them equip the rooms with needed supplies and seed money for hiring qualified teachers. We invite you to consider partnering with the Baghdad Church as they seek to expand their ministry reach. Please contact Elmarie for a copy of the School/Conference Center/Vocational Training Proposal if you are interested in learning more.
So we are left with the question, “Can anything good come out of Baghdad?” How would you now answer this question?
We remain so very, very grateful for the privilege of serving alongside our church partners in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and for the privilege of partnering in this work with each of you. Through your faithful partnership in prayer, stepping out in faith to participate on a visiting team, corresponding with us and our Middle East partners through email, and sharing with us your financial support, we are able to continue in this ministry of mutual encouragement and hope. Especially during a time when World Mission is having to make staffing cuts, we are grateful for your financial gifts that allow us to stay, thus expressing support, love, and commitment to our church partners in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Please do let us know how else we can be of assistance to you as you seek to develop meaningful relationships with the church in the Middle East.
With deep gratitude and love to our Lord who revels in surprising us all with glimpses of God’s Kingdom at work in our world—especially in places where we might least expect it!
Scott & Elmarie
Associate for Ecumenical Partnerships and Regional Liaison to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon
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