Spurring One Another on Toward Love and Good Deeds

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

May 2020

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Dear Friends,

In the midst of all that the COVID-19 pandemic has held, among the most profound realities is bearing witness to how our partners in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have taken hold of and lived into the encouragement of Hebrews 10:23-25: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

We ask you to pray for all of our partners who have been working from home and following the social restrictions implemented by their respective governments. We offer up prayers of thanks that everyone we know among the leadership is healthy as of now and we ask you to continue to pray for their health and the health of every member of their congregations. Here are some of the ways they are seeking to continue in their ministries of worship and service to the most vulnerable in their own communities and beyond.

Church Partners

The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL)
NESSL is working on several fronts. Like churches in the USA, they are finding creative ways to continue with weekly worship via streaming platforms. In addition, the pastors of the Synod are rotating everyday with sending out a message of encouragement to members of all the churches in both countries.

In Lebanon, the NESSL has initiated two responses. One focuses on COVID-19 education and hygiene provisions for the families of the Syrian students who had been attending the 4 learning centers started by the Synod to educate Syrian children refugeed in Lebanon (up to 1,000 families will be aided).

The second project focuses on food provisions for the most vulnerable Lebanese families in each congregation’s circle of influence (up to 1,000 families will be aided). Both projects have been initially developed to function for two months. PDA has committed to send initial funds for these projects. The food security concern is likely to extend beyond this time period.

In Syria, the government instituted a country-wide lockdown starting in March that remains in force. Local markets and bakeries take orders for fresh foods, dry goods and bread and deliver it to people’s homes so that fewer people are out on the streets. While it is difficult to know numbers of COVID-19 cases in Syria because of the fragile health care system, so far it appears that there are few cases (38 identified as of 4-19-20; 2 deaths).

Like Lebanon, having the virus come on top of the other severe challenges the country has faced since 2011 means that economically people are suffering even more. Inflation continues to rise and purchasing power continues to fall. As a result, food security is also falling even further. The NESSL is continuing with their relief work in Syria through a previously designed relief aid program. The emphases described in that proposal remain key needs (food, water, fuel and rent assistance).

Please pray that vulnerable families of all ethnic, national and religious backgrounds will be fed by God’s people in Lebanon and Syria, and that our partners would be daily strengthened to engage the ministry challenges of their context with creativity, energy, hope and love. If your congregation or others you know would like to enter into deeper relationship with NESSL and partner with these specific projects, please let me know and I will send you more detailed updates, prayer requests and the current information of where best to send your funds.

The Assembly of National Evangelical Churches in Iraq (ANECI)
In Iraq, although the actual case count is difficult to know, as of 04-20-20, 1,574 reported cases, 1,043 recoveries and 82 deaths had been officially reported. The Assembly of National Evangelical Churches in Iraq (ANECI), has also found creative ways to continue with weekly worship via streaming platforms. This has taken place in the midst of a 24 hour/day country-wide lockdown that has been in place since early March and comes on top of the society disrupting protests that have been happening since October 2019 (curfew restrictions may begin being eased starting May 10). Each church also sends out a nearly daily encouraging message to its members and hosts bible studies via streaming platforms.

The Assembly has also developed two COVID-19 intervention proposals. The first is focused on immediate emergency responses to assure that at least 200 vulnerable families are able to have access to clean water and sufficient and nutritious food. As you might imagine, the 24 hour/day lockdown has especially impacted families that were already surviving on the meager daily wages earned by members working in menial jobs. The concern of starvation is immense. All Iraqis are doing what they can to help each other—even to the point of some of the small corner markets leaving their stores open and unattended so that those who have need and come and take what they need for that day.

The second proposal is focused on helping 555 families with tuition scholarships once schools are able to resume—this will help children continue to have access to a quality education that has already been severely disrupted this academic year due to the protests, and will help support the families of the 94 teachers employed by the Assemblies three schools. Both PDA and Presbyterian World Mission will be sending funds to help support these projects.

Please pray that vulnerable families of all ethnic and religious backgrounds will be fed by God’s people in Iraq, and that our partners would be daily strengthened to engage the ministry challenges of their context with creativity, energy, hope and love. If your congregation or others you know would like to enter into deeper relationship with the Assembly and partner with these specific projects, please let me know and I will send you more detailed updates, prayer requests and the current information of where best to send your funds.

Ecumenical Partners

Middle East Council of Churches (MECC)
MECC has just issued (4-20-20) two very detailed analyses of the situation facing both Lebanon and Syria, along with a 6-month proposal for offering hygiene and food support for 8,000 of the most vulnerable households across both countries, health-care support for 800 individuals suffering from cancer and other chronic conditions, and training support for 65 front-line church workers as they continue to respond to the needs of their local communities during the active Pandemic time and its aftermath.

MECC is well positioned in both countries to make an effective and sustained response to this Crisis. Their reach includes all parts of the Christian family in collaboration with Muslim colleagues. PDA will be sending funds to help support MECC’s initiative.

Please pray that that our partners would be daily strengthened to engage the ministry challenges of their context with creativity, energy, hope and love as they seek to collaboratively respond to the food insecurity needs of vulnerable families from all ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds in Lebanon and Syria. If your congregation or others you know would like to enter into deeper relationship with MECC and partner with these specific projects, please let me know and I will send you more detailed updates, prayer requests and the current information of where best to send your funds.

Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC)
Focused on the vast needs in Syria, the FMEEC has proposed a one-time project aiming to support 3000 vulnerable families in Syria (about 15,000 individuals) through the provision of critically needed hygiene items to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The items are available in Lebanon for purchase (they have not had the hoarding challenges we have faced here in the USA). Through contacts, they are able to move the desperately needed hygiene supplies into Syria for distribution through an already well-established local network that serves both vulnerable Christian and Muslim families. PDA will be sending funds to support this FMEEC initiative.

Please pray that through the network of churches who participate in FMEEC, vulnerable families of all ethnic and religious backgrounds in Syria will receive accurate education about COVID19 and the hygiene practices needed to protect against it, along with actual hygiene supplies needed to implement these practices. Please pray as well for the daily strengthening of these local congregations, that they may persevere in their worship and service. If your congregation or others you know would like to enter into deeper relationship with the FMEEC and partner with this specific project, please let me know and I will send you more detailed updates, prayer requests and the current information of where best to send your funds.

Academic Partners

Near East School of Theology (NEST)
Though Lebanon is under a stay-at-home order, because many of the full-time NEST students live in NEST’s building, along with faculty and key staff, both education and community support and shared worship has remained possible—either in person or on-line (for students not living at NEST). Though NEST is continuing online, it is a new venture and not one for which NEST felt particularly well prepared. But, according to President Dr. George Sabra, instructors and students are managing. They will be able to salvage the semester. Until further notice, no outside visitors are allowed. A company was brought in to disinfect the entire building and all who live in the building are under strict hand washing and use of disinfectants measures. No doubt that NEST will have financial needs as they assess the impact from COVID-19. As I hear specifics, I’ll share them with you.

Lebanese American University (LAU)
LAU has also been closed since late February, with faculty continuing classes on-line and staff and administrators continuing their work from home. The focus has been making sure that students and their families are receiving good emotional support and that students can continue with their education; in addition, the University has increased its financial aid to an even higher level than it already was due to the very challenging economic situation that has been facing Lebanon this entire academic year. LAU’s Medical Center has been working in close collaboration with the Lebanese Government (as has other private and public hospitals) in order to provide effective and timely care to anyone suffering from COVID-19. The Medical Center also just recently established a teleservice for people to call in order to assess their symptoms. The Board of Trustees and its committees has continued with its oversight work in collaboration with the President and President’s Council, making the needed financial decisions to help the institution weather the additional crisis presented by the COVID-19 Pandemic. In addition, the Board has been able to move forward with the election of a new President for LAU so that even during these challenging times, an effective leadership transition process can be implemented.

Please pray for the leadership of these academic institutions as restrictions for universities and other schools begin to be lifted in Lebanon—for wisdom and discernment of how and when to best to return to in-person instruction. Please pray for the students and their families, that they would receive the daily grace to persevere with wise hygiene practices and physical distancing as restrictions begin to be slowly lifted across the country. If your congregation or others you know would like to enter into deeper relationship with these academica partners, please let me know and I will send you more detailed updates, prayer requests and the current information on how best to collaborate with their current work.

Partners working with Specific Constituent Groups

Blessed School
Like other academic institutions, Blessed School has also been closed since late February. Thus far, all students and faculty remain healthy. One of hallmarks of Blessed School is its students’, staff and faculty’s commitment to serve other vulnerable populations. Right now, that population is hungry families. So, every day, a few key staff put together food and hygiene baskets and then call vulnerable families in the community surrounding the school and beyond to let them know that a package is available for them to pick-up at the gate. All of this is being funded through private donations from the staff’s circle of friends and family. So far, they are learning that $1000 can feed 30 families for up to two weeks and they have served over 120 families so far from all religious and ethnic backgrounds: Christian and Muslim from all the represented communities in the country; Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, Indian, Ethiopian and more.

Joint Christian Committee (JCC)
JCC works with the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon. This community has especially felt the burden of the stay-at-home order where so many depend on a daily wage (which is no longer possible to earn) and live in very overcrowded conditions. Fortunately, due to the quick actions by the Lebanese Government and the United Nations agencies working with Palestinians (disinfecting homes and implementing COVID-19 awareness education and hygiene protocols) no infections, as of April 10, have been reported in Palestinian Camps in Lebanon. All of JCC’s Centers have been disinfected, and so they are now moving forward with a proposal to supply the on-going hygiene items needed by families to keep them safe, along with food. This proposal is being funded by PDA. JCC plans to reach 150 families (between 900-1,200 people) for one month.

Jinishian Memorial Program (JMP)
With special focus on vulnerable Armenian senior adults, the staff of JCC have rotated days being at the clinic. As a social/medical care site, their focus right now is on providing the medications needed by those with chronic diseases. They are checking on clients by phone and then preparing the needed medications for pick-up so that clients don’t need to wait in the hall for them. They are following physical distancing guidelines and keeping the office sterilized. Because of the tremendous need for food, they are hoping to begin food distributions this month and will be applying for a grant from PDA to assist with these efforts.

Forum for Development, Culture, and Dialogue (FDCD)
Continuing with their focus on Syria, FDCD has been securing funds to distribute much needed food and hygiene items and other assistance to vulnerable communities across Syria—especially to those areas that are harder for other organizations to gain access.

Lebanon InterVarsity Fellowship (LIVF)
A newer partner, LIVF works with both undergraduate and graduate students on campuses across Lebanon—providing support of all kinds and a space for spiritual conversation and reflection. Because universities have been shut down since late February and everything has been moved to on-line, LIVF’s work has also continued online. Every week the leadership sends out a reflection question and elicits responses that are shared within the community to support and encourage each other. Questions like: How do we show love and compassion while maintaining physical distance from one another? How are you maintaining a strong faith in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic? Many are saying they are thankful that God has spared them and their family from the virus; so, would you still be thankful if you had a family die from the virus? Students also pray for and support one another through on-line communities.

World Student Christian Federation (WSCF)
A renewed partnership with WSCF has been unfolding over the course of this past year. They also work with undergraduate and graduate students across the Middle East, and also have had to adjust their work to on-line only. They are gathering prayer requests from students and then writing pastoral prayers to share on-line based on requests received. They are also considering the launch of an e-learning program.

Please pray for these partners working with specific constituent groups, that they would be daily strengthened to engage the ministry challenges of their context with creativity, energy, hope and love as they seek to serve those who are most vulnerable at this time. If your congregation or others you know would like to enter into deeper relationship with any of these partners, and collaborate with their particular work, please let me know and I will send you more detailed updates, prayer requests and the current information of of how best to participate in such partnership.

As you can see, our sisters and brothers in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are also adapting to yet another set of challenging circumstances, COVID-19, and finding creative ways to continue with their ministries and service. Please continue to pray for their daily energy, hope, faith, love and perseverance, even as they also pray for yours! Again, we remain so very grateful for your continuing partnership and you and your families and community remain in our prayers as well. We look forward to hearing from you.

In the meantime, please join us in praying:

• For the development of effective treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 and for an end to its active presence in the global community.

• For the many families across the globe who are grieving the death of a loved one during this COVID-19 time, especially when they may not be able to gather as they would prior to the
pandemic to support each other in their time of grief—may Christ’s Spirit provide comfort when so many other ways of providing comfort are not available.

• For the leaders of countries, states/provinces/regions, and local communities around the globe—for wisdom, humility, discernment, and capacity to cooperate with others for the best outcomes for all who are impacted by their decisions regarding COVID-19 and its many domino effects.

• For front-line workers both visible and hidden in every country who are helping the rest of us survive this experience in big and small ways, for their daily strength, perseverance, and health.

• For the daily graces of hope, faith, love, perseverance, humility, patience and creative
adaptation for each of our partners, for Scott and Elmarie, for Presbyterian World Mission (all of our colleagues both US-based and globally-based), and for all national PC(USA) staff and local congregations (members and friends, staff and pastors) and the families of those congregations.

• For Scott as he perseveres with his Arabic tutor via WhatsApp—this is a challenging way to try and learn Arabic!

• For Elmarie as she works with partners and World Mission colleagues on a variety of projects and issues via WhatsApp and Email.

• For Scott and Elmarie as they navigate being physically separated by COVID19—for creative ways to nourish their relationship even while they are apart.

Joyfully in Christ’s Service with you all,

Elmarie


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