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U.S. and Middle East pastors partner in prayer and action for refugees in war-torn Syria

 

Rediscovering mutual mission in times of crisis

By Tim McCalmont | Mission Crossroads Magazine

The Rev Tim McCalmont (right) preaches at the Presbyterian Church of Homs, Syria, with the Rev. Mofid Karajili interpreting. Elmarie Parker

IRVINE, Calif. – Seven years ago, as pastor of a Presbyterian church in Costa Mesa, California, I found myself praying for peace to overshadow our broken world. About that time, I became friends with a Presbyterian family who had moved into our community from Homs, Syria. As my friendship with the Jarjours grew, I learned about the crisis in their homeland and how it was impacting their church in Homs. I asked if they would put me in touch with their pastor, at which point he and I began exchanging emails, sharing mutual concerns about our congregations and praying for one another.

In those conversations, I learned what had happened to their sanctuary and fellowship hall, and to the old city around the church. The attacks had been waged by radical groups and had scattered the congregation. The pastor was attempting to serve the people of his church, keeping them together during this crisis. For me, this was no longer just a sound bite on the evening news; it became a personal concern for a friend, a colleague and a brother in Christ.

I learned that Presbyterian World Mission was forming a new mission network related to Syria and Lebanon. So I decided to fly to Louisville, Kentucky, to attend the network’s organizational meeting, and I invited my new friend Arfan Jarjour along. At the meeting, I learned about mission co-workers Scott and Elmarie Parker, serving in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The Parkers had joined a number of others from congregations who shared our concerns. We heard reports from the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL) and the Near East School of Theology, both partners with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), each making a significant impact on mission in the Middle East. It was then I decided to commit my time and energy to this urgent work and to help facilitate the formation of partnerships between churches in the PC(USA) and Presbyterian churches in Syria and Lebanon.

Soon I agreed to travel to the region and meet our partners firsthand. God helped raise the funds through our church and the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, and away I went. The trip was life-changing for me. I met resilient, faith-filled people and saw how they had stepped up in violent times and served those in need around them. We talked about ways we could assist them in bringing help and support to many displaced people in their communities. We prayed deeply and often. Our prayers meant so much to the many people we met. Among the most humbling privileges I have experienced was to preach in the Presbyterian Church of Homs, with my new friend pastor Mofid Karajili as my interpreter.

These students are from a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon. Because they are Muslim, they are encouraged to attend Islamic schools, but they continue to put their names on a waiting list to attend classes in one of the six education centers operated by the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL). Tim McCalmont

We then traveled to Syrian refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon to see firsthand the dire situation there. We saw United Nations relief agencies at work, yet extreme poverty still plagued many thousands who had fled their homes in Syria. We heard about the synod’s plans to address the needs of the children in these camps, the synod’s strategy to build schools near the camps and efforts to provide students with clothing, food, school supplies and transportation each day. With an ample supply of teachers at the ready, the only thing needed were the necessary funds.

Returning to the U.S., we promised to pray for the churches and pastors and to organize ways to raise funds for relief work and the schools project. Education is a strong suit not only in our denomination but also in the history of the Presbyterian Church in the Middle East. That historic relationship began in 1823, with a strategy to build two schools for every church planted. The people of Syria respect the Presbyterians to provide quality education for their children. We witnessed this ourselves in the several schools we visited. In fact, the American University of Beirut, now known as “the Harvard of the Middle East,” was founded by Presbyterians in the early 19th century.

Each of the past three years, I have been a part of teams traveling to Syria and Lebanon, seeing how the Syria- Lebanon Partnership Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has helped develop six education centers — teaching more than 600 refugee children. The quality of education has stood out, as has the witness of the love of Christ-filled teachers and administrators. Yet the waiting list indicates that the great need for education continues.

Returning to Costa Mesa, we launched the Syrian Presbyterian Fellowship, reaching out to Syrian neighbors who have longed for a weekly Arabic-language Presbyterian worship service, just like “back home.” An Arabic-speaking pastor from our presbytery agreed to preach each Sunday afternoon and, three years later, the services are going strong.

I have also been able to lead the Syria-Lebanon Partnership Network as moderator, collaborating with committed and experienced Presbyterians as we work to educate people in our churches, set up new partnerships, help support the work and advocate for true and lasting peace in the region.

Although the needs continue, I have been reminded time and again how God can take little and make it much. As prayer was the instigating factor in my involvement, it has continued to be the power that carries this entire ministry. Personally, I felt I had little to offer other than an open, prayerful heart and a willingness to step into a challenging situation with the love God had shown to me.

The Rev. Tim McCalmont is bridge pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California, and moderator of the Syria-Lebanon Partnership Network of the PC(USA). Get involved: learn how you can make a difference as part of the Syria-Lebanon Partnership Network.

This article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission.


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