Bringing hope in times of despair
by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterians Today
Beirut’s 2020 port explosions shattered Nada Raphael’s world. The devastating blast in early August that tore through the port area of Beirut — one of the largest nonnuclear explosions in history — left hundreds dead, thousands injured, hundreds of thousands homeless and artists, like Raphael, psychically wounded.
“Beirut is my city,” said the Lebanese-born photographer, videographer and journalist in an interview with ARLEB, a not-for-profit digital platform dedicated to artists and creative enterprises in Lebanon. “Its pain [is] my pain. I felt the aftermath of the explosion in every bone of my body, and I wanted to show this. I want to make sure we will remember. We have a duty to remember what happened and to never forget.”
And now, through a unique program called Nabad, Raphael and a host of artists across Lebanon have a new platform through which the memory of the port explosions may be preserved, the resulting trauma processed and some measure of healing achieved.
Nabad — launched by Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in response to the August tragedy in Beirut — aims to empower artists, arts organizations and creative enterprises in Southwestern Asia and North Africa to implement their artistic, cultural ideas and market their artwork. The program strives to become a beacon of support for artists and creative enterprises in the region, with a focus on marginalized arts and culture communities, especially youth, women, minorities and vulnerable groups.
Because Lebanon’s economy was already in a state of crisis before the port explosions — a situation that only worsened with the arrival of COVID-19 — funding for everything, not just the arts, suffered. During the pandemic, Dar al-Kalima essentially lost about 70% of its support.
“There are artists who fled the country and others whose studios were destroyed or damaged by the blast that still don’t have the means to rebuild,” said the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, president of Dar al-Kalima. “Most artists — especially the emerging, marginalized and independents who come from what is left of the middle class — are not able to produce or sell [their art] due to Lebanon’s acute economic crisis. With the Nabad program, we were able to offer a few channels and spaces of creativity that are all free of charge for artists. With needed support, artists are able to adapt, and they also find creative ways to keep people connected.”
To continue important missions like Nabad, Dar al-Kalima was awarded a grant from the Peace & Global Witness Offering, which promotes the peace of Christ by addressing systems of conflict and injustice across the world. The offering is unique in that 50% of it goes to the national church to foster peace globally, 25% is retained by congregations for local peace and reconciliation work, and 25% goes to mid councils for similar ministries on the regional level.
“The support of the Peace & Global Witness Offering is very crucial, especially at times like these,” said Raheb. “When everything is falling apart and people in the region feel abandoned, this support is a sign that we are not forsaken or forgotten. On the other hand, it helps us to reach out to the neediest and to bring hope at times of despair.”
A world away at the U.S.-Mexico border, Tom Elander — despite his many experiences with mission work — was still surprised in 2020 by what he witnessed and learned. “I walked away with a much greater appreciation for how difficult life is for many people from Mexico and Central America and how they often look to the U.S. as a beacon of hope to help them escape the misery of their lives where they come from — whether from poverty, violence, lack of education or lack of opportunity,” said Elander of his four-day experience in Los Angeles and Tijuana with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.
Elander, a Los Angeles-based architect and a member of Brentwood Presbyterian Church in West L.A., was one of some 40 participants in the Southern Border Experience Travel Study Seminar last year. Walking alongside Elander and his companions on the journey was Kristi Van Nostran, a full-time immigrant accompaniment organizer with the San Gabriel and Riverside presbyteries. Van Nostran helped put together portions of the seminar designed to allow participants to see firsthand the impact of migration and immigration law both north and south of the border.
“It was shocking to see so many families, particularly with small children, living in tents and makeshift dormitories in church buildings and sharing so few bathroom facilities,” she said. “Despite the conditions, spirits were high, and I was impressed with the organization and leadership on the part of the resident families to coordinate cooking and cleaning responsibilities. I remember so many people sharing that there is nothing that prepares one for a visit like that. No amount of news coverage, no matter how accurate, can really portray the humanity and the inhumanity of it all.”
The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, whose work is made possible by gifts to the Peace & Global Witness Offering, sponsors several travel study seminars to different parts of the world each year. Through such initiatives, Presbyterians are given an opportunity to learn firsthand from PC(USA)’s partners — such as the Border Church/La Iglesia Fronteriza in Tijuana — about efforts for peace, justice and reconciliation in the contexts of conflict, injustice and oppression. Because of the pandemic’s ongoing impact, plans are under way to offer similar border pilgrimages virtually, at least for the foreseeable future.
Elander commends the border experience, which he says has emboldened him to speak out wherever and whenever necessary. “My service on the Pacific Presbytery task force in particular has helped me to know that there are times when I must push back on my own government when the basic needs of human beings and fellow Christians are not only ignored, but also when obstacles are deliberately put in the way of people seeking freedom and a safe and decent life with hope for the future,” he said.
Although she comes from a vastly different life experience, Natalie Pisarcik, a deacon and member of First Presbyterian Church of Boonton, New Jersey, also faced obstacles that impeded her hope for the future.
“There was a time in my life when I was on the bottom,” Pisarcik once testified during Sunday worship. “I cannot even describe how hard and difficult that time was. Only those who have been there know how it feels.”
Pisarcik said she had fallen into such a deep depression in her early 20s that she attempted suicide. “On that fateful day,” Pisarcik wrote in her testimony, which was later published as an entry in the congregation’s 2020 Lenten devotional, “I went for a walk in a wooded area where I kept repeating over and over in my wounded brain how I would end the pain. As I walked, I came across a field, which oddly seemed to call to me. I walked over to it, and as I walked into the field, a beam of warm sunlight hit my face. It was at this exact moment that I realized I had a made a terrible mistake: the terrible mistake of wanting to end it all. I then fell to my knees, sobbing and begging God for forgiveness for what I had done. Forgiveness, of which, I did receive.”
Pisarcik’s courageous profession never fails to move the church’s pastor, the Rev. Jen Van Zandt, whenever she rereads it. “Who knows how many lives her story will save,” said Van Zandt.
Because Pisarcik’s watershed experience during college took on such a renewed resonance during the pandemic, she found herself compelled to address the growing mental health crisis not only by sharing her story with her church, but also by getting herself and the congregation more involved.
“Sadly, and tragically, our community has lost more people to suicide in 2020 than it has to COVID-19,” said Pisarcik.
Among the first to step up in response to what was already a community crisis prior to the pandemic, the church’s board of deacons, on which Pisarcik was serving at the time, took immediate action to address the suicide crisis. Because deacons in the Presbyterian tradition are called to a ministry of “compassion, witness and service,” the board has voted for the past three years to designate the church’s 25% share of the Peace & Global Witness Offering to support the New Jersey Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an organization in which Pisarcik had participated for years.
Through the Peace & Global Witness Offering, congregations and mid councils are encouraged and equipped to find and address the anxiety and discord that is prevalent throughout this broken and sinful world, just as First Presbyterian Church of Boonton, New Jersey, has done.
Every gift to the Peace & Global Witness Offering helps bring the peace of Christ into situations of conflict and injustice — like the three featured here — in your local area, throughout the U.S. and around the world. We say it often, but it’s so very true: “When we all do a little, it adds up to a lot.”
Emily Enders Odom is the mission interpretation project manager for the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Mission Engagement and Support team.
The Peace & Global Witness Offering is received during the season of peace, which begins Sept. 5 and ends on Oct. 3, World Communion Sunday. However, congregations are welcome to celebrate this offering at any point in the year. For more information, go to specialofferings.pcusa.org/offering/peace-global-witness/worship-resources
Support Presbyterian Today’s publishing ministry. Click to give
You may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.
Categories: Presbyterians Today, Special Offerings
Tags: mental health, peace & global witness offering, Peacemaking, Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, Special Offerings, suicide
Tags: al-kalima university college of arts, artists and creative enterprises, arts and culture, church of boonton new jersey, college of arts and culture, dar al-kalima, dar al-kalima university college, emily enders odom, first presbyterian church of boonton, global witness, global witness offering, kristi van nostran, launched by dar al-kalima, launched by dar al-kalima university, peace global, peace global witness, peace global witness offering, university college of arts, witness offering, worship with the border church
Ministries: Presbyterians Today, Special Offerings