LEBANON CONTINUED

Global Care Alliance has been doing projects in Mexico and Burundi for 12 years, even more if you count the years I worked in  Mexico before incorporation.  If you have followed us, you know there have been events along way that were pivotal in terms of advancing our mission of serving the cause of Christ through works of love to disadvantaged and  disenfranchised people in whatever places God leads us.  Just a few examples of these pivotal moments are meeting Frances in Colonet, buying the land in Vicente Guerrero and building the community center, being introduced to Onesphore the last day of that very first trip to Burundi, being led to Gahararo, our adopted Batwa village in Burundi, and opening the clinic in Vicente Guerrero, to name just a few.  We have served so many and many have come to faith because of what we do.  

The way I work is that I wait for God to call me to a place or project before I make a move.  Until now, the “call” has come by way of people asking me to do particular projects or to go to particular places to investigate possible projects.  I pray about the request and then do an exploratory trip if determine that is what God wants me to do.  I then assess the situation and determine if there is a faithful local partner who can assist us.  If the place/project clears those hurdles, I then ask God to show me His will by opening the door to make the needed funds available.  This is exactly how it has worked with each and every one of our projects.

A few months ago, one of our regular donors sent me a picture of a refugee child in Lebanon and asked me if GCA could do a project to help children like her living in camps throughout the country.  As per my standard operating procedure I told this donor that I would go to Lebanon and perform the necessary due diligence.  I informed the donor I would need their assistance in funding any new project we undertake in Lebanon.

I was excited to visit Lebanon as my paternal grandmother was from Tripoli in the northern part of the country, making me a 1/4 Lebanese.  (She married my grandfather, an Iraqi, and moved to Baghdad where they settled and raised their children, including my father.)  As a child, I visited Beirut and the beautiful mountains just to the east of the city several times, the last time being 1975 (I was 12) literally only a few weeks before the civil war broke out. 

I wanted to see Lebanon again.  My main goal, however, was to serve.  When I made up my mind to visit Lebanon on an exploratory mission, I did not know a single soul.  Seriously, not anyone.  All the family I ever had in the Middle East, whether Lebanese or Iraqi, left long ago to resettle in Europe, Great Britain, and the United States.  Even when Carmen Vertullo and I went to Baghdad with E3 Partners back in 2004, all my family had already fled.  So I started from scratch.  (Same thing happened when we started to work in Burundi.  When I went there the first time I did not know anyone.) 

From the very beginning, I knew I should try to establish some contacts in Lebanon before I left.  I thought it would be wise to know someone as soon as I landed.  (Duh, right?)   The first thing I did was a Google search for “evangelical missionaries Lebanon.”  The very first link that came up was one for a guy named Hesham Shehab with an organization called Salaam Ministries.  The page showed his picture and gave his email address.  I sent him an email telling him my background and explaining why I intended to go to Lebanon.  Hesham called me the next day and we spoke for about an hour, during which time he told me his story.

Hesham was born a Beiruti Muslim and by the time he was a teenager, he had been radicalized and was acting as an assassin for Hamas.  In his early 20s he was saved through a dream he had about Jesus.  He founded Salaam Ministries as a platform for doing ministry and outreach to Muslims in Beirut.

Hesham told me he was no longer in Lebanon having immigrated to the US to attend seminary.  I asked him what seminary he attended.  Lo and behold he had attended our Lutheran synod’s seminary at Ft. Wayne, Indiana!  I was shocked.  We had an immediate affinity.  He told me he had set up Salaam Ministries as an American nonprofit that he now runs in the Chicago area.

Pastor Hesham gave me the names of some people to contact, one of whom is an Egyptian pastor named Njeim Awadi (fictitious name).  Pastor Njeim and his family had been forced to leave their homeland because of persecution they were experiencing at the hands of Egyptian Muslims. The family had lived in Beirut for some time before relocating to Cyprus.  After living in Cyprus for a few years they sought asylum in the United States landed in Huntington Beach.

My next move was to reach out to Pastor Njeim.  We spoke and agreed to meet for lunch in Huntington Beach.  The lunch was very productive.  Not only does Pastor Njeim have many contacts in Lebanon, but he is also doing his colloquy to become a legitimate American pastor.  It turns out that he too is a Lutheran in my synod of the Lutheran church! ( Coincidence?  No way!)  Once again, there was an affinity between me and Njeim.  He gave me the contact information for a few people who could help me out during my time in Lebanon.

Now fast forward.  One name that came up on the contact lists of both Pastor Hesham and Pastor Njeim was a pastor named Mohammed Yamout.  Both pastors told me that Pastor Yamout is the “real deal.”  I sent Pastor Yamout an email, again announcing myself and asking if I could meet up with him during one of my two 4-day stints in Beirut.  He wrote back that he is actually in the city of Tyre in southern Lebanon not too far from the border with Israel.  (Tyre is place that Jesus visited and performed a miracle for the Syro-Phoenician woman.)  We made tentative plans to meet on Tuesday the 22nd.

When I arrived back in Beirut on Monday the 21st for my second 4-day stay, Pastor Yamout sent me an email asking me if I would like to go visit him at his church in Tyre.  I told him I would and he told me he would send a car to pick me up at my hotel the next day at 9 a.m.  Great!

Pastor Yamout was true to his word.  At 9 a.m. I was picked up by a UAB student named Mohammed.  This Mohammed was also a Muslim converted to Christianity.  Pastor Yamout had told me that it was about a 90 minute drive from Beirut to Tyre and I just figured Mohammed would be driving me all the way there.  I was wrong.  Mohammed’s instructions were simply to drive me to Beirut’s central bus terminal and put me on a public bus to the central bus terminal in Tyre where I then would be picked up by yet another driver.  That driver was to take me to Pastor Yamout.

I wish I had been cleared to take pictures, because the bus ride to Tyre was classic.  First off, the bus was a converted VW bus with three rows of plank seats.  It was totally rusted, so much so that there were holes in the floorboard.  I could see the road through the holes.  It was jam packed and I rode with my knees in my chest the whole way.  There were two old Muslim women, six Muslim men wearing Kaffiyehs, the driver, and two armed Lebanese soldiers in camouflage, all of us crammed into the makeshift bus.  Both of the women were wearing Hijabs and talked to me in Arabic the whole ride to Tyre.  They seemed very nice, but I didn’t understand a word they said to me, except “Habibi.” which means my love.  Frankly, the men were friendly as well.  They all helped steer me in the right direction when we arrived in Tyre.

I was collected at the bus terminal in Tyre by yet another Christian named Mohammed.  (Mohammed is a Muslim name and would usually announce you as such.  Many Muslims change their names when they become Christians, others do not.  All the Mohammeds I have referred to so far are converts to Christianity who have decided to keep their Muslim names.  In fact, my last name “Sharif” is recognized as a Sunni Muslim name.)  This Mohammed took me to a school in Tyre where Pastor Yamout was working that morning.

You need to know that Tyre is 99.99% Muslim.  There are Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian refugees in Tyre.  Typically, the Syrian and Palestinian refugees live in camps while the Iraqi refugees live in rented apartments.  The refugees are not permitted to work in Lebanon and rely for provision on the mosques in the area, Pastor Yamout’s church, and to a lesser extent the UN.  

Tyre is a Hezbollah stronghold where they store missiles, guns, and other munitions they intend to use against Israel.  Hezbollah is pro-Iran politico/militant Islamic (Shiite) group which many people believe is in complete control of Lebanon.  It is only about 12 miles from Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.  The Hezbollah flag is everywhere in Tyre, as are pictures of Imam Nasrullah, the leader of Hezbollah.  There are only a handful of Christians in Tyre and they attend one church — Pastor Yamout’s church.  Pastor Yamout told me his church only has about 6-8 members, not including the handful of people who work for the church. 

It is standing room only at Pastor Yamout’s Wednesday night Bible study, however.  It is mainly women refugees who attend the Bible studies.  They take a risk in doing so.  However, declaring their faith publicly by becoming a member of Pastor Yamout’s church would pose an even greater risk.  Hence the reason there are so many attendees at the Bible study and so few at the service on Sunday.  Apparently, it is one thing for a Muslim in Lebanon to study the Bible, but another thing entirely to declare her allegiance to Jesus by accepting membership in a church.

Although the majority of Muslims in Tyre treat him with respect, Pastor Yamout and his wife are regularly harassed and sometimes attacked (verbally and even physically) by Muslims who object to the presence of Christians in the city.  Pastor Yamout was even jailed one time for four months without any charges being filed.  However, such a attacks are the exception, not the rule.  I was walking around central Tyre with Pastor Yamout for several hours and did not experience any hostility.  In fact, most people we saw obviously knew and liked Pastor Yamout.  There are two young American women serving as missionaries for Pastor Yamout.

The first place I met Pastor Yamout was the International School of Innovations on the outskirts of Tyre.  ISI is a modern private school catering to the children of wealthy Muslims in Tyre.  It is 100% Muslim, but instruction is in English.  Although the students are 100% Muslim, the curriculum is secular.  It is by no means a madrassa.  The kids were eager to speak to me in English and were very friendly.  So were the teachers.  I sat with several of them and Pastor Yamout drinking tea and talking about my impression of Lebanon.  None of them expressed any anti-American sentiment.

There was a Moldovan mission team staying at Pastor Yamout’s compound.  The team consists of seven siblings — age 19-31 — each of whom is an accomplished professional musician.  They are the Kirgev family.  They travel around the world with their father, a pastor, sharing the Gospel through a ministry of music.  The father preaches to conclude each musical performance.  Only four of the Kirgev siblings were on this particular mission trip.  They are incredible, and I have invited them to perform in San Diego on their next trip to the US.

The day I was with them, the family played five concerts, three at ISI, and two at a baptist church for Iraqi refugees back in Beirut.  Even at ISI, a 100% Muslim school, the father was permitted to preach at the conclusion of each performance.

The performance at the baptist church in Beirut was particularly intriguing.  It is a very modern and nice church.  It has a first class A/V system and the staff is technologically sophisticated.  The refugees attending this particular church are mainly Iraqi Chaldeans (catholics), many of whom are trying to get to the US in order to settle in El Cajon!  There are a few Iraqi Muslims attending the church as well.  When I was introduced as being from San Diego, they all wanted to meet me and ask me all about El Cajon.  It was fun.

We were visiting the church so that the Kirgev family could play two sets, one at 6 pm, and one at 8 pm.  Each set consisted of one hour of music, followed by 45 minutes of preaching by Pastors Yamout and Kirgev.  There was no altar call, but Pastor Yamout said that this church has an altar call at each service on Sunday.  Many Iraqis — Chaldean and Muslim alike — come to faith in this church.

We left the church around 10 pm and went to dinner.  The restaurant we went to had only opened for dinner at 8 p.m. and it was packed when we arrived there around 10:15.  By that time, I was adjusting to the Lebanese eating schedule.  Breakfast at 10 or 11, lunch at 3 or 4.  Tea or coffee at 6 or 7.  And Dinner at 9 to 11.

Before I close, there is another conversion story I would like to share.  Walid is with the baptist church in Beirut.  He is a Muslim convert to Christianity.  He has been a refugee in Lebanon for 20 years, since before the fall of Saddam Hussein.  He is now an assistant pastor in the church.

When he was in Iraq, he was a servant to Saddam Hussein.  Specifically, he was a janitor.  One day, he was cleaning Saddam’s office in the presidential  palace.  He was alone and felt something urging him to look in the drawers of Saddam’s desk.  He knew he was taking a huge risk — if caught, he would have been boiled in oil, one of Saddam’s favorite ways of killing his adversaries — but he decided to obey whatever or whoever was urging him to peek.  The first drawer he opened was filled with a stack of 7 or 8 books.  At the very bottom of this stack was a Bible.  He wanted to take it but the risk was too great, so he left it.  

From that point forward, every time Walid was assigned to clean Saddam’s office, he would feel drawn to look at the Bible.  Eventually, he began to read a couple of passages each time.  One night he had a life-changing dream.  In the dream Jesus appeared to him and told him to take the Bible and flee to Lebanon.  Walid immediately believed that his dream was a true revelation from Jesus and so he believed.  (Many Muslims in the Middle East come to faith by way of dreams about Jesus.  This is a repeating theme, and many other observers have noted it as well. In fact, there is a rumor in the Middle East that by the time of his death, Yasser Arafat had actually become a Christian because of a dream he had about Jesus.  I heard this rumor in Iraq and I heard it again in Lebanon from two other sources.  In fact, I personally know a Christian pastor who knew Arafat personally and spent time teaching him the Gospel after he came to faith.)  The next morning, Walid packed his car with his worldly possessions and went to work.  When he went to clean Saddam’s office, he did as Jesus had instructed him in the dream.  He took the Bible and fled Iraq.

Walid was a single man, so he didn’t have a wife and children to consider, only his mother and father.  He knew that coming to Christ would likely ruin his relationship with them, but he knew his allegiance was now with Christ.  To make a long story short, Walid reached Lebanon and settled in as a refugee.  He ended up at the Baptist church where he found food, shelter, and clothing.  He devoured the Bible and eventually became the church’s assistant pastor.  He was reconciled to his family and they have also become Christians and live with him in Beirut.

I believe that meeting Pastor Yamout will turn out to be another pivot point in the history of GCA. I immediately felt an affinity with the Pastor Yamout, much like the one I felt the first time I met Onesphore in Bujumbura.  I want to work with Pastor Yamout and I believe he holds the key to us doing projects in Lebanon.  (In fact, I felt very positive in this way about everyone I met in Lebanon, but especially about Pastor Yamout.  We can work in this place!)  He has the vision, contacts, and courage to help us succeed in whatever project God calls us to do.  His enthusiasm for Christian ministry is infectious and he genuinely wants to bring Christ to the Muslims of Tyre.

One tell that made me feel very strongly that Pastor Yamout is a man with whom we can partner was the answer he gave me to a question I now ask of all my potential partners.  Specifically, I asked him if it would be more important for us to send him money for his ministry or to come to Lebanon as a group of missionaries.  Like Onesphore and Donatien in Burundi, he was emphatic that we should come to Lebanon to serve as an encouragement to the people there even before we start doing humanitarian projects.  He said we need to spend time on the ground meeting people, getting the lay of the land, and praying about how best to proceed and getting to know the people.  He never asked me for money or even hinted at it.  This is something I look at very closely with my potential partners.  The fact that he didn’t ask me for money or even hint at his need for it shows that he is genuinely concerned about the spiritual health of his flock.  He’s the kind of person I like to work with.  Plus, the LCMS pastor who referred me to Pastor Yamout called him the “real deal.”

So, I am going to return to Lebanon with a mission team, perhaps as soon as May to minister to the people and continue the work of exploring our future role there.  I am looking for Christian people who would like to join me.  I would like to assemble the team before I propose an itinerary and agenda to Pastor Yamout.  Please email me if you would like to attend a meeting in which we will begin the planning process.

Praise God for what He’s doing in Lebanon!

Niles

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