In a dusty Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon, seven-year-old tents were draped with rags and repurposed plastic to cover gaps and holes born from wind, dust, and rain. This stop was one of several on a recent Gateway Church ministry trip to work alongside our ministry partners serving refugees. I was on the trip, and after ministering with the team that day, I found myself in a situation that completely unraveled a common stereotype of the Middle East: it’s hostile and dangerous everywhere, and Americans are unwelcome.
As I was lingering along the periphery, I started photographing kids playing outside the camp. I wanted to capture the joy in their faces against the backdrop of their reality. Suddenly an old car rattling down the road pulled up abruptly, creating a cloud of dust. Several men jumped out, and I immediately moved my camera out of sight. I heard our translator ask me to slowly walk back to our van. Against a sudden rush of adrenaline, I took some cautious steps in that direction. I’d been warned before arriving in Lebanon that if I was caught taking photos in the wrong place, my equipment could be confiscated. By the translator’s tone, I anticipated the worst.
The men approached, and one of them asked the translator in Arabic, “Did our families serve you something to drink during your visit today?” We were stunned. I went from feeling culpable to embarrassed for thinking the worst. Despite these Syrian refugees having lost everything (their loved ones, homes, economic status, and political rights), they’ve held onto a rich cultural tradition deeply embedded in their spirits: hospitality. We were moved by their generosity. Our group visited multiple tents where we were offered food and drink when they have nothing to spare. They may likely go to sleep hungry before receiving their next food distributions. The men wore proud smiles when they heard we were treated well. It was a humbling reception, to be served by the people we came to serve.
Gateway has carefully selected impassioned ministry partners in the Middle East to help serve and impact the kingdom where there are many who are lost and hopeless. We face a staggering number: 68.5 million* people around the world have been forced to flee their homes in search of safety. Many of our ministry partners are in Lebanon because it is “home” to one of the largest refugee populations in the Middle East—an estimated 1.5 million Syrians and thousands more Palestinians, Armenians, Kurds, and Iraqis who have fled war, persecution, and genocide. The Human Rights Watch reports, “80% lack legal status, leaving them vulnerable to arrest, abuse, and exploitation; contributing to poverty and child labor, and restricting their access to education and healthcare.” Meanwhile, with our ministry partners, we are walking out the gospel where there is tremendous need.
One of our partners, Horizons International, sits across the street from a mosque in old Beirut. This is a rather common sight in a country with a history of religious tolerance compared to its Middle Eastern counterparts. “We don’t just tolerate each other, we build relationship,” says Pierre Houssney, director of Horizons. “We can hear their daily calls to prayer over the outdoor loudspeakers. It prompts us to pray for them. We are actively loving our neighbors.” Pierre was born in Colorado but is a not-so-distant son of Lebanon. His father, Georges Houssney, founder of the Engaging Islam Institute in Colorado, was born and raised in Lebanon and had two important callings on his life. First, he supervised the translation of the Bible into contemporary Arabic and Kurdish. Second, he was called to love Muslims. “He was really convicted by the Lord to reach Muslims at a time when it was very rare,” says Pierre. “But he listened to God and has led thousands of Muslims to Christ and developed powerful training programs to help others minister to Muslims. His unique approach neither tries to disprove Islam nor compromise the truth to make the message more acceptable. Instead, he trains Christians to boldly and lovingly engage Muslims with the gospel on a personal level.”
Pierre, who moved to Beirut to lead Horizons and carry out the vision that he calls the “rich inheritance” his father has gifted him says, “Within five minutes of meeting someone, I mention my faith in Jesus, so I can know if they are interested in knowing about Him or not. If they aren’t, I move on. I want to spend my time reaching those who are eager to learn more about Him.” And, there are plenty. “Many Muslims are open to hearing the gospel, and refugees in particular are done with Islam and ready to learn new things,” says Pierre. “Lebanon is a key to the Middle East. We have so many opportunities here, especially to bring hope to the brokenhearted.”
Horizons ministers to refugees throughout the country through medical care, food distribution, skills training, early education, clothes donations, Bible studies, and summer camp. Many of the ministries focus largely on the younger generation because more than 50% of today’s refugees are under the age of 18. The majority have no opportunity to attend school. Can you imagine what this means for the future of their homelands when they return and try to rebuild their countries? We traveled to the Bekaa Valley to witness firsthand the big impact one little school is making. The aptly named, House of Love, is reaching and teaching as many refugee children as it can hold.
Built to welcome 85 kids, the school made from shipping containers squeezes in 95 Syrian refugee children from nearby camps. “There is such an incredible opportunity here to cross-pollenate the Middle East,” says its director, Pastor Paul who came from South Korea with a vision to plant the school. “Christians come here and show compassion and share the gospel, but at this stage in the children’s lives, it’s really about planting seeds.” He describes pouring love, care, and education into the kids, so a natural residual may reach their parents. “There is an exponential effect when you sow seeds into the children. Their families see them happy, engaged, and growing, which makes them open to receiving us when we visit the camps,” he says. “We are intentionally building relationship with the families through their children. It’s creating an environment for conversations about Jesus. Eventually these children and their parents will return to Syria, and the great hope is that they will take the gospel message with them.”
The relationships they’re building were evident when we visited a camp with Pastor Paul. They greeted him warmly with hugs and handshakes and insisted he have tea with them inside their tents. A Syrian grandmother who has endured seven years in the camp ushered a few of us into her tent. She quickly disappeared behind a tarp to prepare a silver tray filled with simple glasses of orange soda. I couldn’t help but scan the space noticing the sparse décor: a piece of broken mirror strung up on the wall, a brightly colored green straw rug, and some busy-patterned pillows we were invited to sit on during our visit. After she offered everyone a drink, she sat down to my right on the green rug. As we sat there, our translator helping the conversations along, she slowly inched herself closer and closer to me until her leg rested against mine. I placed my hand on her arm and immediately felt the Holy Spirit confirming why we were there. Two people raised on opposite sides of the globe with completely different worldviews and surroundings can connect. Sometimes, all you have to do is show up.
“The Muslims aren’t coming to help us. The Hindus aren’t coming to help us. The Christians are here. The Christians are helping,” she says. This is home—for now. But we heard a common desire among the Syrian refugees we met in Lebanon: they want to go home. Thanks to Gateway ministry partners like Horizons, many will take Jesus with them.
To learn more about our Gateway ministry partner Horizons International and the work they are doing in the Middle East, visit horizonsinternational.org. Details about George Houssney’s Engaging Islam Institute can be found at engagingislam.org. For upcoming ministry trip opportunities with Gateway (both near and far), visit trips.gatewaypeople.com.
*Source: UNHCR/19 June 2018 (unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html accessed on December 6, 2018).