I’m travelling in Lebanon with Ali, the head of CMS Britain, Tanas, the CMS Hub manager for the grand region of the Middle-East, N Africa and Europe and CMS mission partners Phil and Sylvie and Nabil and Sarah.
Our itinerary has been pretty full on, generally returning to the hotel 12-13 hours after departure, but with many light moments, like sitting on the floor of a one-room home of a Syrian family playing Subway Surfers with a 5 year old boy – the same inane iPhone game that my kids play back home. There was the slightly amusing arrival at All Saints Church on the day of the HM Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral after it had all finished and the congregation which had including various anglophile ambassadors had departed. There was a beautiful fresh fish restaurant in the shadow of the Syrian borders where our group feasted for $10 a head on more food than could be eaten, but were the only people in the vicinity.
Having been before in 2016 and travelled more recently in the Middle-East much of the trip has been as I might have imagined. In this calendar year with SOMA I have visited with Ukrainian displaced people at the height of the crisis and DRC Congo refugees in Uganda in a crisis that has been the most brutal I have encountered. So the shock factor for me has not been the family living in a tiny room and the struggles they face although it is amazing how quickly we forget our privilege (and children’s privilege in the UK). It’s not even been the acute problems from a confluence of crises: of hyper-inflation, food shortage due to the grain side explosion and lack of imports from Ukraine/Russia, political corruption and currency devaluation. The sense of Iranian occupation via the all pervasive influence of Hezbollah was new to me, but the historic ripples of multiple occupations over the decades and centuries were a known quantity. What I wasn’t prepared for was the staggering accounts of the spread of the gospel in the Middle East and people coming to faith in Jesus as they encounter churches serving them, and in the case of Syrian refugees, offering unexpected forgiveness after a Syrian occupation that had been brutal at the end of the civil war.
Travelling around we’ve met haphazard organisations trying to hang on in the cruellest of situations – with 2 million refugees in a country of 4 million and a vast reduction in purchasing power that means many will not be able to afford basic heating in the winter as it ALONE will be 5 times their salary. There’s a brain drain going on, a despair among some officials that they can continue. A lack of hope.
But we’ve also met surprisingly faith-filled and even a few slickly organised people, delivering against the odds, developing new ways of communication, utilising foreign funds incredibly, serving and serving. One pastor spoke of a revival among young people – hosting worship nights 3 times a week. Others have seen churches pivot from hate and fear of Syrian neighbours to embracing them as friends. There have been innumerable stories of healings, miracles, dreams leading to conversions and God on the move in the Middle-east.
On a short-trip like this you’re inevitably struck that you know eve less than you thought you did and the more you think you learn the more complex it all becomes. But there is a window of opportunity here. Schools looking for short-term staff who can share life and faith, summer camps for kids looking for church teams to come and serve, medical charities longing for doctors, nurses etc…
As I write something seems to be stirring in Iran with pictures of women burning Hijab’s circulating on social media. We may never really know what is going on in the Middle-East but there is certainly abundant possibilities to share ministry abroad, to learn with and from the believers, to support the weak and gain lessons from the faithful and strong. It’s been an incredibly encouraging start to the trip and a wonderful chance to partner with CMS.