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45 Minutes (Or: “Why I moved to the Middle East”)

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45 Minutes (Or: “Why I moved to the Middle East”)

I’m often asked “So, Scott, what ‘called’ you to drop everything and start a new life in the Middle East?” Looking back, I can see this has everything to do with a fifteen-plus-year journey of God fixing my heart (more on that at another time). But a year and a half ago, when Elmarie shared her own sense of being pulled here, it sure wasn’t part of my plan. I had just finished Residency at the OSU Medical Center in Columbus and was pretty set on a career as a hospital trauma chaplain. Nonetheless, I said ‘yes.’ Elmarie had been offered an amazing job with the PC(USA), and her stories of the Church in the Middle East had captured my imagination. Still, the question remained “What will Scott do?”

In May of 2013, about 6 months before we were to move, Elmarie and I took a two-week trip to Beirut to get a sense of what I might do here. Still, at that point, this was more of a “her” thing than a “we” thing.

One of the first things we did was visit a Syrian refugee camp outside of Beirut. It was a brief visit, only about 45 minutes.

It’s wild how everything can change in 45 minutes.

Our cars entered the camp and we pulled up in front of a neat row of tents. It was actually quiet, not too many people venturing outside their tents. Out of my pocket I pulled “Rocko”–my faithful sock puppet (Don’t judge me). Almost instantly, little heads started to pop out from inside the tents: 1-3-5-10-15 kids began to gather, and we played. We joked and laughed, and this went on for a while, all these little kids laughing and playing with me.

And then it hits me like a brick: It’s 10:30 on a Tuesday morning. WHY AREN’T THESE KIDS IN SCHOOL?

Later, I learned that the local municipality has been working hard to provide education for the refugees, but their resources are limited and they can only provide schooling for kids once they reach the fifth grade. Every kid younger than 10 has nothing to do–except hang out with some old guy with a puppet.

And then I got thinking about terrorist groups and human traffickers–they come around these camps, too. These groups who do very bad things–they prey on people who are weak. And when a kid doesn’t get the education they need–that makes them weak.

So, two weeks later, I was asked that when I come back to the Middle East perhaps I could give part of my time to working with refugee children. I said yes.

After a while of playing with the kids, our group was escorted into the tent of one the families. We were seated and immediately served cups of hot, thick Arabic coffee. Coffee is a big deal in the Middle East. Coffee and hospitality. Any time you show up at someone’s home or office, they serve you coffee. That’s just what you do here–you treat people decent. So here’s this family that has lost absolutely everything and been treated like animals and still they bend over backwards to serve us coffee. Maybe it’s a choice they have made, that after all they have lost, they will not let go of that basic stuff that makes them human.

Later, I learned that this family was Palestinian–booted from Palestine to Syria, then from Syria to Lebanon. I also learned that this family had three generations of women with their Masters degrees. And I realized there’s a whole lot about people in the Middle East we just don’t know. We hear the word “Arab” or “Refugee” and get a certain picture, and rarely that picture is the whole picture.

So, two weeks later, I was asked that when I come back to the Middle East perhaps I could give part of my time to writing–the stories of the people I meet here. I said yes.

While we were still having coffee, I was sent on an errand and found myself alone in a row of tents with no interpreter. About ten yards away is this guy sitting on a cheap plastic chair in front of his tent. He sees me and motions for me to come over.

So I go over to this guy, who’s about my age, but he didn’t know any English and I didn’t know any Arabic, so we start communicating through gestures and actually do pretty good and he even offered me a cigarette because he didn’t have any coffee (that Arabic hospitality).

I quickly realized this man was missing his right leg, which explained why he was just sitting around not doing or looking for work. He pantomimed the rocket attack that took his leg–and something happened to me. I was overcome with this sadness–huge, heavy sadness. I felt so much grief and sadness for this man, and I wanted to say something to him, something that would maybe give him some comfort of hope.

But I didn’t speak Arabic. I had no words to give him.

All I could do was gaze at him with my sadness, and I put my hand on my heart, praying to somehow communicate that “I am so, so sorry.” He kept our gaze, and then he put HIS hand on his own heart, and nodded.

We shared something, I think. Somehow, I was able to taste a bit of his hurt and just be with him, and he was able to receive that.

In the Church, the word we have for that is INCARNATION. It’s this belief that Jesus–the very person and heart of God–somehow, entered into our story and tasted our hurts and was WITH us. What I learned from working in the hospitals is that there are some hurts that can only be healed through PRESENCE.

So, two weeks later Elmarie asked if I still wanted to move our lives to the Middle East. I said yes. Yes, there are skills we are bringing and projects we are creating and things that we are doing, but really it is about presence. Being here. Walking with people in their hurt in a way that I hope is close to the way that Jesus does.

There’s still so much about this journey I don’t yet see or understand, but I believe in the way of Jesus, and I will throw myself into that, with everything I am.