One of Jesus’ clearest teachings was on the importance of ministering to the marginalized and dispossessed. Yet most of his followers tend to gravitate toward those who are just as they are. That’s just human nature. However, when we read the book of Genesis, we see that human nature is what caused Adam and Eve to move contrary to God’s perfect will, which resulted in their banishment from Eden and a lifetime of toil and struggle.
But some disciples have their hearts so changed by the movement of the Holy Spirit that they actually go against their natural impulse to stay with similarly inclined folk in order to move out of their comfort zones to offer support and sustenance to people who have no other place to turn. Today, our group witnessed that work of the Spirit first-hand and we stand in awe of our fellow believers in Lebanon who are taking the teachings of Jesus so seriously.
The Beqaa Valley is a region of the country of Lebanon that has been overrun by Syrian refugees, who have fled their homes and jobs because of the strife that has devastated Syria since the Arab Spring revolts of 2011. The Beqaa Valley sits just over the mountains dividing Syria and Lebanon and has become the main location for the Syrian refugees from the Western part of Syria to land. Lebanon is a country of roughly 4 million people, two-thirds the size of Connecticut. Since the beginning of the turmoil in Syria, another 1.5 million refugees have flooded into Lebanon so that now, every 1 in 3 persons in Lebanon is a refugee. As someone explained to our group today, imagine that the entire population of Mexico and Canada crossed the border into the United States. Such has been the shock to the social infrastructure of the Lebanese people, and to their credit, they have done much to care for those who have by necessity come into their country.
Much of this relief work has been organized under the auspices of evangelical Lebanese organizations, such as the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development, which is a partner body to the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, the missions partner of MBBC we have come to Beirut to visit. Between these two evangelical groups, several “learning centers” (i.e., K-5 schools) have been established adjacent to these refugee camps in the Beqaa Valley, where the children are able to receive spiritual, educational, and psychosocial training designed to help them recover from the inconceivable trauma through which they have gone. Today, we visited one such site in the city of Zahle, halfway between Beirut and the Syrian border, in the middle of Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges, which form a part of the Great Rift Valley in the Middle East.
This work is without question Kingdom work. We saw children from Shia Muslim backgrounds singing praise choruses with jubilant voices and animated motions. If you had closed your eyes, you might have thought you were at a VBS opening assembly at MBBC. As I left their chapel gathering, I couldn’t help but give a silent word of praise for how these children were no doubt returning to their tents in the refugee camp sharing these songs with their older siblings and parents. Because, as we all know, we learn our theology more by what we sing than what we hear, the good news of Jesus Christ will surely bear fruit. Indeed, as the pastor of the largest Baptist church in the city of Zahle can attest, because of the work with the refugee children, a remarkable number of Muslims are coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Who knows but that every child who comes under the influence of Christ is one less candidate to become a terrorist insurgent? And don’t think for a moment that such terrorist organizations don’t have recruiters in these camps seeking to radicalize innocent youth.
Perhaps the best part of the story is the way the Holy Spirit moved the hearts of the Lebanese evangelicals to work with these Syrian Muslim refugees in the first place. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the Lebanese people were on the receiving end of Syrian rocket fire during the Lebanese Civil War in the late seventies. As the pastor explained, Lebanese evangelicals had to come to a place of forgiveness of their Syrian neighbors before they could begin to open their arms, hearts, and doors to them. But when they did, God began to move in a mighty way, and the cause of Christ was in some places tripled over the response of the refugees to the Gospel.
Our experience reinforced the importance of God’s people being open to the people God sends their way. While it is always much easier to focus inwardly on our own needs, the thrust of the Gospel is always outward, especially toward those who have no place else and no one else to turn.
I always knew that Jesus expected such a focus from his disciples everywhere, but now I understand how his teachings in this regard are more than “pretty words.” They are a commission to transformational ministry. I am grateful to be a part of a church that takes this commission seriously, both through our partnership with such groups as ABTS and LSESD and our own efforts at reaching out to marginalized groups in our own community; for in doing so we are being doers of the very words we have heard Jesus proclaim: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). It’s in such actions that we put forward not only our best foot, but also our best nature, the nature that God in Christ has so graciously redeemed and through our ongoing response to the Spirit’s leading, continues to do so.