Over the next little while I am hoping to produce a series of reflections relating to my recent visit to Lebanon. As I was trying to sort through the information in my own head and how to share it here and elsewhere (I’ll be sharing some highlights at the Elgin Association Spring Communion, April 7th, 2pm at Dutton Baptist Church for anyone in the area who may be interested) I have been trying to figure out how to best convey the things I feel need to be said. So what I’ve come up with in terms of presenting is to reflect on each of the various ministries we were exposed to individually as taking them all together is just too much for me.
The vast majority of the ministries I had the chance to observe/participate in come under the umbrella or are connected to the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development (LSESD, sometimes more simply referred to as “The Society” or as the Lebanese Baptist Society) so that is probably the best place to start.
LSESD’s mission is “To serve the Church in Lebanon and the Arab World through spiritual, social and educational development.” This organization “oversees” 6 different areas of ministry:
- Arab Baptist Theological Seminary
- Beirut Baptist School
- SKILD (Smart Kids with Individual Learning Differences)
- Baptist Children and Youth Ministries
- Community Relief & Development
- Dar Manhal Al Hayat publishing house
Each of these 6 ministries (and a few others) deserve to be highlighted on their own. So this will be primarily focused on how integral mission (doing ministry in word and deed- proclamation of the gospel and loving one’s neighbour in tangible ways) is being done by Baptists within Lebanon, specifically with regard to the Community Relief and Development. The origins of LSESD go back to the 1950s when American missionaries came to Lebanon, and began ABTS, BBS and a publishing house (now known as Dar Manhal Al Hayat). Since then, LSESD has expanded and is now on the cutting edge of integral mission, and most recently has been making major strides with regard to impacting communities in Lebanon and around the Arab world through strategic partnerships, food distribution, advocacy and various educational programs.
Lebanon is often referred to as the gateway to the Middle East. The Mission Statement of LSESD reflects it’s vision to impact not just Lebanon but the whole Arab world through training of leaders, partnering with churches, and providing relief and development projects.
UNDP Projections suggest the Arab world (Middle East and North Africa) will have a population of close to 400 million in 2015 (http://www.arab-hdr.org/publications/other/ahdr/ahdr2009e.pdf) 60% of whom will be under 25 years old, and roughly 5-6% of whom will be Christian. Lebanon on the other hand, has a large “Christian” population (I use “Christian” to denote the fact that “Christian” and “Muslim” are sociological groupings and do not always reflect a true, deep and life altering spiritual conviction. Many labelled “Christian” would be nominally devout at best). Accurate counting in Lebanon is not really possible, as the most recent census data is actually from 1932, and had Christians as the largest sociological grouping, followed by Sunni Muslims and Shi’a Muslims. So Lebanon is unique in that sense. Estimates vary, but it’s usually assumed around 40% of the Lebanese population (Lebanon’s population is roughly 4 Million) is “Christian”. However, it is believed that the total number of Lebanese people globally is about 10 million- in other words over half of Lebanese people live outside the country. These stats also do not include refugees living within Lebanon, and accurate numbers in that respect are hard to come by, but the UN numbers state that there over 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, over 200,000 Syrian refugees and over 8,000 Iraqi refugees, plus some from Sudan and other neighbouring countries. So the obvious strategic nature of Lebanon is obvious, and the possible impact is huge.
LSESD’s relief and development is led by Rupen Das, Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM) field staff in Lebanon. Rupen has a broad experience and phenomenal credentials (you can read his bio here). His incredible amount of experience and expertise, combined with having lived in Lebanon for part of his childhood, he is a perfect fit in this role, coordinating relief projects and food distribution to refugees through local churches (you can read about their work in this article by the TEAR Fund). This means that LSESD can run with low staff costs, as well as have “on the ground” connections in place prior to and after relief projects. Our group was blessed to visit one of the distribution projects to see the impact this is having, as not only was much needed aid being distributed to families in need (this particular project is helping 500 families) and the local church which is providing a location and volunteers to assist, has been able to share the gospel message along with the food and blankets. Those who come for food aid are invited (not pressured, simply invited) to join a service of worship and gospel proclamation which is done in a sensitive and respectful manner, but does proclaim the love of God expressed in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and all are welcome to take home a New Testament and some other resources in Arabic. To see such ministry happening is mind blowing- what God has done to raise up individuals in a timely manner (Rupen began his work there in 2009, so his arrival was quite timely given the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon following the outbreak of the conflict) to inspire the Lebanese churches to implement these programs and proclaim the gospel, and to meet and exceed the goals of LSESD as an organization to do the work in front of them. LSESD has also been providing development assistance in impoverished areas of Lebanon, among Palestinians, and people displaced by the Hezbollah-Israel conflict in 2006 which is believed to have displaced one quarter of Lebanon’s population and destroyed much of the infrastructure in several areas of the country.
This is the power of integral mission. Integral mission happens when we actually see our neighbour, and love him/her. It is when we ask “who is my neighbour” not exclusively (i.e. how many people am I actually obligated to love?) but inclusively (i.e. how may I bless those with whom I have contact). For the Lebanese Christians, an influx of refugees from Syria or Palestine can be seen as a burden (especially when Lebanon already has close to half a million refugees already) or as new set of neighbours who they are called to love and bless, a new audience to speak the good news of Jesus to.
By simply saying “yes, we will do something,” the Kingdom of God is growing, being revealed, spreading, and seen, touched, and heard. Integral mission says a cup of cold water in Jesus name will be rewarded- and there are a lot of thirsty people right in front of us. To be people of integral mission is to see our neighbours, to love them, even (or perhaps especially) if there is a cost involved and do so as Jesus loved us; to practice compassion, as God is compassionate.
The church is called to see hurting and injustice and respond. The Palestinian “camps” are places of incredible poverty and injustice. The Lebanese government has and still does refuse to give citizenship or even permanent resident status for the Palestinians, classifying them as “temporary” residents (these Palestinian camps have been around for 60 years). Thus, they cannot legally work (some work “under the table” but are vulnerable to considerable exploitation). They cannot possibly “get ahead” or improve their living situation. They cannot buy property or start businesses legally. To love my neighbours, I must first refuse to ignore them.
In the case of LSESD, they recognize their neighbours in new ways. To ignore the Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis and unknown numbers of exploited migrant workers is to ignore the Kingdom of God. To leave the churches to remain as cloisters in a culture which doesn’t particularly like them is to cower away from the calling to be a blessings. Alia Abboud (LSESD’s Director of Development & Partner Relations) put it this way: “we want to add value to the community”. The Kingdom of God forces us to be a light on a lampstand or a city on a hill (rather appropriately, LSESD offices are in Mansourieh, on the hill overlooking Beirut). Integral mission does not ask the question “how can I recruit more church members” but instead asks, how can I bless my community, or how can I add value to this neighbourhood, or how can I love my neighbour as myself or how can I be compassionate as my Father is compassionate (Lk. 6:36)?
Does this transfer over into our own context? There are, after all no Syrian or Palestinian refugees in St. Thomas, Ontario (at least not that I’m aware of). But really this same basic principle applies in a whole variety of ways. What does it mean to be compassionate and love my neighbour if my neighbour is (insert any vulnerable or marginalized person or group here… cognitively disabled, mentally ill, a pregnant teen, an alcoholic, homeless etc., or simply someone different- a minority, ethnic or religious)? Whether we are the majority or a minority ourselves, we are called to love our neighbour in visible, tangible ways whether my neighbour is Muslim, Christian, atheist, gay, homeless, poor, rich, educated or not, communist, liberal, conservative, or whatever. We are to be imitators of God, people who love as Christ loved us- sacrificially, and tangibly (Eph. 5:1-2). Christ advocated for the oppressed, aided the sinner, rebuked the self-righteous, and invited the weary to come and find rest. To live this out is the meaning of integral mission- to see my neighbour, recognize his struggle and pain, and to respond as Christ responded to his neighbour. When we actually see our neighbours as Christ sees them we can’t help but feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, advocate for the marginalized, etc.- and it is only then that we will be truly faithful in our observance of Christ’s call; “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).