What would it take for you to stay in Syria over the past seven years?
I found myself silently asking that question…of myself…during a recent visit to Syria. I was there with the Outreach Foundation. A group that grew from Presbyterian roots and continues to partner with Reformed and Presbyterian ministries around the world.
Unknown to many, Syria was a mission field of the Presbyterians way back in the mid-1800s. As a result, a group of about 35 Presbyterian churches split between Lebanon and is there today. We were there to visit those churches in Syria, expressing solidarity and partnership from their US Presbyterian brothers and sisters.
Our group met in Beirut, drove straight to Damascus and immediately hopped a small plane to the far northeast of the country, a town called Qamishli. Arriving there, I learned that Qamishli is the “new town” version of Nisibis—an ancient center of theology and spirituality of the Church of the East. Though the Christian community is small there today, the roots of Christianity in Qamishli date to shortly after Pentecost.
Pastor Firas met us at the Qamishli airport, leading his American friends through a maze of Syrian onlookers, surprised no doubt to see so many American faces in a land that had so long been deprived of foreign visitors.
Pastor Firas caught my attention from the start. I suppose part of that was because he was a graduate of the seminary where I taught in Lebanon. Though he graduated before I arrived, I was still eager to see the fruit of that seminary. I discovered he and his wife were both from another town, closer to the capital, but had moved to this remote area because the church there needed a pastor. In fact, there were three churches in the area that needed a pastor and, yes, he served all three, driving the hour plus to the two other churches to offer preaching, sacraments, and pastoral care.
He stayed through the war, raising his two sons in the midst of it all. His lovely wife served us and the people of her church with contagious joy. Pastor Firas with his quick humor, easy-going smile, and proven commitment to his people, had won their undying loyalty.
Though half of the congregation left Syria during the recent crisis, the rest carried on, anticipating that more would join in…that the church of Jesus would not die, but live and fulfill its mission in Syria. We hoped our visit might encourage that outlook of faith.
More than anything else, their mission has been staying.
Of course, “staying” does not qualify as “mission” in every place, but in northern Syria, in the aftermath of the bloody Syrian crisis at the hands of ISIS and other factions, staying is a step of courage, close to defiance. They rejected an easy escape route to hold forth the hope of the gospel in their homeland. “Staying” has been their mission and I hope others will “go” to join them.
“Mission.” I went to Syria looking for how the church was engaging in mission. As often happens to me when engaging with the Middle Eastern church, my categories were stretched and my vision enlarged. I think the church would say that all they did – the kid’s clubs, the school they operated (900+ kids with 95% of the student body being Muslim), the weekly cycle of meetings for prayer and Bible study – they would say all of it is their mission. The people of the Qamishli Presbyterian Church are constantly face-to-face with Muslims – Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, and others. They are their neighbors, colleagues, clients, and friends.
I’m glad those Presbyterians back in the 1800s had the foresight to plant churches in Syria. While the media portrays Syria as a post-war waste-land, I discovered abundant life there, like Easter flowers pushing through a crusty topsoil. There are communities ministering to their society, tempering evil, offering hope, preaching a gospel of reconciliation for all. Staying in Syria.
by Mike Kuhn, ITEN Specialist for Missional Theology and Practice