One of the most intriguing aspects about living in a new country has been reading the local newspapers. Lebanon has an English-language newspaper, and it has not taken long to discover the tensions, anxieties, and hopes of a country. The purpose of the grant Melinda received was to return to America better equipped and prepared to serve as a minister of Christ. I think that one element of the news has already done that; I realize now just how much and how closely the Middle East watches America and the West.
The Lebanese media is very aware of developments within the United States and Europe about which they have every right to be anxious. They know that a large numbers of Americans think that a Muslim should not be allowed to be President or a Supreme Court Justice. They know how a Muslim community center raised such a fuss in New York City. They even know how a Lebanese-American has been getting insinuated as less than loyal in a competitive House race in West Virginia (this candidate also happens to be a Presbyterian). There has also been the rise of right-wing parties in Europe that have been incorporated into governing coalitions that are explicitly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. Lebanon is a country in which Christians and Muslims share power and its capital is a truly modern and welcoming city, but there is definitely a sense of fear and anxiety about attitudes and trends developing in our country towards Middle Easterners. Articles reporting this are not written in an accusatory tone, but in a sense of disappointment when Lebanon finds itself at a crossroads concerning its relationship either with the West or with other regional powers that are less than friendly to the US. We as Americans need to be a lot more careful about the messages that we are sending to other parts of the world when we treat people from certain parts of the world differently. We are being watched closely, and consequences reverberate across the globe.
Another interesting part of living in another country is going to church. Melinda and I spent our first Sunday in Beirut at All Saints Anglican Church. Saleem, our Palestinian friend, is an assistant to the priest at the Arab-speaking service and told us about a van that picks people up in front of NEST. Melinda, our Scottish friend Marjorie, and I got on the van, and the parishioners on board wanted to know if we spoke Arabic. When they found out that we did not, they kept telling us when the English service was. We tried to explain that we wanted the experience of an Arabic-language service, and also that this was the only time the van came to our school anyway. After attending the first service, we were welcomed warmly by some of the congregants who spoke English. It was nice to see that “coffee hour” also exists in Lebanon, though with Arabic coffee and a spicy, garlic bread.
The English service is run by a man named Father Nabil, who thought he was leaving Lebanon for a few weeks to finish his war-interrupted college examinations and ended up living in England and serving as a priest for over 20 years. He leads a very international congregation, where the liturgy and worship style changes weekly. He is very good at explaining why certain things are done in the midst of the service and making sure that everybody is “equally uncomfortable with how things are done.” It is a very deliberate attempt to be a reconciled community of believers in Jesus Christ from different places and backgrounds. After the service, we were invited to Nabil’s family’s apartment along with what seemed like a dozen people. We had good conversations with everybody, including Father Nabil, who is a very hospitable and thoughtful man. I had planned to check out the Presbyterian Church, which I’m sure is nice, but we were just welcomed so warmly, took so much from worship, and felt so much a part of the community that we see no reason not to come back. I look forward to not only being spiritually fed at this church, but also seeing how a church manages to sustain a true community amid a group of people that are mainly transient.
Overall, we are warming up to the crowded and crazy place that is Beirut and feel like it will be a good year, especially with the start of classes. We look forward to sharing more with you later.