September 19 was a slow day. The heat and humidity continued to press upon us. I never remember experiencing such heat and humidity, in Lebanon, in the middle of September. Maybe global warming is not such fake news after all, as a few politicians disregard this reality for their own financial gain.
I am so glad that by some wisdom beyond my capabilities we had decided to make this day an unpack and pack day. Unpack what has come with us from Canada and pack what needs to go with us to the schools and the church community in Tripoli. Last night I was worried that our trip to Tripoli was scheduled too late, as the driver was only to leave Tripoli after 4:00 p.m., but what a gift that was… This late pick up offered a day of carefree packing and unpacking suitcases as I mentioned above, however, it was also a day of unpacking laughter and joy with my sister and nephew. My sister can barely move around as her feet are swollen, her muscles have weakened, and her left shoulder has never recovered from a fall she has had, even after an operation and physiotherapy treatments. Yet we were able to talk about the olden days and ride the roller coaster ride of life as we each remembered things within our own experience and memory. At one point, I said something, which I do not recall now, and my nephew said, “Aunty, now you proved to me that you are a native of Bourj Hammoud”. My reply to him was, “You know Roudy, you can take the girl out of Bourj Hammoud, but you can never take Bourj Hammoud out of the girl” – We had a good laugh.
We were picked up before our expected time and that was a gift, as we were able to enjoy the sunset over the Mediterranean horizon on our way to Tripoli. I did not know this, but Tripoli is the second largest city in Lebanon, after Beirut. It is 85 kilometers north of Beirut and dates back to the 14th Century B.C.E. (Thanks to Google where I was able to obtain all this information). While in Canada, we registered with the Canadian Foreign Affairs, advising them of our schedule and northern part of Tripoli was one of the areas we were warned not to go to, as it is close to the Syrian border. We had no choice, however, as I wanted to go and meet The Rev. Rola Sleiman, the first woman to be ordained in the Arab world. (Ordained on 26 February 2017). From the first day, I got to hear about her, I wanted to meet her and go visit the ministries that she is part of and the church and schools that she is serving (The Evangelical Church in Tripoli). I am so glad I did. Not only was getting to know her and hear her life journey to this point a blessing, but also to see that she works in an area that seems prominently Muslim where there is a vibrant Christian Community who is silently thriving by God’s Grace.
On September 20, Thursday, we were given a tour of the city of Tripoli. We enjoyed a walk on the beach, where the beautiful rocks were being polished by the salty waves of the Mediterranean, however, there was a presence of empty plastic bottles accumulated in between the rocks and the waves, and plastic bags apparent in the shallow areas of the sea. It broke my heart to see how humanity is capable of polluting the environment and forgetting our duty of being good stewards of the world. But this should not dismay us, as life has many dimensions and we cannot generalize our opinions with one stroke of a brush.
After the walk on the beach, we went to the center of Tripoli where the Evangelical Church sits. There is no parking lot for the church and there are no parking spots near the church, therefore the minister double parks and hands over her car key to the vendor right in front of the church, who is a Syrian refugee and attempting to make ends meet by selling socks, pantyhose, etc. This church has given him permission to put his stock inside the church building so that he does not have to carry the stock all the way home and help him expand his business. His name is Hassan, which translates to: handsome, beautiful, good. He really is a person with a beautiful heart, indeed.
After this quick visit we continued on to Miniara, in the region of Akkar, which is north of Tripoli, a few kilometers from the Syrian Border. I really do not know how people drive here. I thought driving in Beirut was bad, but here, not only do drivers deal with traffic, they also deal with huge potholes and the narrowest two-way streets I have ever experienced. We visited the manse of the evangelical minister, he was not there but his beautiful wife, Anna, and kids were. We had a good visit in the air-conditioned house. In the meantime, while we were having coffee, someone knocked on the door and was there to complain to the minister about something, good thing he was in Syria and not home, however, his wife heard an earful. I am not sure how she was able to patiently handle this woman, as myself, I almost wanted to ask her to leave, but it was not my place. After this fiasco, Anna and Rola offered to show us the church. What a beautiful church building it was – only three years old. I expressed to them how beautiful this sanctuary was and I was a bit envious, as our Canadian churches are old buildings and have a moldy smell, which we call, “church smell”. They told me the story of their new building and it is a resurrection story.
This new church building and the manse were built three years ago in conjunction with other partnerships. The old church building across the road has turned into a community/cultural center that serves medical needs, a bookstore, exercise space and a gathering place for different activities (I am certain that I am forgetting one thing or another). The new building is built on what used to be a cemetery. The cemetery’s remains were moved somewhere else and now this huge area is where the new church is built. What a vision! We were 20 minutes from the Syrian border where death seems to be breathing upon everyone, yet, this small Community of Grace are living the words of prophet Ezekiel (37:3).
Beloved, I was stunned. Back in Canada our church members have a hard time to agree on selling their buildings and merge with other churches of the same denomination. Here, under the breath of war and death, these people have seen the vision of Ezekiel come alive. I am truly speechless in witnessing this reality in the northern part of Lebanon.
This was not enough as the next day, Friday, September 21, Gary and I had the privilege of attending the Celebration of the new academic year of the Evangelical School for Boys and Girls, in Ras Maska, part of the Greater Tripoli area. Where we met a few Armenians living in Tripoli and working at this school. Talk about Interfaith living. The school has over one thousand students and more than 85% of the students are Muslim. Yes, you read that right. This is a private Evangelical School and most of their students are Muslim. A few of these students’ mothers came and listened to the reflection that my friend and colleague offered for the new academic year. When was the last time a news broadcast shared such beautiful interfaith news?
Friends, truly our visit to Tripoli so far has been nothing less than being a witness to the resurrection story for our time. After the Academic ceremony at the Evangelical school, we had lunch at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean, where I sensed that the Resurrected Lord had prepared lunch for us. We did not have fish, but whatever we had experienced so far and broke bread together made us truly sense the fellowship of the Spirit and the Presence of The Lord.
After lunch, Rola expressed that she wanted to take us to Jbail (Byblos), which is one of my favourite spots in Lebanon, therefore for obvious reason I got excited. I had also heard that there is a new Armenian Genocide Museum, dedicated for the Genocide Orphans who had arrived in Jbeil. We were not certain of the address but with the help of Google and people on the street, we found the Armenian Street where the orphanage and the museum are found. The custodian expressed that they close in 15 minutes and if we arrived 5 minutes later, he would have been gone for the day. With a kind gesture, he offered us a 15-minute extension, when he found out this was the only time I had to visit.
The museum speaks, from the moment you turn around from the ticket wicket. Before you look up, you see footsteps cemented in the concrete walkways of the grounds. A reminder of the children, fathers, mothers, virgin girls, pregnant brides, teachers, scholars, priests and professionals who walked, died, and resurrected through these orphans. One of the displays said, “Orphans: A Sign of Resurrection”. The Turkish Empire had promised to leave only one sample of an Armenian to show their power of erasing this nation from the face of the earth, back in the beginning of the Genocide. But look at us now. This very small museum just became a witness to Resurrection – where death does NOT have the last word. One Hundred and Three years after the Genocide, Armenians are building memorials and museums, all over the world and becoming witnesses not just to the Turkish government who wanted to erase this race, but to the world – this is what resurrection looks like.
This orphanage, called “Bird’s Nest” (Terchnotz Pouyn) still serves as a boarding school for the less fortunate children, most of them are the children who have run away from war torn Syria. The custodian explained how these children are receiving education, getting food to eat, a safe place to sleep and grow up to be model Armenians. This is a must visit to all, not just Armenians but every human being, as it stands as a testament for Hope, Perseverance, Life and Resurrection.
I am truly grateful for this very special day – As I write this journal, I realize that this date, September 21, 2018 – marks the Twenty-Seventh Anniversary of Armenian Independence from the previous regime called U.S.S.R. The 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union brought forth a new Armenian. An Armenia who is still an infant in governing, but she is doing her best to grow, protect and persevere in this new political arena.
So far, the visit to Tripoli has been a reminder of Resurrection moment after moment as we witness new sanctuaries of Praise and Prayer built where a cemetery used to be; experience interfaith living and learning in the middle of an Islamic population within an Evangelical School; and finally, be an observer of history that reminds us of life beyond measure that no political power can take away.
Be encouraged beloved that The Creator gives new life to these bones and they live a life beyond imagination, beyond newscasts. And the words of the Prophet Ezekiel come alive even now, in the 21st Century once again: “He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ I said, ‘Sovereign Lord, you alone know.’” Ezekiel 37:3 (NIV)
Signing off… Friday, September 21, 11:24 p.m. – Hotel Via Mina, Tripoli, Lebanon