By Ashley Wollam*
“But where will I get food for my children? What can we do?”
It was one of the few moments I was glad that my Arabic is still far from fluent. One of my Lebanese brothers or sisters on the ministry team would have to find the words to answer this refugee mother, and many more like her. But what could they possibly say? How could they explain that, long before the need had subsided, help had run out?
And yet it did run out at the beginning of this month, and this woman’s question was just one of a flood of desperate contacts our center received that week. The United Nations World Food Programme had announced that there was not money available to continue the supply of food vouchers for the almost 1.7 million Syrian refugees dispersed throughout surrounding nations. At the same time as the UN was describing the discontinuation of food support for Syrian refugees, our ministry was finding out that another major international donor, the one responsible for funding the food vouchers we distribute, would have to discontinue their support for at least a few months because the money has dried up. Our center was one of 18 similar ministries serving refugees in Lebanon that received that unexpected news.
The UN has since stated, on December 10th, that “after an unprecedented social media campaign” donations were received that allowed the World Food Programme to reinstate the food voucher system for Syrian refugees in December. But there remains a big question mark about the availability of that support in January. The withdrawal and then renewal of the food supply to such a large number of people within the last few weeks reveals the fragile nature of the situation Syrian refugees find themselves in.
That reality is juxtaposed with another one in my mind, as I prepare to fly home to the United States and reflect on my experiences here. During the few months I’ve lived in Lebanon, I’ve encountered a culture of hospitality that shattered my previous understanding of the word. My Lebanese brothers and sisters in Christ have spoiled me with their kindness and generosity. My Syrian refugee friends have displayed eager hospitality that humbled and blessed me when I visited them. But like a guest that has overstayed her welcome, the worldwide community seems to be wearying of hospitality toward the refugee population that has resulted from the ongoing conflict in Syria. This guest lingers, however, because she has nowhere else to go, and the awareness that her presence no longer elicits hospitality only increases her shame.
It’s for that reason that the genuine love shown by ministries like the one I was privileged to serve with this fall is so valuable. As they have responded to the needs of several thousand families this year, kindness and friendship have been consistently demonstrated along with the tangible help offered. Each week, the center has been full as representatives of families come to begin the process for obtaining a food voucher, and approximately 300 families have been served each month. The team of Lebanese believers that serve them in this place truly love them. They love them so much that they seek to holistically meet their needs, immediate and eternal.
Each guest hears sincere grief expressed for her suffering and is invited to join in heartfelt prayers for the peace of her homeland. Each guest at our center hears the clear truth of the Gospel of God’s love for him in Christ. And, up until now, each guest has been given a place in a virtual line to receive a special piece of cardstock that would mean the absence of hunger for her family for about two weeks. I loved watching these vouchers be carefully and graciously given out to the long lines of refugees, each so desperate to be shown mercy. I can’t comprehend the fact that our team has to begin to tell them that there’s no more financial help to be given. What is the heart and will of God in bleak circumstances like these? How will His people follow Him and act?
I’ve been advised to maintain some emotional distance and an ongoing prayerful response as the thought of disappearing humanitarian aid for my refugee friends wrecks me, and I know that this advice is wise. In relief work, in social work, in counseling – in all ministries of mercy – the weight of a hundred broken hearts can follow you home and haunt your sleep, making you ineffective to serve even one of them, dwarfing truths about God that are meant to anchor and sustain me so that with them I can anchor and sustain others.
But I deeply believe there also has to be a parallel thought process to create a God-honoring response to suffering. Many of us are far too good at distancing ourselves from the pain and struggle of others, so much so that we continue to relax in excess and ease, unconcerned and blissfully apathetic. I’ve seen the tendency toward this in my own life. And while I’m not called to be tortured by the pain of others, I am called to feel it enough not only to mourn with them, but to be moved to sacrificial love for them. I can’t begin to obey “do to others as you would have them do to you” unless I listen to their needs, empathetically consider the weight of their suffering and seek ways to act for their good.
One of the reasons I want to keep listening, to keep being willing to hurt with those who are hurting, and to keep finding grace-prompted ways to respond is because of an unforgettable conversation I had a few months ago. I have the privilege of close friendship with an immigrant from Syria who once looked at me with a sigh and said, matter-of-factly:
“They could easily give money to help the refugees,” (naming several wealthy nations in the MENA region and in the West) “but they don’t. Why? Because they want us to die. They want the Muslim refugees to die.”
To her it was an undeniable reality. There were many against the survival of her people, and they were the ones with power. She expressed trust in God, and then sat staring at me, waiting to see how I would respond to her blunt statement. I was so grateful to be able to lean close to my friend and say, “I don’t know about all those countries, Nour,** but the people at my church don’t want Muslims to die.” With a sincere heart I was able to continue, “That’s why our church is sending money for relief amongst the refugees in Lebanon,” which she was aware of. “We don’t want Muslims to die.” The statement carried weight with her. She smiled and nodded, accepting what I wanted to express.
Our friendship and the actions of one gathering of Christ-followers were a tiny bit of evidence against a lifetime of experience. But what if that could be one of the lingering results of this horrific conflict? What if it could be remembered by countless mothers and fathers, and by children as they grow up out of the ashes of this war, that there were many followers of Jesus who showed tangible love for Muslims and refugees of every religious affiliation, who proved with their actions that there are many Christians who don’t want Muslims to die?
This should be our instinctive response to human need, as Christ-followers. Kindness to the point of personal sacrifice is what we’re called to everywhere in Scripture. It glorifies God because it reflects His heart and imitates His action toward us in Christ. In Isaiah 58:10 our Father exhorts us:
“If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness.”
“Be imitators of God,” we read later.
“Live a life of love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:1-2).
We pour ourselves out for others because He poured Himself out for us. Our compassion is driven by and rooted in the fact that we’ve received ultimate generosity from God in the sacrificing of His Son. And, as Isaiah prophesied and as my conversation with Nour demonstrated, that pouring-out of ourselves creates light in darkness, darkness that consists not only of physical suffering but also relational distance and distrust.
I want to recommend to you an opportunity to pour yourself out for the hungry. Readers of this blog can participate in the ongoing mercy-showing of ministries in Lebanon toward Syrian refugees by giving to the Relief & Community Development Program of the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development (LSESD)***. I encourage you to consider this need because I know that our giving could lead to results far more valuable than the abundance it will cost us.
Ashley Wollam is a Christ-follower from Texas who was sent by her church to serve Syrian refugees in Lebanon for four months this fall. Prior to coming to Lebanon, she served on ministry staff with her church for six years.
**The name of my friend has been changed.
***IMES, as a department of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, is a subsidiary ministry of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development.