Middle East Consultation 2016, held 20 – 24 June at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon, focused on The Refugee and the Body of Christ: Exploring the Impact of the Present Crisis on our Understanding of Church. Recent consultations have explored the challenges and opportunities for discipleship in the region (MEC 2014) and the complex issue of identity for new-found followers of Christ (MEC 2015). One of the significant discipleship challenges identified in 2014 was that of ecclesiology, particularly as it relates to gatherings of Christ-followers from multiple social and religious backgrounds. This insight, coupled with the current reality of the refugee crisis, informed our thinking with regard to developing the theme for MEC 2016.
Laurence Oseje, a delegate from East Africa, describes his experience of MEC 2016 in the following way:
I appreciate the entire ABTS family for the warm reception that we received in our last MEC 2016 meeting. The worship, presentations, round table discussions and visit to Saida were just amazing. This was my second time to attend, but I must say that it was the most momentous time in my life. A desire to mobilize the church to play its role of hospitality to strangers in my East African context was rekindled. It was indeed a blessing. I look forward to putting into practice the things I learned in Beirut. There are general truths/principles that can certainly work in my context.
2016 witnessed the largest ever MEC with over 230 participants attending from all corners of the globe. The five days of the consultation included presentations from multiple contexts, round-table discussions, and workshops on critical issues related to the refugees and the role and nature of the church both in and beyond the Middle East. One delegate, Steven Firmin from the US, describes his experience as such:
I was in ministry in Egypt for 6 months, reaching out to young adults. In these 6 months, I was not exposed to this many ministries and nationalities as in 5 days at MEC. Meeting Christians from all over the Middle East and North Africa – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, etc. – and hearing about their challenges and how God is using them has strengthened my faith. As for the organization of MEC 2016, the 15-minute presentations, followed by a panel discussion where an MC asked questions to the presenters, followed by breakout round-table discussion groups was a good idea. It helped change the pace of the conference every day.
On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, IMES held an interfaith forum wherein Muslim and Christian leaders held a constructive, respectful dialogue on critical issues related to consultation themes. There were special readings by talented novelist and sociologist Kathryn Kraft, faculty for MENA Cultures in IMES’ Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MRel in MENA Studies) program. And, delegates were additionally hosted by members of the refugee community, hearing first-hand their personal stories of war, life in a new country, and aspirations for the future.
Highlights from MEC 2016 included:
The opening message on Monday the 20th was delivered by the General Secretary at the European Baptist Federation, Tony Peck, who reflected on the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25. Peck concluded that the Samaritan’s marginalization is what caused him to care for others, not allowing race or religion to be a barrier. He compares the Samaritan to Christ and to the Syrian refugees, claiming that some have met Christ in the face, words and actions of the refugees. Fr. Walid Iskandavi of Lebanon, with regard to his experiences as a delegate and presenter, says:
Such a consultation is very important because an academic and a spiritual dimension is given to the issue and thus more in-depth thought is provoked. The title has drawn my attention: The Refugee and the Body of Christ. It is a very important and effective title that truly expresses the Christian truth that we are called to serve every person in need, every displaced person and the poor.
A significant theme emerging from the consultation was that of hospitality. Dr. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, a Finnish professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, spoke on “What makes the Church, Church?” defining the church as “a sent community to embody God’s hospitality.” Sent to embody God’s Kingdom in particular places and times, the church constitutes a community defined by hospitality – opening itself to and affirming the identity of the other whilst also remaining true to itself and the gospel message.
Dr. Ghassan Khalaf of Lebanon spoke on Acts 5:42 and the significance of Pentecost. Some of the things he stressed were the need for the church to be missional and the fact that though churches around the world have known periods of progression and regression the Church is always thriving because it is an institution built by the Lord. Brent Hamoud, a 2016 graduate in IMES’ MRel in MENA studies program, addressed the problem of statelessness that many refugee children face when they are not registered and are denied their basic human rights. Of his experience at the consultation, Brent remarks:
The consultation has a lot of potential to lead to new approaches. There are different people here from different places and different contexts. It’s a good opportunity to look at things, ask questions that will go on and start conversations in other places. I was just thinking the other day: There’s about 230 people and they’re all hearing and listening. Next week or next month, they’re going to be somewhere. They’re going to have an audience in front of them. Whether it’s in a church or in a university, or just on their Facebook page with their friends, they’re going to have hundreds of people listening to them. I would be surprised if somebody went through this consultation and then went back and just did things the same way.
A frequent theme emerging as part of the consultation was that of peace as Biblical shalom, defined as all-encompassing reconciliation, restored community, human flourishing, justice and salvation. Rev. Juliet Kilpin from the UK shared her heartbreaking experiences and stories from her peacebuilding ministry with the Syrian refugees in Calais, France. Throughout, she testifies to having seen Jesus in some of the refugees she encountered, though they have never known Christ. As Helle Liht of Estonia, who serves as Assistant General Secretary of the European Baptist Federation, describes her experience:
It has been a very good consultation; especially in that it has brought so many different people together who are interested and involved in this issue. It has really widened my perspective and I’ve been very glad to talk to the people from Syria who have been present here. I was very glad to visit the refugee shelter the other day and really talk to the people who are affected by what’s happening in Syria. What has made me really think more about how I personally can develop and also help our churches [in Europe] that are resistant to receiving refugees in their countries was what Juliet Kilpin said – that we should really make an effort to see Christ in others. I don’t think [the consultation] will only have an impact on the Middle East but also on Europe, Canada and the US.
An additional theme to emerge from MEC 2016 was the need to be critically aware of the power dynamics at play in the relationship between host and migrant communities, most especially in the context of ministry or aid relief. Nadia Khouri Accad challenged the consultation to reflect on Rosebeth Moss-Kanter’s statement regarding how we interact with those in need:
When we do change to people they experience it as violence; when people do change for themselves they experience it as liberation.
As was heard from members of the refugee community, it’s imperative to be mindful of the potentially dehumanizing or harmful consequences of relief ministry, programmatic or institution-focused mindsets, and the labels we ascribe to others – most especially the word ‘refugee’ itself. Certain attitudes, such as the notion that God is using the crisis to grow the local church and win souls for Jesus, were extremely offensive and hurtful. As such, it became apparent that any response should be based in relationships of mutuality.
As for the interfaith forums, Tuesday evening featured a fascinating conversation between Sheikh Mohammad Nokari, Peter Samir and Jonathan Andrews focused on the difficult topic of interreligious marriage. Thursday evening featured an illuminating discussion between Sheikh Mohammad Abu Zaid, Doug Ward and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen on the Muslim refugee response and how aid has been offered in non-Christian communities. We conclude therefore with the words of featured presenter Kathryn Kraft as she describes her experience of MEC 2016:
There are so many interesting speakers and activities and discussions. It’s an incredibly complex meeting or consultation. Actually, it’s successful and with that comes very interesting ideas. I hope people come out of this week having had their ideas challenged. One of my personal dreams for what I’ve presented this week has been to challenge a narrow understanding of what God is doing and try to see a bigger picture of how God is working in a variety of different ways.
I’ll be happy if a couple of friendships are a result of this if there’s one neighborhood where a church and Muslims start working side by side. That’s why I tell the stories I do. The stories are examples of very small things, but if we just keep doing those things, then it creates a space for the larger political processes to be better received. I’m not talking about changing all of society, but I’m talking about what we can do, each of us, in our own relationships.