In November we featured a story about the growing partnership between the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant and the church in Syria, which you can read here. This is a follow-up article, reporting on Tim McCalmont’s recent trip to Lebanon and Syria with a small group from the PCUSA.
“It is kind of hard to get your head around this, in a lot of ways – we are all still processing what we saw and heard.” So began Tim McCalmont, recounting his recent journey to Lebanon and Syria.
“I had people telling me I was crazy – people I look up to and trust – telling me that I was crazy for going over there,” he shared. “But I had enough people say ‘You need to consider this’ – and I’m really glad I went.”
McCalmont’s first impressions, as he describes them, were quite surprising. “I don’t know what I thought about Syria, but what amazed me was that both Lebanon and Syria are beautiful countries,” he said. “But what was as beautiful was the warm hospitality we received from everyone we met – people on the streets, church friends, synod partners – it was amazing.”
The team of 7 from around the US was joined by mission co-worker Elmarie Parker and her husband Scott, as well as PCUSA World Mission Coordinator for the Middle East and Europe, Amgad Beblawi. They spent their first few days in Beirut, learning from and meeting with Synod leaders from the church there. Then, they entered into Syria, where they spent 3 days, under military escort, meeting in churches, preaching, and seeing firsthand the devastation that the conflict has wrought.
“It was amazing to see the creative and resilient faith that these people carry in the very, very difficult circumstances,” McCalmont continued. One of the highlights was getting to meet, in person, pastor Mofed Quarajilly with whom McCalmont has corresponded via email for the past year, when the group visited Homs. Pastor Quarajilly then proceeded to invite McCalmont to preach – extending the invitation on Saturday night, for Sunday morning’s service. “Luckily I had a sermon ready!”
“Their worship was so invigorating, so filled with joy – the exuberance was way more than I was expecting,” shared McCalmont. “I was so blessed to be a part of it.”
Another aspect of life in the midst of such challenge that impressed him was to see how the various churches – across denominational lines – are working together for the good of the people and for the good of the community. It was the churches in Homs that helped to retake the city, when it was under siege, by being an integral part of the peace negotiations. “It is everybody there working together for peace – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Maronite, the Presbyterians – and it was impressive to be able to speak with them.”
Because much of the city was destroyed, when families began to move back into Homs they needed to do something about the ‘darkness’ that seemed to be so overwhelming. All over the city there are murals on the walls that are still standing, beautiful color murals painted by families and children, expressing the hope that they have for their city. “To see those murals, it brought tears to my eyes,” he said.
“Their faith is in the context of circumstances that are really discouraging – which makes their faith even more of a contrast,” continued McCalmont. There are two predominant crises – that of the ongoing violence by incursions of extremist groups that is frequently reported in the media, and the less graphic but possibly more substantial refugee crisis that continues to spill over into Lebanon.
“I think it can be easy to have a stereotype of who refugees are – but these are very highly educated, sophisticated people who had good jobs, advanced degrees, but were part of a country that is no more,” explained McCalmont. They were uprooted, forced to leave suddenly, leaving most of their lives behind. Nearly 60% of the infrastructure in Syria is gone – highways, water systems, power grids – gone.
Lebanon has received the majority of the refugees from the crisis. A country of just 4 million people itself, Lebanon now has more than 2 million refugees – including Palestinians who fled in 1948, Syrians currently fleeing violence, and an increasing number from Iraq. “The issues are just mind boggling – imagine what it would be like to accommodate refugees that equal half of your total population,” he shared.
“It’s a trip I’ll never forget – what do you do with all of it?” McCalmont wondered. “One of the things we have all realized is that we have to keep telling this story.” The news cycle has already begun to forget the situation in Syria and Lebanon, as other crises, such as the earthquake in Nepal, have begun to take precedence.
For McCalmont, this partnership is not a project – it’s personal.
One of the last words McCalmont got when leaving the US is from a woman who has recently moved to Costa Mesa, from Syria, and has joined the church. “Please say hello to my father in Syria when you visit.” And one of the last words McCalmont got when leaving Syria for the US was from the father, “Please watch over my daughter in Costa Mesa.”
Tim McCalmont will be sharing more about his trip at Open Space of the May Presbytery Gathering. You are invited to come listen and learn.