The recent Paris bombings have only heightened the media emphasis on Syria on the ongoing conflict. Our own Tim McCalmont, as many know, has become quite involved with the situation in Syria particularly through members of his congregation. I asked him to offer some reflections to help us as a presbytery navigate our own understandings and possibilities for response.
Can you give us any update on the situation?
I think it is good to be in touch with what the media is currently talking about, but we are continuing our work in Syria as we try to juggle the emerging situation with the refugee crisis and setting things up here. One of the broad ways we are working is to put two overtures before our presbytery which would then come before the General Assembly in June.
What are the two overtures?
The first overture advocates for an increase in quotas of Syrian refugees allowed into the country, while asking for comprehensive security measures that are fair across the board. I think it is naive to think that we can protect ourselves by simply not allowing Syrians into the country – that is based on fear and a very incomplete view of what is going on. The overture asks for the PCUSA to use all influence we have to allow refugees into the United States who need to come here. We are asking the church to stand up and to pledge our resources.
The second overture is designed to speak to the situation in Syria and to help the people there to be secured and sustained through the crisis and to rebuild their country when the time comes.
Aside from these GA overtures, what are we doing as a presbytery?
Well, we are starting to prepare for when folks do arrive. We are working with Syrians who are already here in Orange County – about 40 families. Many of those families have come from Presbyterian churches in Syria, but have not been able to find a church home here in the US. A group of us got together with Adel Malek, an ordained Arabic speaking pastor in Los Ranchos, and he is talking with them about starting an Arabic speaking fellowship that will gather here in our church in Costa Mesa. We will see what comes of it – most importantly what they want. If that fellowship takes shape, that will be one place of welcome for people who wish to resettle here.
Among the greatest needs for the refugee is a community that gathers around them emotionally, spiritually and to help them get acclimated to the new culture that they find themselves in. We are also establishing a presbytery task force to assist efforts here in Los Ranchos, while working within the Syria-Lebanon Partnership Network of the PCUSA at the national level.
The other thing we are doing is continuing to come alongside those who remain in the Middle East. The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (our church partners in the region) is continuing to help those in camps through the winter. Their need for shelter in the tents they occupy is great. Like last year we will be collecting funds to help with utility costs, shelter, oil, etc. We also are attempting to assist those who remain in Syria. We have found that people will stay in their homes, in their land, if they can survive. So, we are trying to help them.
There is also a new effort to build two new schools of 200 students each on the outskirts of these refugee camps. When we were there in April there were hundreds of thousands of children who have no activities. They are kids and they make due with what they have. But they are also prime recruits for the radical groups that come in and enlist them. The Synod already has the faculty, the location, and the facilities all ready to go. But it will take $125,000 for each school for the year’s operation.
What else should we know about the situation?
Five years ago what I knew about Syria you could put in a 3 minute talk with time for questions. But it was through this amazing family in our congregation, immigrants from Syria, that I got involved. We hope and pray for an end to the war. It is at a very volatile stage, with outside groups involved in what is showing itself more and more to be a proxy war fought by outsiders, which just happens to take place on Syrian soil.
The church has a chance to speak into this and to be ready. Who are we? Who are we called to be? Last week Gradye Parsons sent out a statement that asks us to counter the messages of fear that have come from the governors and other government leaders about keeping people out of our country. He said, the church needs to speak up and say, this is not a time of fear, this is a time to show compassion.