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Living Stones in the Land of Cedars
Speaking late last month at an anniversary celebration of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development, Lebanese politician and businessman Neemat Frem expressed his hope for the type of pluralistic and peaceful society that Lebanon could model. He told the hundreds gathered at Beirut Baptist School on Sept. 27 that they would be a key to Lebanon being “a successful experiment of blending differences” despite the challenges of working to “bridge between communities.”
“We’ll succeed in putting those differences next to each other without destroying the faith, the commitment of every person,” he predicted. “People like you have decided that God [can] intervene through mankind’s history in a very special way. …. I think that we are called — everyone here — through this special intervention of God, through his inner voice to make the changes. And you in those 25 years have done tremendous changes.”
Frem, who was elected to his position in the parliament last year, previously served from 2018-2020 but resigned after the massive explosion in the Beirut port to protest the corruption and failures of the political system that led to the blast and the nation’s financial collapse the previous year. He has been engaged in Christian-Muslim dialogue efforts for years. So his words resonated with a group of Lebanese Christians also involved in efforts to create a more peaceful, just, and flourishing society for all.
The Lebanese Society — which announced at its silver anniversary its new name of Thimar (which is Arabic for “fruits”) — has been a remarkable witness of God’s love through its educational ministries, outreach to Syrian refugees, care for children with special needs, and more. Under the umbrella of Thimar are several ministries: Beirut Baptist School (with more than 1,400 K-12 students), Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, MERATH (humanitarian aid and development group that emerged after efforts to assist refugees during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war), Dar Manhal al Hayat (publishing house), Salt & Light (children and youth ministry), and the SKILD Center (which stands for Smart Kids with Individual Learning Differences). It’s a lot of good fruits from a small, faithful vine.
In a nation that’s suffered civil war, economic collapse, explosions, and more over the past few decades, Thimar remains a light shining from the biblical Mount Lebanon and across the region. Through it all, these local Christian leaders remained faithful no matter what they faced. As Charles Costa, president of the Convention of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Lebanon, said during Thimar’s celebration, “As we look back, we know that these challenges served to shape our understanding of God’s will for the society.” And in response, Thimar and its ministries impacted the society in positive ways.
So I was glad to be able to join them in Lebanon for a week to celebrate and see firsthand some of the fruits of their labor. And it’s a region that unfortunately needs such advocates for peace and justice even more today with the outburst of another war. So this issue of A Public Witness takes you to the holy land of Lebanon to see the inspirational work of God’s people.
NOTE: Last week, paid subscribers to A Public Witness received a reflection and photo essay from my visit to a cedar forest and Roman ruins in Lebanon. If you missed it, upgrade to a paid subscriber today to read it and receive all future reports.
Planting the Seeds
Although Thimar was founded in 1998, the story of its ministries actually goes back several more decades. The beginning has its roots in the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. A 27-year-old Greek Orthodox, Said Jureidini, from what is now Lebanon trekked to the U.S. to participate. While in the U.S., he had a born-again conversion and was baptized by Third Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. He returned home and started preaching. In 1895, the pastor of Third Baptist went to Beirut to ordain Jureidini as he started the first Baptist congregation there.
A couple of other early churches similarly started after Lebanese individuals traveled to the U.S., converted, and then returned home. These small evangelical congregations stood out from the dominant Christianity in the land. The Maronite Church, an Eastern Catholic Church that traces its presence in the region to the 4th century, is still the largest Christian community in Lebanon. There is also a sizeable Orthodox community. And the largest Protestant group at the time was the Presbyterians, who had started mission efforts in the region in 1819.
After the conversion of Jureidini, another half century passed before the work that particularly created the foundation for Thimar came with the arrival of Finlay and Julia Graham in Beirut in 1948. Both had previously served as missionaries in Palestine before the creation of the nation of Israel. There they met and married. Graham, a Scotsman, initially was an independent missionary, but before they arrived in Lebanon he had received an appointment from the Southern Baptist Convention that had sent Julia.
They arrived at the start of a time of prosperity for Lebanon, with Beirut often called the “Paris of the Middle East.” In this fertile soil, some of the ministries now under the auspices of Thimar started to emerge. Beirut Baptist School opened in 1954. A publishing house to translate Christian literature started in 1959. And after Finlay started holding classes in his home in 1953, Arab Baptist Theological Seminary opened its campus in 1961. Throughout Thimar’s anniversary event, references to the Grahams kept popping up in videos and speeches. And their daughter, Sheila Graham Smith, participated in the events to share reflections about her parents.
A civil war, from 1976-1990, radically changed the region and the work. During the war, violence sometimes hit Baptist churches. Armed militias showed up at services, bombs exploded outside a church in Tripoli, another church was burned, the seminary suffered damage, many of the ministries saw their work disrupted, and an estimated quarter of the congregants left the country. Sectarian violence pitted Christian militias against Muslim and Druze forces. Israeli forces occupied parts of southern Lebanon from 1985-2000, while Syrian forces occupied much of eastern Lebanon from 1976-2005.
In the midst of the violence, a decision across the Atlantic shaped the next chapter of Baptist life. In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan banned Americans from Lebanon. Southern Baptist leaders unsuccessfully sought exemptions from the State Department. For the next decade, they continued to assist the local institutions from exile with local leaders taking over the day-to-day work. But when the SBC changed its missionary strategies a decade later, the SBC decided to let go of control of the institutions and ownership of the properties. That’s when local Baptists came together to form the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (or Thimar) to continue to support the ministries.
Reflecting back on the last quarter-century, Thimar Board Chairman Samir Abi Shdid said during the anniversary celebration that “the journey we embarked on 25 years ago in a step of faith” came as “we found ourselves in a challenging situation.” But, he added, “we could sense God’s hand with us from day one.” And along the way, they’ve transformed what it means to live out their faith in Lebanon.
“The Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development faces the challenge of navigating between perceptions of outsiders who believe Lebanese Baptists are connected to American imperialism and perceptions of insiders who believe they are under threat from other religious groups in society. In response, LSESD leaders are constructing an Arab Christian identity deeply rooted in the land of the cedars,” religion scholar Melanie Trexler argued in Evangelizing Lebanon. “A prominent theme in Baptist identity in Lebanon is that of peacebuilding and reconciliation.”
And that is still true today.
“What differentiates Lebanon from other countries in the Middle East? It is the diversity between its different religions. Despite the challenges that it brings, it adds a richness to this country,” Nabil Costa, Thimar’s CEO, said during the anniversary celebration. “Throughout all hardships and upheavals our country went and is still going through, and tiring and frustrating as the situation is in Lebanon — political unrest, economic downfall, increased poverty, widespread social tension, refugee crisis — we choose to look at ourselves not as victims nor as passive citizens but as hopeful realists trusting him, looking at this broken world, and knowing that we have the most precious gift to give. The gift of hope.”
Just as the scars from the war still mar buildings in Beirut, the country is also still dealing socially, politically, and religiously with the effects of that time. But in that context, Lebanese Christians continue to bring healing. One way they’ve done this is by embracing the calling from Jesus to be peacemakers. In conjunction with Thimar’s anniversary, the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary held its annual Middle East Consultation. This year’s theme was on “practicing peacemaking in the Middle East,” featuring speakers from Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria.
“Christ says blessed are the peacemakers for they are called the sons of God, the children of God. Now, it’s not that peacemakers become the children of God. It’s actually what the children of God should be best at doing,” said Bassem Melki, director of peacemaking at the seminary. “When people see the church as a peacemaking body, that is such a great thing and such a reflection of Christ.”
Doing the work of peacemaking is something Thimar and its ministries seek to practice. They do this by teaching pastors across the region in peacemaking, promoting interfaith dialogue, and serving everyone no matter who they are, where they come from, or what they believe. This is perhaps most significantly seen over the past decade as they’ve welcomed refugees from nearby Syria. Through MERATH and other efforts, Lebanese Christians have been serving all refugees, including Muslims, from a nation that not too long ago occupied part of Lebanon.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, millions of people have fled to neighboring nations and into Europe. More than a decade later, estimates suggest there are perhaps as many as 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon — a nation that had a population of just about 5 million before the Syrian conflict started. The Syrian capital of Damascus is less than 20 miles from the Lebanese border, so families even this year are continuing to journey over the mountain range that divides the two countries. Throughout the Beqaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, makeshift refugee camps dot the landscape, filling in empty places between crops. And there also are churches there.
Together, churches and Thimar work to provide food and medical care for refugees and schools for the children. It’s amazing work that’s been going on for day after day, year after year. Much of it can’t be mentioned in detail because of the sensitivity of the work, but it was inspiring to hear some stories and see some of the work firsthand. It’s truly what it means to be the peacemaking children of God. And it’s transforming the churches as they’ve engaged in such ministry and lived out the teachings of Jesus in life-changing ways. As Alia Abboud, chief development officer for Thimar, put it: “God is working in the lives of people we serve, but he’s also working in our lives.”
While the news from the region may often seem dire, that doesn’t mean God isn’t at work. The transformative efforts of peacemakers and hope-givers often occur behind the scenes and outside the focus of the breaking news platforms. But in a land of biblical ruins, the living stones (as Peter called God’s followers) continue to share the peace, hope, and love of Jesus. We shouldn’t let wars and rumors of war distort our view of the people in this holy land.
Wissam Nasrallah, chief operations officer for Thimar, noted during the anniversary event that Lebanon and the broader Middle East is a “fascinating region” full of “complexities” and “where the only constant is change.” But, he added, “it’s a region where God is at work. It’s a region where God is working through weak vessels, through the church in so many beautiful ways.” Amen.
As a public witness,
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