In light of pervasive violence, war, poverty, oppression, and refugees fleeing Syria, members of our churches have asked, “what can we do?” Our hearts ache for sisters and brothers who live in the midst of horrific realities most of us merely learn about from our televisions, computer screens, and mobile devices. We long to extend solidarity but feel the angst of the great distance between here and there, us and them.
What can we do?
This past spring, the leadership of Ivyland Presbyterian Church mailed in a postcard. They received a standard invitation to consider hosting a global partner from the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and knew the opportunity to host a critical conversation partner could not be missed. With possibilities to host peacemakers from Mexico, Cuba, Palestine, and Bolivia, the faithful of this Bucks County congregation prayerfully submitted their request to host a ministry leader on the frontlines of social justice and advocacy. After a brief period of waiting, Ivyland was approved for a second consecutive year and assigned Rev. Rami Al Maqdasi, an ordained minister from Iraq who has served alongside the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Syria and Lebanon.
Rev. Sarah Weisiger, pastor of Ivyland since early 2014, shared about the congregation’s discerned call to host a peacemaker from Syria, “We need to seek out the voice of our brothers and sisters who are in Iraq, who are in Syria, who are in diaspora, who are refugees. We need to hear them. We need to pray with them. We need to listen to their call for justice and for peace, which requires of us that we do something…there’s always something we can do.”
What Ivyland did is something any church can do. This small congregation, nestled within a quaint residential community, welcomed their Iraqi neighbor for five days in early October and coordinated discussions about large, complex, and global issues facing God’s people in the Middle East. Rev. Rami Al Maqdasi, who has lived in Buffalo with refugee status since early 2014, preached in worship at Ivyland, delivered presentations in the congregation and throughout the Presbytery, discussed conflict resolution and diplomacy strategies with students at William Tennent High School and The University of Pennsylvania, and even engaged in less formal dialogue with members of the church and community at a local restaurant. As Rev. Weisiger commented, “[Hosting Rev. Al Maqdasi] changed the hearts and minds of many of our people and really opened their eyes to see why it is important to be engaged in peace in the world and not just in our own communities. We believe that it is important that as many people as possible hear about the work that he is doing for peace and reconciliation.”
What people heard when Rev. Rami Al Maqdasi spoke was a bold call to intersect faith and action, prayer and public witness. Rev. Al Maqdasi challenged all to stay informed, welcome and advocate on behalf of the displaced refugees around the globe who number in the millions, write to legislators, and pray for and partner with our Christian sisters and brothers throughout the Middle East. These invitations followed thought-provoking presentations, which exposed the devastation and despair plaguing the Christian Church in Syria. Rev. Al Maqdasi lamented, “Many people are realizing that they don’t know what is going on and what is reality because they don’t see everything on the media.”
What is not often known is that approximately 10% of the population in Syria is Christian, down from 30% nearly a century ago. In Iraq, the numbers have declined from 1.2 million to less than 300,000. These numbers moved beyond statistics as Rev. Al Maqdasi shared personal stories of Christian communities left in ruins due to bombs dropped by drones, church members ransomed by rebels and never returned, local children fleeing with parents and finding refuge in Lebanese camps, and realizations that peaceful resolutions in Syria and the Middle East are far more complicated than any outsider could begin to imagine. Rev. Al Maqdasi added, “to act, honestly, is not easy. There’s a big challenge, but we don’t have to give up.”
We also do not have to work alone.
Over thirty-years ago, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) drafted a Brief Statement of Faith, which echoes Rev. Al Maqdasi’s call to cooperative action:
In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
This is the very witness of our global partners who tirelessly work towards God’s peace in parts of the world so strained by violence. The call of our churches, in the midst of overwhelming local and global despair, is to have the courage to collaborate and converse with those who know these tragic realities first-hand. That is something we all can do. Sometimes it begins simply by mailing in a postcard.
What will you do?
Interested in learning more about what the Presbyterian Church (USA) is doing in response to refugees and displaced persons in Syria? Click here.
Listen to an interview with Pastors Rami Al Maqdasi and Sarah Weisiger: